The dwindling arcade market saw a considerable resurgence in the early ’90s thanks to the immense popularity of the fighting game. The popularity of Street Fighter II singlehandedly revived the arcade seemingly overnight. Shortly after Street Fighter II’s monumental success, a torrent of imitators flooded the market, ranging from the successful (Mortal Kombat) to the embarrassing (Time Killers.) While no one could deny the influence that fighters had on video games, they were not terribly unique; even aesthetically distinct titles like Mortal Kombat featured technically similar combat. Sega AM2’s Virtua Fighter would be the first game to evolve the genre by introducing it to the third dimension.
The Yu Suzuki-helmed AM2 was no stranger to arcade innovations, having designed a plethora of highly acclaimed and fondly remembered arcade classics. Virtua Fighter, which ran on the same Model 1 board that powered their first 3D game, Virtua Racing, would continue this tradition. While graphically unimpressive by today’s standards, the blocky, textureless polygons were astonishing in 1993, as it was quite literally unique. Especially impressive was the smoothness of Virtua Fighter’s visuals; most 3D games suffered from low, unstable framerates. This slick look was not simply for show; it directly influenced Virtua Fighter’s unique gameplay.
Gameplay in the 2D fighting games of the time revolved around flashy special moves including explosive fireballs and other unrealistic abilities. Instead of translating these complex maneuvers to 3D, AM2 shifted the focus to a much more realistic portrayal of one-on-one combat, replacing odd characters with ridiculous abilities for eight practical fighters defined by real world fighting styles and martial arts. While most fighting games featured anywhere from four to six attack buttons, Virtua Fighter’s streamlined control scheme only featured two buttons for punching and kicking and an additional button for blocking. This control scheme made Virtua Fighter more accessible, though it did not reduce its complexity. Characters had dozens of moves and combos at their disposal, including strikes, throws, and aerials. Positioning played a crucial role in fights, as one blow could knock a character of out the ring, resulting in an instant loss for the round. These features introduced in Virtua Fighter influenced nearly every 3D fighter that would follow.
It is a shame, then, that such a significant game would have such a troubled journey to the console market. First ported to the Sega Saturn, Virtua Fighter suffered both from a rushed production and the Saturn’s confusing architecture, resulting in a sluggish, buggy mess not at all representative of the game’s true quality. A later revision dubbed Virtua Fighter Remix was a vast improvement, though at this point the superior Virtua Fighter 2 was only a few months away from release. Another port was created for the ill-conceived 32X add-on for the Genesis, and while impressive when compared to other 32X titles, it was significantly inferior to the arcade version. Still, despite Virtua Fighter’s rocky road to homes, the arcade version stands the test of the time as one of Sega’s most influential creations.
Article by Matt Williams
GameSpite Journal 12: Virtua Fighter