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Where Does Sega Take the Virtua Fighter Series?

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Posted by: Dan Liebman

Anyone who follows the work of AM2 and Yu Suzuki has witnessed the considerable range in games they quite beautifully produce. The frantic car chases in Virtua Cop, vast role-playing worlds in Shenmue, and comical mashups in Fighters Megamix all manage to demonstrate the considerable versatility and skill behind the "VF devs." Just how much further could the Virtua Fighter series go? It's been to some pretty wild spots already, but perhaps the games could be cultivated in a few surprising ways.

It’s fairly well established that most fighting games manage a sense of humor. A few jokes are a good thing because the intense, visceral nature of hand-to-hand combat might produce all manner of nighttime disturbances. Fighters Megamix seemed to revel in its own absurdity, with brawlers getting knocked senseless by a quick fire from Jane’s handgun and combatants going toe-to-toe with a pugilistic palm tree (the AM2 logo brought to life). And of course, no one can forget the candy-apple headed cuties from Virtua Fighter Kids—a decidedly playful title that might attract less favorable attention these days with its portrayal of children engaging in violent acts.

Still, it’s that bright, sunny sort of humor that contrasted nicely to the usual dark comedy of the latest Mortal Kombat iteration. It has been some time since the Virtua Fighter franchise has stepped back to laugh at itself, so perhaps an opportunity to tweak its hardcore image has presented itself. Color and light play a huge role in the animated style of Street Fighter, and yet the series continues to rank as one of the most beloved fighters to date. The trick would be to strike a balance between the unfathomably deep gameplay that fanatics cherish and a new, lighthearted atmosphere that newcomers (or a youngin’) could find appealing. Some would say the feat is impossible, and given how few “fun” titles we’ve seen post-VF Kids, maybe sales performance has just deteriorated. Silliness puts off western audiences, it would seem.

No, surely the gritty and hard side of reality beckons to adolescent gamers. Indeed, many modern titles seem to take themselves very seriously—too seriously, some might argue. If the VF franchise is to survive, it must evolve with the times. With assassins now peppering the roster, how much uglier could Virtua Fighter become? There has been little in the way of blood seen in VF titles to date. While blood need not flow and spatter everywhere like some trashy horror movie, perhaps the brutality of combat could heighten the sense of reality and immersion. Characters might bear bruises and cuts across their bodies after a match or limp appropriately, depending upon where they’ve been injured. This visual feature was actually implemented in Tao Feng (2003) with mixed results, and it even added the distraction of female characters’ clothes getting ripped off in combat. Still, if anyone can properly implement such a feature, even on a superficial level, it would be the VF devs. With all the bone-cracking grapples some characters are now capable of performing, it seems almost silly that they should instantly recover and appear no worse for the wear.

Yet with the adult demographic growing, people might enjoy a game that engages more than their eye-hand coordination alone. Like many titles in its genre, Virtua Fighter contains a fair amount of backstory, with unique plot lines arranged for individual characters. A few are even family members, but without the similarity in names, one would be hard-pressed to notice unless they studied each character’s fighting style. The fact is, storytelling is a difficult element to weave within a fighting game. At best, it wheedles its way into an awkward dialogue sequence between matches. For less cerebral players, these sequences are nothing more than unwanted interruptions to their gameplay sessions and are easily cut out with a quick button tap. Because of this tendency, most people would fail to appreciate the admittedly impressive sequences arranged for a five-star title like the latest Street Fighter incarnation. Perhaps the real key to crafting a story within a game is to choose one’s format carefully. The highly acclaimed Shenmue is a great example. By blending highly cinematic interactive cut-scenes, classic combat, and massive interactive worlds rich with digital actors, the game exploits the best of every world without frustrating adrenaline junkies—perhaps because there are so few RPGs they can tolerate. If Virtua Fighter managed to take even a brief detour into the world of role-playing games (and no, Virtua Quest doesn't count), the results could be fascinating.

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