There is a palpable sense of dread about putting pen to paper on this review - or fingers to keyboard, for that matter. Reviewing games is a job which invites others to give their opinion on what you're doing, so I'm used to that, but ever since Virtua Fighter 5 landed on my desk the sheer weight of unwanted opinion has astonished me.
My MSN has buzzed with people letting me know what they think of Virtua Fighter; my friends have dropped idle comments about their love for (or hatred of, in some cases) the venerable franchise while evaluating my responses with hard, calculating eyes. This very day, it emerged that my flatmate's girlfriend likes the series because it's "the most technical of the beat 'em ups".
I should have guessed that it would come to this. I know people (who will read this review, and judge my very worth as a human being based on its content) who have spent more money on shipping and import duty for enormous, metal-cased arcade sticks than most people spend on food in a month - just for VF. I've walked through arcades in Tokyo on many occasions, and seen the silent devotion of the VF acolytes who gather in those sacred halls, filled with adoring fervour for the hallowed arcade cabinets. I've spoken to men and women who talk about the world's best VF players in the same tones that my parents used for the Pope.
I'm not reviewing a game. I'm reviewing a religion.
(Catholicism: Venerable stalwart of the genre. Fantastic art style, and memorable, catchy music. Addition of the Virgin Mary as a playable character alongside Jesus gives it the edge over competing Abrahamic religions in terms of variety, although consistent oppression and a relentless focus on guilt and self-loathing as a core gameplay mechanism could make it tough for this one to break out of its hardcore niche. Brilliant hats, though. 6/10.)
If the sheer passion of VF's fans leaves you looking a tad confused, you're not alone. Although it can legitimately claim to be the father of the 3D beat 'em up genre, Virtua Fighter has never been the most popular game around. Fighting games like Tekken, Soul Calibur and Dead Or Alive have found warmer welcomes in the mass market, especially outside VF's island stronghold, Japan. None of which is to say that they're better or worse than VF; you can bring your own prejudices to the table on the front. Merely that they followed a different path, and that path led them to appeal to a far wider group of people.
So who did VF appeal to, then? The answer is as hackneyed as it is true; it appealed to the hardcore. To the beat 'em up enthusiast who cares about perfectly balanced characters, about mastering the intricacies of the vastly technical fighting system, about a game designed to be the perfect arena for fair competition. VF coldly dismisses as gimmicks the various additional modes and so on which have been introduced to its rivals over the years; if it's not directly relevant to improving the experience of combat, there's no home for it in this franchise. This is beat 'em up purity
Let's start with that, then - with VF5's astonishing triumph. This game sets out to provide perfectly balanced characters, where each character is unique but no character has an overall advantage over any other. It sets out to provide an intricate, technical and complex fighting system, where moves turn into combos and combos turn into strategies as players master more of the game's mechanics. It sets out to provide a perfect arena for competition, as fair and balanced as any sports field could hope to be, where two players enter and the best player emerges victorious.
At all of those incredibly difficult goals, VF5 succeeds. It succeeds in style.
No other fighting game ever made can match the intricate beauty of VF5's gameplay. Here is a game which has been honed and refined on the toughest audience of all, the ferociously critical hardcore who inhabit arcades up and down Japan. Following a clear line from VF4 and VF4: Evolution, VF5 has, er, evolved with the addition of two new characters and some interesting tweaks and modifications to the fighting styles of its existing roster. The two new fighters, El Blaze and Eileen, fight in the manner of a Mexican-style wrestler and an extremely angry monkey, respectively (okay, the latter is apparently a martial arts style called kou-ken - regardless, she's like a chimp whose bananas have been stolen when she cuts loose), which sets them apart from the other characters and gives the game a new challenge for old hands. Even at that, the game stays confidently aloft on its narrow tightrope, maintaining perfect balance while introducing new variety.
The focus on hardcore players is patently obvious from the window dressing around the fights, too. You can store a bunch of data profiles in your save game, tracking detailed statistics for your progress with various characters, and there's a comprehensive Dojo mode which allows you to practice your moves and learn new ones. If you actually want to get good at the game, though, the Dojo won't do much more than point the way - the only way to really get good at VF is to play match after match after match.
Alongside the standard arcade mode (fight a certain number of enemies and then a boss, the template of beat 'em up games since the dawn of time - well, StreetFighter), there's also a "Quest" mode which allows you to take on a variety of AI opponents by travelling between various SEGA arcades and taking part in virtual VF tournaments. Yes, that's right; the quest mode doesn't see you playing a warrior tracking down his father's killers or some such, it sees you playing a VF player travelling around arcades to take on opponents at the game. Did we mention that it was a bit hardcore?