I was once told a great urban myth about Sega's greatest visionary, Yu Suzuki, and one of his greatest games, Virtua Fighter. When Tomonobu Itagaki was designing the first Dead or Alive (which ran on Sega's Model 2 hardware), he got Yu Suzuki drunk in an attempt to extract the secrets that made Virtua Fighter so glorious. The legend goes that the AM2 boss spilled the beans, but only half of them. Suzuki kept the most important info to himself and Dead or Alive's fighting system was doomed to an eternal fourth-tier status below Sega and Namco's 3D fighters, despite adhering to the three-button control mandate and a rock/paper/scissors structure that seemed to be Virtua Fighter's key to excellence.
It's clear that Virtua Fighter's magic was always far more than eight directions, three buttons and an age-old tripartite rule structure. There's magic in the distinctive, individual rhythms of its characters and the complexity that emerges when players are trying to commandeer the tempo of a fight. It's in the lack of pyrotechnics and hyperbolic specials and the clarity of feedback this absence provides. It's in the physicality of the models and the specific dynamics of Suzuki's Virtua violence - and it's all very much in the Yu Suzuki mould, where the term 'Virtua' has as much to do with creative virtuosity as it does virtual reality.
The last Virtua Fighter to come under Suzuki's direct influence was Final Tuned in 2004, an arcade-only update to 2002's Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, itself a follow-on from Virtua Fighter 4. Both 4 and Evolution had PlayStation 2 versions, but it's Evolution that stands out as not only the last installment of Yu Suzuki's fighting game philosophy, but also as a masterful implementation of what a fighting game can be in a console context.
Virtua Fighter 4 sowed the seeds with its Kumite mode; an embryonic simulation of Japanese arcade culture. Evolution's Quest mode developed it into full maturity with a map of Tokyo sprinkled with arcade locations - a masterstroke that recreated the experience sitting at an Astro City cab and taking on all comers. It was the fighting game as single-player RPG, where XP came in wins and levels came as rank titles. It widened the rewards for victory beyond the VS mode win streak, or the arcade mode completion time, with unlockables, costume items and pictographic emblems for player names, prompting a hugely welcome vein of personalisation.
Better still, Evolution's Quest mode was filled with AIs trained by Virtua Fighter's most famous exponents. During Virtua Fighter 3's reign, legendary Kage player Kyasao appeared on Games Master and (purportedly) took down 100 UK players without losing a fight. In Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, his Kage lurked in Quest mode's arcades, along with other notables from Japan's tournament scene such as Chibita's Lion, the Akiras of Homestay and Ohsu and the fearsome Wolf of Bunbunmaru. Long before Daigo parried his way into fighting game royalty, Virtua Fighter was celebrating its brightest and best, letting you try your hand at beating them in the process.
Virtua Fighter has always been the scholastic choice, thanks not only to the richness of its characters and movesets but also the way they interact with each other. Eccentricities and idiosyncrasies abound, as signposted in Virtua Fighter 2 by the marvellously weird styles of Shun (drunken master) and Lion (whiny mantis). As each iteration added two new characters per sequel, the roster grew into one of the most diverse in any fighting game and every single one has astonishing depth. It's also astonishing that the entire lineup is beautifully, wonderfully balanced. For any two characters in battle, every move has a corresponding counter-move. Common fighting game concepts such as tiering characters by their ease of dominance barely have any relevance.
As the series' mascot, Akira may be Virtua Fighter's Ryu, but he's no scrub choice. In fact, there aren't any scrub choices in Virtua Fighter; even renowned cheap-shotter Lau has his weaknesses, vulnerabilities and technically demanding moves. In keeping with the series' spirit, Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution saw this rigorous balance reach new heights - and so did the game's level of technicality. Akira's rhythm was always unique, but in Evolution he felt almost impossible to get going. He'd been more accessible in previous versions, but here he stood as a symbol for everything that Virtua Fighter celebrates - study, rigour, momentum, aggression, flair, expression.
Evolution's Akira required total dedication to gain any sense of genuine proficiency. Once learned, however, there was a breakthrough. He became an awesomely intimidating and punishing force like no other, and it's that sense of breakthrough that likely contributes to Virtua Fighter's magical mystique. A player's breakthrough from apprentice to pro was never a case of training muscle memory and bashing out moves instinctively - strategy had to be integrated too, thanks to Virtua Fighter's emphasis on punishing every mistake an opponent makes. And Akira is such a fantastic punisher, to the point where letting a skilled Akira dictate the rhythm of a round practically equates to a loss, with lots of flinching as he dragon-lances you into a wall then follows up with a one-frame knee. Out of all the fighting games I've ever played, no character has ever crushed me as fairly and squarely - and I genuinely think Akira embodies the Virtua Fighter philosophy in a more profound manner than Ryu embodies Street Fighter.
My personal 'main' was Kage and in Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution he'd gained a bunch of flamboyant ninja tricks, making him as slippery and confusing as you'd imagine a real ninja to be. Not so much the zippy hyperbole of Dead or Alive's Ryu or the flashy clownery of Yoshimitsu, but more scary weirdo, somersaulting over your head into set-ups and stances that can answer any instinctive reaction to his shenanigans, again for maximum punishment and command of the rhythm.
Then there's the terror of old man Shun on more than three drinks, Jeffry's Splash Mountain and lumbering combos (as slow as they are damaging). There's Lau's wailing uppercuts and kung-fu villainy mirrored by his daughter Pai's machine-gun style, all lightning jabs and death by a thousand cuts. There's Vanessa's switchable styles, which present not one but two rhythms to bang out when needed. Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution brought in kickboxer Brad Burns and judo zombie Goh Hinogami, both equally distinctive additions to the line-up. Goh is so weird that his pace feels like the slowest in just about any fighting game, but his momentum grows steadily. His throws connect where you never thought possible and his seemingly unimpressive combos somehow eat away at your health bar without you even noticing. Such is the Virtua Fighter way - every character has the depth and the potential to dominate, each one always has an answer to your opponent's question and it's up to you to learn what the right one is.
Some high level play between Ohshu Akira and BunBunMaru's exquisite Wolf, captured on the PS2.
Of course, Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution promoted that sense of continuous education as a core discipline. It redefined the art of the training mode, offering move-set tests and staggering configuration options for specific combinations of status, move and position. It also had a variety of ways of displaying input data and was the first game that could show you exactly how to input any move (using an on-screen joystick, rather than a pad). It would even give you tips on how to improve, and had appendices for learning Virtua Fighter's more advanced techniques and dark arts. As if this wasn't enough, Evolution managed to find space on the disc to include replays of famous players battling for novices to study and even videos of the arcade cabinet in play (including a ridiculous demonstration of Kage's greatest tricks and combos bashed out with just one hand).
Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution cemented the attitude that Virtua Fighter 5 and last year's Virtua Fighter 5 Showdown would follow. The debut Virtua Fighter was a proof of concept and the second and third iterations expanded the characters and move-sets, but the game still had a certain floaty woodiness in comparison to its competitors despite its technical demands and tactical depth. By Evolution, the dynamics had become weighty and tangible. It was solid with crunchy impacts and juddering falls and in combination with the character roster and their expanding move-sets, had genuinely hit a high note of maturity that future iterations could only sustain.
Virtua Fighter 6 is currently little more than a rumour, but in a way that doesn't matter - any of the games from Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution onwards will reward players that have the passion and commitment to truly learn a character inside and out, and it will reward them endlessly. Virtua Fighter will always be the first 3D fighting game, and others will always be following its example. They might adopt some of its features and bonuses (notably Tekken 5's wholesale adoption of Evolution's innovations), but thanks to AM2's talent and experience, or maybe that indefinable Yu Suzuki magic, Virtua Fighter will always play like chess when all the rest are just chequers