The hardest thing about being a Virtua Fighter player in the UK is the wait. The cycle is fairly consistent and runs like this:
A new Virtua Fighter game is released. The community goes crazy for around six to nine months, followed by another six months during which only the hardcore remain. This means travelling for maybe two hours to get to someone's house (who you barely know) just so you can get a few hours of fighting in before it's time to go home. You probably don't even really like that person very much, but you've no choice but to go through it just to get those few hours. At these Virtua Fighter meets everyone is very polite, because you're hanging on to the last of your kind and if you fall out with these people, there's nowhere left to turn.
Then it's over and you're waiting for the next Virtua Fighter. If you're lucky, they'll release an update to the current version. New moves, tweaked recovery times and changes to the throws make the accessible-yet-complex system feel new again. The rankings change as players adapt to the new way their character fights and people who dominated last season become also-rans this season. Then it's back to the hardcore part of the cycle. If there's no update then you wait, hoping that the next version will attract more players than the last. You hope that the player base will grow and make the next season a success. You secretly hope that somehow, arcades will be reborn and the world will be the way it was when Street Fighter II first came out. Well, ok, maybe that last one's just me.
So why go through all of that? Why go to all that effort? Why do people develop a passion for the game that borders on fanaticism? Quite simply because, by a near-incomprehensible margin, Virtua Fighter is the best 3D fighting game series ever made. Every single aspect of the game's design has been engineered to provide the most precise, intuitive, accessible fighting game ever made. The input-complexity that drove 2D fighting games into the realm of the hardcore only has been replaced with an enormous roster of moves that can be executed with only one or two pushes on the stick (though Akira still caters for players with insane skills). An overall vision of how fighting games should work underpins a system that revolves around the supremely logical way in which characters are assigned moves. Animation exists almost solely to convey, to the frame, whether a move is starting, hitting or recovering. A near subliminal flash of yellow let's the player know a hit has registered a counter, allowing him to employ a different combo. Throw commands follow a simple logic, making throw-escaping instinctive when trying to avoid being rung out. Evading is consistent and accurate. And each character is exquisitely well balanced through excessive play testing in arcades in Tokyo. Japan's finest fighters are employed by Sega as consultants to ensure that everything is exactly as it should be.
Which means, for fighting game fans at least, the world revolves around Virtua Fighter.
It's hard to explain to someone who doesn't talk the language why the new changes to the system in Virtua Fighter 5 are so exciting. To the outsider all that can be seen are prettier graphics, new characters, new backgrounds and new moves. So what? Every fighting game has these in abundance. Hell, some fighting games even throw in things like character creation and different game modes that don't even involve one-on-one fighting. Puzzle modes! Yeah, that's value for money.
But these new changes are exciting. They will fundamentally alter the flow and pace of the game and bring new strategic options to those who understand how the game works. They will provide a fresh take on the solid and reliable system that has given us so much joy already. They will give us reasons to revisit a game that doesn't need to change too much anyway. The diversity of experience comes not from the system but from the players.
A side-slip to attack different sides of the body brings positioning into play, making better use of lateral movement without succumbing to the clumsiness and inaccuracy of Soulcalibur's 8-way step or the muggy pointlessness of Tekken's evade. A new wrestling character appears to bring new ways to continue the fight when his opponent is knocked down, an area that few fighting games have touched on. A vastly elaborated character customisation system allows players to decorate one of their fighter's four default costumes at ten different locations on the body. And VF.net, the now-standard ranking system for Japanese arcades, expands into fully blown televised spectating, feeding content to screens in arcades across Tokyo; commentators will discuss the tactics of the best players in Japan and important matches will become miniature media events in themselves. A feature we're never likely to see in any shape or form over here.
The trademark clean and crisp animation remains, unexciting to some, beautiful to those who understand the importance of visual indication. Audio improvements have not been announced, though expect Lion to continue to both annoy and make no allowances for the elderly. Jeffry is huge. Arenas have a new type of boundary, the low wall, allowing for ring-outs from high floating moves. Lau is still cheap. Probably. And a second new character has not been revealed in any form other than a short promotional video that tells us only that she is dressed in traditional Korean clothing.
The bad news, though, is that Sega has announced that it has no plans to develop an Xbox 360 version, making it a probable PS3 exclusive. And with no European release date for the PS3 confirmed, let alone an announcement for a console version, the waiting continues with no end in sight.
But wait we shall, because to the fighting game aficionado there is simply no substitute. No development team in the world has even come close to understanding what Sega's AM2 has created. The most recent versions - Virtua Fighter 4 and its elaborations - are the greatest fighting games ever made. They can be superseded only by the next version of Virtua Fighter and the next version is almost with us. The wait, thank God, is nearly over.