When asked about the series that have shaped the fighting genre of video games the most, I immediately answer Virtua Fighter. But these series have done more than simply shape the 'beat-em-up' genre as we know it; it has also been a constant innovator in terms of graphical breakthroughs. With the release of virtually every game, graphical limitations have been pushed farther and farther back. The first Virtua Fighter, released in 1993, was the very first game in the world to present to the player the ability to move around a 3-D environment, battling another fighter and also be in danger of falling out of the limited arena.
What really sets Virtua Fighter apart from popular fighting series such as the brutal Mortal Kombat and VF's 3-D modern (but distant) brother Tekken, however, is its realism. The first game presented to us eight remarkably 'real' characters - from Japanese kung fu student Akira Yuki to American Jeet Kune Do expert Jacky Bryant, Chinese kung-fu hotshot Pai Chan and Australian Pancratium master Jeffry McWild, all the characters had a solid background and as such felt much more real than the head-chopping or supernatural MK and Tekken inductees. Trademark number two was the simple yet innovative style of play. Players only had three buttons - Guard, Punch and Kick - to use in which to pull off their moves, and this gave the gameplay a depth that set it apart from other beat-em-ups and made button-mashing simply unfeasible. This leads us to the third trademark; the style of fighting. Each character had a unique fighting style, all of which - and this is the key factor - were shaped after actual fighting styles in our world. There were no exaggerated moves; each move from each fighter felt extremely believable. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses, but any gamer could take up any character of his or her choice and really work them until they became masters. Different techniques for different characters, in short. This gave Virtua Fighter not only a sophisticated element, but also a historical one, connectable to our world.
And this was only the first Virtua Fighter. Imagine the thrill of the gaming industry, reviewers and fans alike, when Virtua Fighter 2 hit the arcades in 1994 and dazzled everyone, including me, with extremely revolutionary graphics, moves and fluidity of gameplay. It was an instant hit and became the milestone of Sega developer AM2, and producer Yu Suzuki (the man behind the series), in their repertoire. My life was never the same after I glimpsed it for the first time, I can tell you that. Not only were the backgrounds realistically three-dimensional, with a variety of landscapes; the characters all looked and felt astonishingly believable, and controlling and mastering each one felt much more fluid than in the first game.
Naturally, with the console market rising to a new level with the likes of the Sega Saturn and the PlayStation out, a home conversion was inevitable. And so Virtua Fighter 2 was converted to the Sega Saturn. However, because of the Saturn's limited hardware, the graphical quality had to be reduced somewhat. Nevertheless, fans felt the gameplay had not been sacrificed. This leads us to the PC conversion of this well-thought-of game. Under the Sega PC label, Sega decided to convert both the original Virtua Fighter and no. 2 to the PC. But even though it was only in 1997 when this Virtua Fighter 2 port was made, the PC version, sadly, seems remarkably dated. It is not a conversion of the original arcade version, but of the Sega Saturn one.
Don't get me wrong; the gameplay hasn't suffered one bit. Whether you choose a keyboard or a joypad or -stick of your choice, this is a game that's easy to fall in love with, as it demands you to think about a character and master him or her in order to get anywhere. The fighters all look beautiful, and the PC add-ons allow you to toggle between Saturn-ised (though still beautiful) fighting models and the shaded Model 2 version (along with an impersonator I am sure never was at large in the arcades...). Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that the 3-D backgrounds of the arcades, sacrificed in the Sega Saturn version, have not been brought back to life. Though you can set the quality of the background - which today feels like a totally pointless feature, as the quality should be the highest it can anyway - they are not three-dimensional and, as such, don't inspire the feeling of a real environment. While every effort has been put into making the rings as fluid as possible - and they are, very much so - they don't look convincing revolving on a background that just seems to scroll rather than revolve with it. Other graphical cut-downs include the loss of Shun-di's much loved boat-and-bridge level, and the cage in Wolf's Canadian arena.
If you can forgive these flaws, however, the game is as high standard as you could hope even today (even though some releases, like my own, were rushed and botched attempts, lacking lines from many of the characters). There are ten characters you can choose from, young and old, male or female (though eight of them are male), each with their unique fighting style just like in Virtua Fighter 1. All of the original characters are back, introducing two new ones: Drunken Kung-fu master Shun-di and French Torou-ken expert Lion Rafale (who oddly enough speaks only in English).
Taking control of a character will get you nowhere if you try to rely on button mashing, as the moves of each character are unleashed via cleverly limited combinations of both the three stable buttons and the directional keys. Furthermore, the fighting tactics are as versatile as the characters. Jeffry (my personal favourite) has the devastating throws on his side, while the Pai Chan player thinks in combos. The other characters also have their own variations between the use of combos and throws. All of this makes Virtua Fighter 2 a very personal, satisfying game to play. To take on other fighters with a character you know, so to speak, is much more fulfilling than the button-mashing any MK round will ever give, where the learning extends to the Fatalities.
Even though the game itself does not present it, each character has a back story and reason for entering the mysterious World Fighting Tournament. Akira Yuki longs to improve his skills and strength, while Pai Chan seeks revenge against her father Lau for leaving her mother to die. Jacky Bryant strives to rescue his brainwashed sister Sarah, while Jeffry McWild is trying to earn enough money to rebuild his fishing boat and kill his sworn enemy; the man-eating Satan Shark. This can, and does, only add to the feel of each character and the intensity of each bout. In addition, after winning a round by knocking out the opponent, each character has a choice of three winning taunts (selected by holding any of the stable buttons), complementing their personalities or just the spirit of their style.
In addition to the main game, the PC has some pleasant add-ons; the Playback Mode, where (once you set the adjustments) you can save and play back matches of your choice. The Portrait Mode (part of a larger CGI portrait series created by Satakore and sold on separate CDs in Japan) is a nice feature that shows us CGI stills of all characters' lives outside the ring (and sometimes in it, too). With this feature as part of the package, the characters might just as well walk out of our screens and into the real world and we couldn't tell the difference. In particular Jeffry's CGI model is much more compelling than his in-game one, it must be said, but this is saved when the all-time breakthrough Virtua Fighter 3 comes along, where not just the CGI Jeffry but a totally enhanced, fluid Virtua Fighter universe steps onto the revolutionary scene. (But to learn about that, you'll have to look elsewhere, I'm afraid.)
What more can I say? You'd be hard-put to find a deeper fighting game on the market, and the PC can really boast of having this gem as part of its repertoire of early games. So this conversion of Virtua Fighter 2 was also a breakthrough for the PC; its competence and potentials were revealed to those who thought it couldn't handle more than adventure/puzzle games like Monkey Island and Toonstruck.
Sadly, the spirit of Virtua Fighter today is evaporating fast - the last game that retains the real feel of the series, in my personal opinion, is Virtua Fighter 3, even though its Dreamcast port wasn't as big a success as was hoped - and it's a game that I forever wish could have found its way onto the PC. After that, we've gone more and more towards the Tekken territory, and it looks as though that might happen eventually, with Virtua Fighter sharing Tekken's ground on the PlayStation.
Whether this happens or not, I can always take comfort in the fact that the spirit of the first three games has not diminished in the slightest. And while I can not give this conversion a perfect score, simply because the PC could very well handle the arcade version, Virtua Fighter 2 will forever remain one of the favourites in my collection. It was a revolutionary fighting game whether in the arcades, Saturn or on the PC (I can't say the same about the awful Megadrive/Genesis port), and one that will always be loved to bits if not just by yours truly.