SEGA's Virtua Tennis, in its Dreamcast heyday, was considered by some to be the greatest multiplayer videogame around. Its appeal was clear: fast, responsive arcade action fused with devilish depth. The old easy to learn, hard to master job.
But recently – and to the disappointment of many fans - the racket strings snapped. Virtua Tennis 3 and Virtua Tennis 2009, from UK developer Sumo Digital, failed to set review scores alight. In the face of increasingly stiff competition from the simulation-focused Top Spin series, Virtua Tennis' star lost some of its shine.
But now VT is back. In an effort to revamp and revitalise the much-loved series, SEGA has dragged development back into the hands of the Japanese team that created the first two games. And, in an effort to add relevance and accessibility, it's focused on the new motion controlling revolution.
The Wii version supports WiiMotionPlus – this time properly, and the Xbox 360 version supports Kinect, allowing users to hit the ball with their hands. However, it's the PlayStation 3 version that will attract most attention. Using the Move controller, gamers are able to add spin to their shots with twists of their wrists - something Kinect is simply unable to offer.
So it is with Move controller in hand that Eurogamer sits down for a brief chat with Mie Kumagai, the creator of Virtua Tennis and producer of Virtua Tennis 4, to delve a little deeper.
Eurogamer: When you created the first Virtua Tennis game, what were you setting out to achieve?
Mie Kumagai: Virtua Tennis 1 was created for the arcades. Back then, with what was happening in the Japanese arcade centres at the time, there were a lot of versus based games. One-on-one versus games were very, very popular. It was the fighting games.
I was thinking about doing a similar thing where we could offer a very entertaining versus experience, but I didn't want to restrict our target audience just to fighting game fans. So I thought, OK, sports games are a good, competitive genre.
Also I had in mind, what's simple? What can people play one against one that's simple, that people can jump on and straight away have a match? That's where tennis came in and that's how Virtua Tennis was born.
Eurogamer: What do you consider to be the series' core strengths?
Mie Kumagai: The main strength of the series is that we haven't changed our main concept, our philosophy, since Virtua Tennis 1. I know it was developed first in the arcades, but I wanted to offer a game with a large window so people could get into it easily and have fun against friends and family in their living rooms.
But also, on the other hand, we considered by making a realistic tennis game people can play over and over again. There's a lot of playtime that can be had with the games on the core side. With the casual side and core side, we wanted to make a game where the main concept was to take both, but a good balance of both.
This is the same goal we've had since Virtua Tennis 1. That remains the biggest strength of Virtua Tennis and it hasn't changed at all, even now.
Eurogamer: The last game, Virtua Tennis 2009 was created by Sumo Digital. For Virtua Tennis 4 you've taken the series back to Japan for internal development. Why did you do that?
Mie Kumagai: The reason why it was taken back to Japan with the original studio was looking at Virtua Tennis 3 and 2009 and listening to fan reaction and user feedback, we felt for 4 there needed to be a lot of major changes in the game.
With that in mind, if you're going to add a lot of new elements, if you're going to change something quite a lot, to some respect you have to scrap what's already there. We felt it was a task best done by the original team who understood the game the most, who understood the main concepts and goals of the game the most, and had the most experience. We could constructively scrap parts where we would need to update and think about what could be changed, what could be updated.
At the end of 2009, we felt almost every element in the game was exhausted. So we needed to bring a lot of new things on board. That's why it was taken back to the original team in Japan.
Eurogamer: Did the last game meet the high standards set by the first two games?
Mie Kumagai: Obviously it's a very high standard that the series has set. With 09 actually the original team visited Sumo and worked with them closely in terms of sharing animation data and character model assets. Also, we were discussing on various game design aspects. They were involved on a supportive level, but they were involved a little bit more than that as well.
Obviously Sumo is a studio that we trust. But with that way of working, let's say with a different studio making the title, it was not as easy to realise what new things the title needed at that time, which we have realised now and tried to put in the game for number four.
Working with a different studio it showed some of the difficulties in making a new title in an already established series. Like we mentioned before, that was another reason why number four was done in Japan.
Eurogamer: With 2009 playing online was difficult, with lag often a problem. How has it improved for Virtua Tennis 4? I understand Virtua Fighter is involved here.
Mie Kumagai: There's no Virtua Fighter tech involved in it. It's our brand new original system we've made for number four. The team included members from the Virtua Fighter team who had more online development experience. They worked closely with people who understood how the game should be built. With this set-up, with these members in place, the system has been greatly improved.
Now it's totally synched with the other user on the other side, so you're not going to get a lag spike and the ball appearing in one place one second and then in the next frame somewhere else. You're not going to get that any more. You can tell it's going to be a much better online experience. It's a major thing for people to play other people online.
Another online feature we've implemented is you can set up a lobby and instead of just waiting for someone else to come in to play against you, you can actually play against the AI, so you don't have to stare doing nothing waiting for them. You can set different descriptions as well, such as 'beginners welcome', or 'I'm a bit more advanced', or 'I want to play doubles', so various different people can jump in and out of the room. Communication-wise it's a lot more social now.
We also have a range of pre-set messages you can send to your opponent in-game. For example, 'that was great'. You can fire these pre-set messages back and forth against one another. Not only tech wise has it improved, but there are more social elements to the online play as well.
Eurogamer: Will we see Virtua Tennis 4 on Nintendo 3DS and Next Generation Possible?
Mie Kumagai: Well, the question will be answered by another question: do you want it?
Eurogamer: Of course.
Mie Kumagai: There are no plans at the moment. But if people want it then we'll obviously answer wishes.
Eurogamer: How should fans express their desire for a handheld Virtua Tennis 4?
Mie Kumagai: They should write on forums and elsewhere on the internet that they want it.
Mie Kumagai is the creator of Virtua Tennis and producer of Virtua Tennis 4