Given that it's been nine years since we last saw the series - and some 15 whole years since the last mainline release in arcades - you might well be wondering why there's so much excitement surrounding this week's release of Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown, a remaster that brings Sega's fighting series to modern platforms (or just one of them for now, at least). What is it exactly about Virtua Fighter that makes it so beloved?
Allow me, a fairly serious fan who's been pining for a return for some time, to try to explain. Virtua Fighter is to fighting games what OutRun is to driving games: accessible, slick and dynamic, just as OutRun sold the teenage dream of getting behind the wheel for a Ferrari so Virtua Fighter is all about pitting poster star martial artists against each other, in both cases something complex distilled down to something intoxicatingly direct. They are both peak Sega.
So it's a delight to see the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio - undoubtedly Sega's premier studio, and in whose games you'll find so much of that old style and swagger - turn its hand to Virtua Fighter's return, even if the project they've been handed isn't quite as grand as some might have hoped. This is a pared-back port of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown, released in arcades in 2010 before making it to console in 2012, albeit gently renovated for more modern hardware.
The visual overhaul has been kept light, with some characters seemingly receiving more attention than others - cover stars Akira and Kage look absolutely magnificent - and a smattering of new effects. Among those are the clouds of coloured gas that meet each impact, familiar from other 3D fighters such as Tekken, and if the implementation is thankfully understated here it's still a shame it can't be turned off as an option.
Indeed, options here are thin to the point of being non-existent. There's no way to revert to the original Virtua Fighter 5's UI - although I'm already quite partial to the new one that gives the whole package a more modern feel - no replays and next to nothing by way of frills. Modes from the console release of Final Showdown are completely absent, making a bit of a mockery of the Ultimate title here - there's no licence or score attack, and not much for the solo player to indulge in beyond the robust training options (part of me was hoping for a return of vanilla Virtua Fighter 5's Quest Mode, until I realised with dread terror that many of the arcades it featured like Shibuya's Club Sega are no more).
Those omissions are understandable given the emphasis here, as Virtua Fighter Ultimate Showdown is a pointedly stripped back thing made primarily for online play, served up here in 16 player rooms or via a decent ranked mode. Which then begs the question why rollback code hasn't been employed, and if the netcode is hardly a disaster - a weekend's play has revealed it to be pretty much the measure of the Virtua Fighter 5 online experience last time out, albeit with matches actually available unlike the mostly deserted Xbox Live version - it feels like less than Virtua Fighter deserves.
And yet, for all those gripes, it also feels like Virtua Fighter has been done right by RGG Studio by them electing to keep their hands largely off, and keeping the integrity of this grandest of fighting games intact. Part of me even enjoys the tacit admission by leaving the fundamentals well alone that Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown was kind of perfect - something a few of us have long suspected.
A couple of late nights with Ultimate Showdown, playing online and off, does nothing to dull that notion; indeed, Virtua Fighter still stands alone as a fighting game of exquisite grace and poise. There's a momentum to encounters that's electric, an ebb and flow of play that's as engaging now as it's ever been.
"Virtua Fighter is to fighting games what OutRun is to driving games: accessible, slick and dynamic"
The accessibility of classic Virtua Fighter is there - this is a series designed for the masses that used to assemble at the likes of the Trocadero when Sega's arcade machines were the very cutting edge of technology - met by the depths added when the series hardened at the turn of the century with the fourth installment. By the time of Virtua Fighter 5's final release, it had turned into an intricate mesh of disparate fighting styles, all of which somehow fit together in perfect harmony.
Ultimate Showdown reinforces all that, and even if it's not quite the ultimate release of Virtua Fighter 5 it's a delight to get lost in the rhythms of what remains an all-time great, and a timeless one at that. For old diehards like myself Virtua Fighter 5 sits alongside OutRun 2 as the very best of Sega, and for all the missed opportunities here - the less than perfect netcode, the lack of periphery frills or much by way of new content - the chance to play it alongside a new audience is more than worthwhile. Maybe it's not quite the grand return the series deserves, but it's a game that still deserves to be played.