Many years ago, when Sega Saturn first hit the market, it was packaged with one game. This was a fairly common practice at the time; after all, how would people react if they purchased an expensive console (several hundred dollars at launch) only to find that they needed to shell out even more cash to actually use it? This single game had to be chosen carefully by Sega. It had to be accessible – something most players could quickly understand and jump into without hassle. It had to be attractive, too. The Saturn was touted as the most powerful console of its time, so the graphics needed to convince prospective buyers that this was truly a next-generation system. Perhaps most importantly, this game had to be fun. Of course, it didn’t hurt that this game’s reputation had long been established as a smash hit in the arcades.
This game was Virtua Fighter.
Renowned producer Yu Suzuki is credited with the creation of this 3-D fighting game back in 1993. It was the start of a franchise that would thrive for years, and continues to thrive today. Virtua Fighter has the great distinction of being the first 3-D game in its genre – the first of its kind to use polygons. The blocky martial artists were stunning, each unique in their physicality and fighting styles. Appearances mean nothing if the gameplay is not strong, however. Fortunately, this is where Virtua Fighter’s true brilliance is made abundantly clear.
Many popular fighters of the day, such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, relied on six or more buttons in battle. Virtua Fighter ignored this convention, and kept gameplay simple with just three buttons: block, punch, and kick. The joystick allows the player to pull off all the maneuvers necessary in a fight, from making a quick dash forward to leaping into air (and reaching, as in most fighting games, rather improbable altitudes). When used in conjunction with the buttons, players had a basic move set they could always rely on, regardless of their chosen character. A crouching punch is universally effective in halting an overly aggressive opponent. A jumping punch would always deliver a crushing blow to a fallen opponent, while said opponent could always rely on tapping the guard button rapidly to perform an evasive roll and recovery.
The basis upon which all combat is built is essentially like rock-paper-scissors. Standing blocks defend against high and medium attacks, but leave you vulnerable to low attacks. Guarding while crouching can defend against low attacks and avoid getting struck from up high, but leave you vulnerable to middle attacks. Of course, players who blocked too frequently could easily find themselves in the clutches of a brutal throw. As expected, each fighter was also equipped with a dazzling array of special moves unique to their character. Everyone remembers being tossed around like a ragdoll by Wolf, the howling face-painted Canadian wrestler. Players cringe recounting their brawls with Dural, the metallic boss character who incorporated the moves of all others. Whether Capcom was “inspired” by Dural for the creation of Street Fighter IV’s boss character is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Audio design is not an area where Virtua Fighter slouches, either. Each character had their own voice, whooping and shouting during battle and eliciting war cries whenever they were victorious. The stage-based musical tracks were ridiculously catchy; you would hear them so often, you had no choice but to hum right along with the techno beats. With top-notch production values and arguably the best fighting mechanics ever in a video game, Virtua Fighter remains just as strong now as it did when it was first unleashed. True, it remained at the core of most Saturn owner’s software libraries whether they asked for it or not, but who could complain?