The art of fighting as Sega brings its classic fighters out of retirement

Virtua Fighter 2, Fighting Vipers and Sonic the Fighters have all made a reappearance on XBLA and PSN this week tempting our writer, Sam Gill, back to the ring...
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Indoor smoking, penny slots, ultraviolet air hockey and plenty of Sega gaming cabinets made up many an amusement arcade, bowling alley or Laser Quest centre in mid-1990s Britain. Around this time Sega’s Model 2 board was the stuff of legends – demanding coins from teenage pockets throughout the decade. An expensive unit for proprietors to purchase undoubtedly, but one that reaped dividends, as anyone who ever experienced multiplayer Daytona USA can attest to.

I recall one trip to London where my sole aim was to manipulate my parents on to Regent Street to the Hamleys toystore, where I had heard they had a basement stocked with AM2’s finest, including a brand new cabinet of Cyber Troopers Virtual-On.

Despite the lame moniker, it was actually a superlative robot combat game using an innovative twin joystick control method; pre-empting control systems of the future – dual-analogue sticks might be the standard now, but at the time they were an alien innovation.

Virtual-On was powered by Model 2, as were the Indy 500 machines, House of the Dead, Virtua Cop, Virtua Striker, Manx TT, Super GT, Dynamite Cop, Gunblade NY, Sega Rally Championship, Last Bronx, Virtua Fighter 2, Fighting Vipers and Sonic the Fighters.

Superb games one and all, but it’s with the last three that we’re particularly concerned, as Sega have just released them for Xbox Live and PSN, and I’m keen to see how they hold up. These are straight-up arcade conversions for purists, boldly rendered and stripped back of any extraneous console-specific features.

At the time, many of these games found a home release on the short-lived-but-actually-superb Saturn console – I recall Last Bronx in particular providing hours of fun. There was also Fighters Megamix, using characters from all of Sega’s brawlers together in one stunning package. Indeed Sega’s AM teams were constantly churning out high-quality games in a run of form comparable to Ajax in the 1970s, and somehow the buying public still was convinced to purchase Saturns.

First of the AM2 fighters to hit home consoles was Virtua Fighter 2 – an almost meditative take on the fighting game genre. Serene landscapes and methodical gameplay combined with an incredibly comprehensive counter-system that turned off many Street Fighter 2 fans immediately, but spoke to a hard core fan base that remains to this day.

I recall being addicted to the drunken Kung Fu of Virtua Fighter 2’s Shun Di – I even had a blue A4 folder I used for reference, painstakingly cutting-out tips and moves from games publications of the time, my own illegible south-pawed notes scrawled over the top.

Guard, punch and kick were the only buttons required, with varying strengths controlled by where you were in relation to your opponent, rather than your own selection. A neat system which is still used in many games today.

The characters were memorable creations too, in particularly the wrestler, Wolf, who had a move that swung your opponent around 360 degrees, taking their entire energy bar if you performed it perfectly. He lined up alongside Shun Di with his loping, wine gourd-driven style, Jackie with his lame Limahl hairdo and his foxy sister, Sarah, with her annoying knee uppercut that inexperienced combatants would overuse to the point of frustration.

Sega didn’t rest on their laurels however, and in response to the likes of Tekken (and inexplicably-popular-but-mainly-rubbish Toshinden), Fighting Vipers emerged. And with yet another great name to live up to, AM2 once again upped their game.

Cage fighting and layers of armour introduced new drama to proceedings, while great-looking character models – including mini M Bison impersonator Bahn, butch navy reject Jane and the titillating Candy and her lace-woven visible pantie line. Some fighters even came with accessories, skateboarder Picky and rocker Raxel using their board and Flying V guitar respectively to bludgeon opponents to death.

Fighting Vipers had an innovative armour system as well, leading to costume changes. And the way in which the arenas were walled provided much more claustrophobic, combo-filled bouts than the large, mainly pastoral areas available for cowards to duck into in Virtua Fighter 2. Claustrophobic that is, until you perform a power move and smash your opponent through the walls, the ultimate humiliation.

Having been a home conversion trailblazer by introducing training mode, in which you beat up a helpless inflatable Kumachan and learn moves away from the heat of the competition, Fighting Vipers has perhaps the most to lose on the 360 by being a direct arcade reproduction. But even with the extended for-home features of these games stripped away, Sega leave two and a half of the most finely-tuned 3D beat-‘em-ups ever committed to circuitboard.

The reason I say two and a half is because effectively, Sonic the Fighters is a re-skinned Fighting Vipers, allegedly done by a bored AM2 programmer who sought Yuji Naka’s approval and inserted Sonic and company into the engine.

Although it’s initially a little odd to see Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and their extended family duking it out energetically, it actually really works well, operating at what seems like a more sprightly speed, especially compared to Virtua Fighter 2 and in-keeping with the rush of Sonic’s world.

It features some of my favourite rare Sega characters – Espio the Chameleon, and Bean Dynamite (of Dynamite Dux semi-fame), along with the typically wet-behind-the-ears Amy Rose. Strategy here differs slightly due to the barrier system – players able to use barrier levels to turn their combos super, or preserve them in order to retain blocking integrity – but this is a minor change, and the move executions remain familiar to Sega fight fans everywhere.

As ever two player brings out the best in the game as you comically battle, moves including the classic ‘pull someone’s elasticated nose and let it snap back into their face’ strike.

All of these games are worth investigating, and hopefully the depth and maturity of Sega’s fighting systems will find themselves more appreciation in the home environment a second time around. They may be presented in a bordered square rather than the widescreen panoramas we’re now accostomed, but they still look bold and bright and run just as smoothly as they did back in the dingy arcades of my youth.

With these titles hitting Xbox Live this winter, and promise of the both original Virtua Striker, and the real pick of the announced bunch, Virtual–On, thought to be coming in spring, it’s a fertile time for those born and raised on Sega arcade titles.

There’s also time here to mention a couple of other Sega fighting gems that would be welcomed among their cousins – the super deformed Virtua Fighter Kids, and Virtua Fighter Remix, a free-to-US gamers disc that functioned as a 1.5 between the first two titles in the series. Both decent in their own right, the massive heads of Kids especially appealing, it would be good to see them line up alongside their senior counterparts.

And if Sega wants a few more suggestions for re-release, how about these? Knuckles Chaotix, an extremely rare 32X title, which originated in Sonic Crackers, an unreleased Megadrive game – sure to hasten the beat of any Sega fan’s heart. As would any of the arcade games mentioned at the beginning of this piece – Manx TT, Sega Super GT, Gunblade NY and Dynamite Cop getting my votes.