Fighters Megamix: a Model 2 retrospective
In the early 90s, arcades were the best place to see cutting-edge videogame technology. Your Mega Drive, SNES or PC paled in comparison to an eight player game of Virtua Racing: in fact, the only way to emulate Virtua Racing on the Mega Drive was by soldering an additional graphics processor to the game’s cartridge at an exorbitant cost. It wasn’t until 1999 when Sega abandoned dedicated hardware for its NAOMI architecture, which was basically a Dreamcast with some additional memory. Modern arcade machines are derived from off-the-shelf PC components, focusing on unique methods of input rather than sheer technological horsepower.
Let’s pretend none of that ever happened and go back to the halcyon days of the arcades. It is 1994 and Sega has released its Model 2 platform developed in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, with the classic racer Daytona USA as a flagship title in place of Virtua Racing for the old Model 1 board. Next in line for an overhaul was Sega’s Virtua Fighter: although games based on Lego characters are now relatively common, early 3D arcade games looked like they were actually constructed from it. Virtua Fighter 2 was released in 1994 to widespread critical acclaim and subsequently ported to the Sega Saturn. This was great for Saturn owners at the time, but ultimately it meant the Virtua Fighter franchise played second fiddle to Tekken on the Playstation.
In Summer 2012, Sega released Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown for the PS3 and Xbox 360. It received praise for its balance, depth and old-school arcade chunkiness. With the fighting genre heading towards a period of stagnation – Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Soul Calibur 5 and Dead or Alive 5 have failed to set the world on fire – maybe what we need is a bit of perspective, a look back at how far the genre has come. With that in mind, it’s time for some classic pugilism straight from the arcades of yore: Virtua Fighter 2 is back on Xbox 360 and PS3, accompanied by two other Model 2 fighters, Fighting Vipers and Sonic the Fighters. Dust off your joystick and let’s punch some faces.
Virtua Fighter 2
Seen through the lens of my Saturn nostalgia, it’s hard to know what others think of Virtua Fighter 2, but as soon as I hear the first few notes of the soundtrack it’s 1997 and I’m playing my Saturn for the first time again. Like most Sega arcade games of the era it’s bursting with vibrant colour, blue skies and Casio keyboard soundtracks. The characters are a little more sombre than Street Fighter’s eclectic cast of stereotypes, but not by much: VF2 introduced Shun, the kung-fu master who gets faster the more he drinks; and Lion, the David Beckham (circa 1996) lookalike who loves to duck under every attack.
It’s a game where bouts are over in seconds – a single combo attack can drain most of a combatant’s stamina. Where Tekken focuses on extended floating combos, VF2 matches are more like fencing: players dart in and out of each other’s attacks, waiting for an opening that can lead to a deadly assault. Compared to other fighters, and even later games in the VF series, it lacks fluidity. Movement can feel stilted and mashing the attack buttons rarely translates into a meaningful exchange of blows.
For this reason, it’s disappointing that this port of Virtua Fighter 2 lacks a training mode. While I appreciate that is an authentic treatment of the arcade machine, Shun’s bridge and all, the great thing about home consoles is that they’re capable of more than mere emulation. Without the means of practising VF2’s reversals, throws and combos, a newcomer is unlikely to get very far with it.
If anything, playing VF2 again made me want the Saturn-exclusive Fighters Megamix, which combined Virtua Fighter 3 with Fighting Vipers and a huge amount of additional content. Make no mistake: this is still a great game and a faithful conversion. But it could have used a little more fan service to pad out the offering.
Vipers adds a bit of spice to the one-on-one matches: fighters have armour that can be shattered with heavy attacks and matches take place in enclosed cages that can be scaled and destroyed at the end of a round. Some characters use ‘weapons’ like skateboards and guitars (Sega’s later Model 2 fighter Last Bronx added proper swords and nunchaku), others are wearing roller blades and one guy manages to fight with a toothpick in his mouth the whole time.
Fighting Vipers is easier to grasp than Virtua Fighter; it’s more responsive and intuitive. Compared to its sober sensei sibling, it’s not as deep or nuanced – but it is more fun to play, and that counts for a lot. If you can get past the inherent cheesiness of the whole thing, it’s great for some no-frills arcade action.
Sonic: The Fighters
The golden rule of Sonic games is: don’t play anything after the first three (counting Sonic and Knuckles as the second part of Sonic 3). Some people will tell you that the Sonic Advance series was good, that the Dreamcast Adventure series were fun at the time: they’re all wrong. Every Sonic game since 1994 has been rubbish, and you’re hearing this from a guy currently wearing Sonic the Hedgehog socks.
Once upon a time, a bored Sega employee decided to put Sonic and Tails into Fighting Vipers for a laugh. Then they made a whole game out of it, which home audiences managed to escape until 2005’s Playstation 2 and Gamecube release. So what happens when you put Sonic and friends into a fighting game? Nothing good.
Sonic: The Fighters features stripped-down movesets and an irritating ‘barrier’ system instead of standard blocking. Just like real Sonic games, the fighters drop golden rings when they are harmed – but unlike real Sonic games, you don’t collect them. They just spill forth from wounds as if you’re King Midas making a guest appearance in Mortal Kombat.
Sonic and his friends just weren’t built for fighting. Even if you play as Knuckles, a character named after his own giant fists, there’s no discernible advantage over playing as Sonic. Unlike the other games mentioned above, this is a straight-up button-masher, thus removing the one thing that makes the Virtua Fighter series noteworthy.
There’s no joy to it: nothing to learn or master, no semblance of skill required. If I had played this game in 1996, I’d be wearing Mario socks right now.