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Virtua Fighter (Sega 32X) artwork

Virtua Fighter (Sega 32X) review

"A (Very) Fleeting Benchmark"

I’m good with words – it’s why this site will never let me retire – but even with my particular skillset, I think I’d struggle to describe just how important Virtua Fighter was. It wasn’t just genre defining, it was genre evolving, moving away from so many of the staples one-on-one fighters had once thought revolutionary and leaving them wallowing in the dirt. It abandoned the lovingly crafted pixels of Steet Fighter II or the stop motion antics of Mortal Kombat and instead sculpted combatants out of real-time rendered flat-shaded quads. Or, you know, polygons. Sure, it looks dated now (as a game released in in 1993 should over twenty years later), but it was the first solid forward step into what was then relatively unknown territory.

So, that was kind of a big deal, but that was only the start of SEGA’s trailblazing. Introducing a 3D arena was difficult for a lot of fighter veterans to wrap their heads around at first. It was hard to accept just how limited the battles between Ryu and Ken really had been, and the sudden freedom of movement changed everything. Imagine if your only options to avoid being kicked in the face weren’t to block or jump, but, instead, you could sidestep. Just simply sidestep. Imagine what you could then do to your now vulnerable opponent’s delicate and exposed kidneys as they lunge past you.

You can suddenly counter-attack or feint or just mindlessly pummel in such ways that Virtua Fighter’s arcade rivals of the time could only dream of. The camera suddenly was given a life of its own, swooping in and out of the action as called for, offering dynamic shots that led to dramatic instant replies of finishing blows. The arena’s themselves where given a more active role, allowing fights to be won with RING OUT victories. We take all this for granted now, but it all had to start somewhere, so it started here. The revolutionary work SEGA AM2 managed to coax out of their ridiculously adaptable Model 1 arcade board was the most jaw dropping thing they’d done since Ridge Racer the year before. Or Virtua Racer the year before that.

Big arcade smashes mean obligatory watered-down home console ports, but Virtua Fighter was far too much for the 16bit machines of its era. It was a stroke of luck, then, that the 32bit generation was just around the corner. SEGA would capitalise on this, using the coeval 3D tourney fighter to promote the hell out of the upcoming Saturn. It worked; in Japan, copies of Virtua Fighter sold on a 1:1 ratio with console sales. Even though Sony scrambled to play catch up with upcoming “Virtua Killers” Tekken and (hold your guffaws) Battle Arena Toshinden, SEGA seemingly had the perfect launch title, and a very competent port was developed.

At the same time, very quietly, the 32X produced one that was even better.

It should be a ludicrous statement, but the hideous mushroom-shaped adapter you shoved into your Mega Drive managed to outperform something SEGA considered a flagship home launch. Not in every aspect - that would be unimaginable; the Saturn’s high specs certainly meant that it had a keen graphical edge over its forgotten cousin. And the fact that it was CD based obviously blew the 32X soundtrack clean out of the water. But the humble 32X port nailed down so many of the things its supposedly more powerful version simply didn’t handle.

One might almost suspect that the Saturn port was rushed, perhaps to fit in with a surprise hardware release announcement no one was ready for. It would explain why it was unable to fit in an option screens for its playerbase. The 32X managed, offering the chance to extend or decrease health bars, mess around with sound settings, set time limits and even turn off the RING OUT victory option. The Saturn version looks almost arcade perfect, but suffers from an annoying screen flicker. But the 32X strain doesn’t! It runs noticeably smoother, responds noticeably quicker. Both versions manage to squeeze in the ridiculously large moveset library of Virtua Fighter’s ridiculously diverse roster (over 700 ways to pummel polygons in the face), but only the 32X manages to offer brand spankin’ new ways to play with both a Ranking and Tournament mode.

The thing is, they’re both good ports of a great game. Virtua Fighter cemented a new way to digitally bully your friends and it did it all with a sobering eye on realism (or, at least, as much realism as a game featuring a brainwashed sister assassin sent out to murder her NASCAR champion brother can have). There was no chi-powered fireballs or million-strike kicks; each cast member was versed in his or her own brand of combat ranging from grapple heavy Greek-inspired wrestling to multi-striking Jeet Kune Do, to plain old Jujitsu. It’s amazing that such a complex and advanced game found such a competent way onto the home market in the first place. It’s point blank remarkable that the version closest to matching the seminal arcade release featured on a little add-on that no one cared about, and even fewer people bought.

Closest for a scant few months, at least. Then SEGA released Virtua Fighter Remix on the Saturn, which actually improved on its arcade foundations and made this entire discussion completely irrelevant.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (June 03, 2018)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Masters posted June 03, 2018:

Fantastic review/history lesson. I know these are Midcore's specialty, but you've done a fine job here with landmark entry in a genre that used to be near and dear to my heart.
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EmP posted June 03, 2018:

Thanks Marc -- I appreciate it. For the most part, I've used the 32X stuff as an excuse to wax historical, because it's usually the most interesting thing about the games I'm talking about. VF was a ridiculously big deal and the 32X housing the best version, even if it was only for a little while, was what I enjoyed figuring out the most. So you unlucky lot now get to read about it.

'nother one off the list!

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