A wise old man once told me, "Boy, you never truly know a person until your fists have met in combat." Obviously, this statement left me with more questions than it did insight. Did this mean I didn't truly know my parents and siblings? What if I were to fight an armless amputee; would his kicks count for nothing in our relationship? Whether from alzheimers or dementia, the old man seemingly forgot the words he had spoken to me just moments before. This left the geezer's riddle unanswered and constantly weighing on my mind.
As Conan fought through adversity, giant snakes and path-obstructing camels
to solve the riddle of steel, I can now fight adversaries from multiple martial arts schools in my quest for the answer to the riddle of fists. Well, that is, except for the amputee part. While "armless Tae Kwon Do
" might not be represented in Virtua Fighter 5's cast, everything from aiki ju-jutsu to wrestling is.
This is what makes Virtua Fighter such a beautiful series and, more specifically, what makes Virtua Fighter 5 such a mouthwatering game. Most fighting games, be they street fights or King of Iron Fist title matches, have insane and convoluted story lines that rarely add enough to the experience to warrant deciphering. While the Virtua Fighter franchise isn't nearly as bloated in this respect as, say, Tekken or Dead or Alive, I found some striking similarities in the "genius" plot crafting as I flipped through the manual. Yes, everyone is entering the Virtua Fighter tournament to take some sort of revenge on something called J6, which apparently manufactures the faceless metal "Dural" that is often featured in the franchise. Despite this, even after playing every Virtua Fighter title to date, I didn't know any of that nonsense until stumbling upon the manual's character profiles. All of this does mean that Virtua Fighter 5 lacks a lot of the quirky character offered by the ending videos and plot development in other fighters, but a highly polished psuedo-simulator like this doesn't need such gimmicks. The characters could be faceless crash-test dummies and the quality of the gameplay would still hold it up amongst the greats.
Gameplay really is what Virtua Fighter is all about, after all. While this isn't a sim in the sense that Fight Night is, it offers a far deeper glimpse in to the intricacies and applications of different martial arts in combat, without going too far over the top, than any other fighting series. You won't find any fireball launching moves or space-robot-samurai characters in this game, much as you wouldn't in a real fighting competition. That's not to say it's all tightly wound serious business, though. Fights still take place in picturesque mountaintop Shao-lin temples and seedy underground cages, but aside from some high soaring jumps, the mechanics of battle stay true to their real life forms.
The true beauty of this dichotomy of styles is how well they perform against one another. Given the pedigree of Virtua Fighter as one of Japan's premiere competition fighting games, it's no surprise that the characters in Virtua Fighter 5 are so well balanced. Given a proper knowledge of your character's skills, strengths and weaknesses, there's no reason an oponent should be able to button mash their way to dominance. Sure, some characters may look cooler as they deal damage, but appreciating the subtle complexities of some styles will kindle a love for them.
While it might take a more seasoned player to appreciate the beauty of Akira's Hakkyoku-Ken, the new characters Eileen and El Blaze offer a lot more speed and flash to please your eyes. Previously, Wolf filled the franchise's wrestler quotient, but now El Blaze adds the far faster and aerial based lucha libre style to the roster. Not to be outdone in fleet footed nimbleness, Eileen brings the deceptively goofy looking but painfully quick kou-ken monkey style kung fu to the table. I can't say that either of these characters make me think, "Ah, there's the piece that was missing from this pugilist puzzle," but they both play far to well for me to discount or insult. Veterans might not be pulled away from their old mainstays, but newcomers will surely be delighted by these additions.
Unfortunately, there isn't much else to cater to those just joining the Virtua Figher flock. Classically, the strength of a fighting game is found in the competition between flesh and blood enemies on opposing joysticks. The PS3 version of Virtua Fighter 5 can only sate this hunger through traditional versus two player which requires a second controller and a buddy in the room. Like most fighters, this game is best played on an arcade stick with at least six face buttons, which only adds to the difficulty of setting up an ideal multiplayer situation. These problems are largely addressed by the Xbox 360 version, though. The 360 gamepad is so unwieldy in the D-pad and face button area that you'd have to be a masochist to use it for fighting games, so an arcade stick is automatically a must. Couple that with the addition of online play and it's hard to make a case for the superiority of the PS3 version...
That said, not everyone owns both consoles. If you own a PS3, are a sucker for eye candy, and even remotely enjoy fighting games, Virtua Fighter 5 is a necessity in your game library. It may not have online play, but the high level single player combat's AI does a good enough job. Also, a standard PS3 controller will get the job done plenty well enough and it only takes one buddy to bring the fun levels through the roof, so how can you resist?