Virtual On: Cyber Troopers
There was probably no single specific reason why the Sony PlayStation won its round of the console wars against the Sega Saturn in the mid 1990s. One theory that seems to have some validity was that Sega drastically underestimated just how important 3D graphics would become in people’s perceptions of which console offered the best and most advanced gaming experiences. The internal Saturn architecture made coding 2D games very easy, but getting a well implemented 3D game for it was a far harder and lengthier prospect than coding a game for the PlayStation. Generally speaking, all the best 3D games that appeared on the Saturn came from in-house Sega design teams, and that includes Virtual On, a conversion of a Sega coin-op of the same name.
Virtual On, at it’s heart, is a variation on the beat ‘em up genre. Only with big guns and drills instead of fists and giant robot battle suits instead of flesh and blood. The aim of the game is to slide and fly about an arena and whittle your opponent’s health down to zero for a win. Set in the near future, Earth is ruled by multi-national companies, one of whom is called the DN Group. While excavating on the moon, the DN Group unearth an ancient lunar base full of advanced technology. The DN Group exploits this technology and create combat droids, until one day the old technology on the lunar base reactivates and the DN Group find themselves in a battle to keep hold of all they own on the lunar surface. Now the DN Group are recruiting people to become virtual droid pilots and retake the base.
This is where you the player come in. You will be put through an intense training regime, proving yourself in simulated combat against increasingly powerful test druids before you can qualify to take the battle to the lunar surface. What that means in practice is that when you start the game up, Arcade Mode is the one that follows the story; five simulation stages, then “live combat”. There is also a two-player versus mode, and a ranking mode which throws you into battle and records things like the accuracy of your shooting and how much health you have left after a win.
The coin-op version of the game had a dual joystick configuration as its control set up. A dual joystick peripheral was released along with the game, but you’ll need to be very rich to pick one up on eBay these days. However the controls have been mapped to the Saturn joypad very intuitively, so you don’t need to raid your bank account to get the best from the game. Your droid doesn’t have an epic move list like a normal beat ‘em up. The emphasis of the battle is how you move around the arena, dodging your opponent’s attacks and locking your weapons onto them before they can do it to you. Matches are very tense and fast paced, with those who can own the arena spaces most effectively being the ones who will emerge victorious.
The droids do adhere somewhat to the usual fighting game clichés though. There are lighter and faster ones, who are weaker than the chunky, powerful but slow ones. The all-rounder who falls in the middle is perfect for new players to pick. Each droid comes equipped with a melee weapon, in the form of a drill or a sword, and long-range weapons in the form of missiles and lasers. Some droids can be devastating at close range, while others excel at keeping their distance.
The 3D engine handles all the speedy movement like a dream, and the big, colourful droids smack into and fire at each other with impacts you can really feel. The controls are responsive and there is no slowdown in evidence on-screen. The arenas are interesting and detailed. The five simulation missions take you to places as diverse as a flooded city, green hills, and ruins. Some even have things you can use as cover placed in them. Fun though Arcade mode is, it’s recommended that you acquire a second controller for your Saturn and indulge in some one-on-one action. Like any good fighting game Virtual On is easy to pick up and play, but hard to master, and you will find that your best fun comes from pitting your skills against another person.
Virtual On really is a fantastically fun and action packed game.It shows that if given a chance the Saturn could handle 3D action as well as the PlayStation, if not better. It received a sequel on the Dreamcast in the form of Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram, which was also fantastic, but as superb 3D games were the norm on the Dreamcast it didn’t stand out out as much as Virtual On on the Saturn does. As it stands it remains an unsung classic of the 3D gaming revolution and one that every serious Saturn owner should have in their collection.