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Block, punch, kick. That's it. Three buttons and you move with the d-pad. The simplicity is devastating, yet thousands of moves can be triggered by using just these buttons. It's a masterpiece of game design and the culmination of almost 20 years of evolution since the 1993 original. Remarkably, it hasn't become bloated in that time. And, thanks to this rejigged re-release, Virtua Fighter feels fresher than ever. In fact after caning Final Showdown for a week now, I've come to a personal conclusion that it is the best fighting game of the generation.
Above: I definitely don't have a thing for lovely, lovely Sarah Bryant
Just to clarify in case you're wondering why VF5 has already been on your games shelf for years, PS3 had Virtua Fighter 5 at launch in the UK and Xbox 360 had an exceptional port, especially considering it was supposed to be 'only possible on PlayStation 3'. But Final Showdown brings new backgrounds, balancing tweaks, a new fighter and – most importantly for PS3 owners – online play. And that is where the experience is finally complete. And by complete I mean immaculate.
Tekken immediately over-complicates things by having two punch buttons and two kick buttons, perhaps as justification for those ludicrously long combo strings. Street Fighter (usually) has three kick buttons AND three punch buttons. While that's great for combos and move selection if you're a pro, for the beginner it's unnecessary. An obstacle between the player and the game.
Despite the immediate complexity demonstrated by its peers, somehow Virtua Fighter's incredible fighting system manages to be as deep as any other fighter you could name with the bare minimum of control inputs. In truth, I don't see how it could be any deeper. Just look at this official tutorial video (any of it) to see what I mean:
But the way Virtua Fighter differs from most modern fighting games is in that block button. Most new beat-'em-ups concentrate on offensive play instead of defensive play. Even Street Fighter IV's answer to staring defeat in the face is to offer one last stab at landing a mega attack. Not so for Virtua Fighter. Defensive play is of vital importance.
Its depth ranges from simply holding block to stop your mate who's hammering punch, through to insane levels of predictive and observatory play. For instance, if you're up-close, you're at risk of being thrown. A throw can't be blocked, but it can be countered.
Above: Getting thrown by Jeffry is a bad idea. He likes to damage spines. Lovely bloke
At the most basic level, that means pressing the throw command (block + punch) at the same time as your opponent. But advanced players can prepare for throws by holding regular block, then additionally holding punch. They look like they're just blocking regularly, but they're actually adding a defensive layer to their strategy. That's advanced, right?
Well, forget even that. A player who sees you're using this technique can get round it by adding a direction to the throw command. To give you a chance to block even this, you can counter by doing the same - just hold a direction. Sound complicated? It is, but the point is simple: Despite all of the above, even master players end up back at pretty much a 50/50 chance of success or failure. And that's where the game's greatest triumph lies.
It's in its transparency. No, not some graphical effect that Sega Saturn couldn't do. By transparent, I mean the way you can read your VF5 opponent's mental state like no other game, which is why human opponents are the only opponents you should be facing. As a result, the online mode is riveting.
Above: Jacky's hurt and reluctant to get in close. Watch for sudden long-range attacks... maybe by ducking right and using the wall to finish the fight
I would call myself an adaptive player. Rather than learn one massive combo and keep spamming the first move until it connects (as many players do), I prefer to watch what my opponent is doing, then adapt to it. I'll often lose the first round or even the second, but these one-note players become totally predictable and easy to beat.
Even then, there's something to be learned. Subsequently, I cannot understand the logic behind the players who quit out of every lobby they encounter where their opponent has a better win stat than them. How can you improve if you never test your boundaries?
For example, one very powerful player I met (who I won't name for his sake) kept spamming perfectly-recited chain attacks every single time my guard was compromised, forcing me to stay low and get in what was little better than chip damage through small punches. It was the only method I had of avoiding his throws and combos. And it worked because he couldn't adapt to the situation – he could only keep doing what had always worked until now.
Above: This player thrived on exactly this situation. That wall's only going to double the damage before you can recover. Stay on your feet, Jacky!
When we met for a third time and I was still winning, he was clearly frustrated. You could see it in his character's movements. Like I said – the game is transparent. After another round of seeing me nibble away with low attacks, refusing to attempt big moves on his impeccable blocking and leave myself open for his combo recital, he started petulantly crouching and punching repeatedly as if to say 'look, douchebag, I can spam low punch too'.
But that was all I needed. A forward cartwheel hopped over his jabbing fist to get things started, followed by a three-punch backflip combo on his floating body. A back-dash hop to avoid a rash, snatched recovery kick followed by an immediate roundhouse to the head and a soccer kick follow-up (yes, I'm playing as Sarah).
Just as he realised he probably should be blocking high after all, I'm doing a leg sweep to upend him, followed by a vicious stomp. And finally, the one-leg-standing, one-leg-kicking-your-ass kick combo to finish the fight. It was a straight 'Excellent' with zero repetition. He was destroyed – it was magnificent.
It was at that moment that I levelled up. Not in the game, but in my mind. The muscle memory built up from over 15 years of 'punch, punch, punch, up+away+kick' was now just another limb to my brain. In 1993, I metaphorically 'wiggled my fingers' when I played VF1 for the first time. 19 years later, I can dance.
Above: Flawless wins in single-player (like this screen) can't compare to doing it online
Which brings me to the opposite end of the spectrum and the best player I've met in my 200 games – Dache. A player on PSN who I'm sure won't mind being named. Playing as Aoi, he somehow managed to learn even the few repetitions of my playing style. Even my 'adaptive' play was being adapted to! Those get-out-of-jail low punches were caught and reversed, switched-up high kicks were turned into throws... it was devastating. If I was dancing, he was on the dancefloor going through his martial arts exhibition.
Three times we met and three times he won. I did win on the fourth one, fittingly being the fight that promoted me to 10th dan. I still think he's better than me at the game, but the crucial fact is: I had learned so much from fighting him. If only to discover how little I actually know.
Above: The motion-blurred triple replay that rewards a hard-fought win is ace
I still hold Super Street Fighter IV up as the other great fighting game from this generation. It's just as deep and outwardly (bewilderingly) more complex, yet I'd still argue VF5FS does more with less. Street Fighter IV's system uses Supers, Ultras, EX moves, Dash Cancels, Focus attacks and projectiles. It's a masterclass in game balancing but the more Capcom adds, the more it starts to dilute the core fighting and its simple art of landing a good leg sweep. Just look at Street Fighter X Tekken and its countless special states and team-ups to see what I mean.
Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown has none of these trivialities to clutter its gameplay. It just has two fighters standing on a flat stage, each with an energy bar, a d-pad, and three buttons: Block, punch, kick. No other fighting game dares offer so little. Persevere with the nuances and you'll see that actually no other fighting game offers so much.
Note: These are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent those of GamesRadar as a whole
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