Sega's Virtua Fighter franchise has always had a solid fan base, and now is a good time for it to launch a new Virtua Fighter title. Renewed interest in the fighting game genre--on the back of the success of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition--means Virtua Fighter now has the opportunity to reach out to a much larger, active audience.
But is the newest version, Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown (VF5FS), packing enough new features to take the series to the next level? Will this be the game to push the series to Street Fighter or Tekken levels of popularity? Players have often attributed Virtua Fighter's comparatively smaller fan following to be a direct result of its steep learning curve, and the large amount of dedication that is required to become a master. Many professional players refer to it as one of the more difficult, but rewarding, games to learn.
Just a month shy of its release, VF5FS was available for play at the recent Shadowloo Showdown event. Hosted in Melbourne, the Australian-based tournament was the perfect opportunity for GameSpot to speak to some professional players about their impressions of the new game.
Ryan "Prodigal Son" Hart, from the UK, is perhaps best known for holding the Guinness World Record for the most international wins in Street Fighter. He also has a soft spot for the Virtua Fighter series, saying that, because of its complexity, it is his favourite fighting game series, though he laments its lack of popularity.
"People start playing it, and, since they realise it's not as easy as the fighters they are used to, they just go back to those. It seems like the easy games are the ones that are the most popular."
Hart feels that mastering such games is worth the investment. "For me, I'd like to see people give more time to the harder games, because the merit you get is worth the training you put in," he said.
Developer Sega AM2 implemented some significant changes in VF5FS, the most notable being the simplification of "throw-break" inputs. Ryan described the move as "not necessarily a bad thing", while he remains optimistic that it will help draw players to the game.
Keita "Fuudo" Ai disagrees, slightly. The Japan-based player has an impressive list of achievements, including wins at international Virtua Fighter tournaments, finishing first in the Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition tournament at the 2011 EVO Championship series, and recently beating Ryan Hart at Shadowloo Showdown in Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown.
Fuudo feels that the changes in Final Showdown caused him to "lose a bit of motivation, in the sense that a lot of people at the top level can still win and compete well, without putting in much effort".
To him, previous iterations of the game "rewarded people who actually worked and learned the system". Despite the latest game's new user-friendliness, he's not confident that the tweaked system will introduce new players, though he conceded that the character roster is "a little more balanced" than it has been, previously.
Australia's Daniel "Berzerk" Chlebowczyk has represented his country in both the Virtua Fighter and Dead or Alive series. He believes that the latest version "incorporates the best things from the previous ones; it's been a really smooth progression".
"In football codes, you have AFL, Rugby, etc. But, in terms of the world game they call 'soccer', the beautiful game, I kind of see Virtua Fighter that way," he said. He described Final Showdown as "a refinement" and "the most fair and balanced, out of them all" in comparison to other fighting games.
"There is a distinct lack of flash, explosions, sparks, circus animals, and lasers, for a very good reason. It simply doesn't need them."
Fellow Australian, Mike "Iron Myke" Abdow placed third, overall, in the VF5FS tournament at Shadowloo. He is a long-time competitive player and one of the minds behind fan site, virtuafighter.com.
He described his recent experience with the newly revised version as enjoyable, and praised "the way the characters move, attack, grapple, [and] get hit." He added that the overhaul gave the game a "huge improvement, aesthetically. No VF game has ever looked this good."
Like his fellow competitors, Mike acknowledged that the latest version had been tweaked to even out the game's notoriously difficult learning curve, but he also noted that VF5FS still retains the complexity that the series is known for.
"There is a distinct lack of flash, explosions, sparks, circus animals, and lasers, for a very good reason. It simply doesn't need them," Abdow explained. "Instead, you'll find a comprehensive, and, most importantly, consistent set of rules that govern how things work. It's just you and your skill that's the ultimate deciding factor."
All of the players GameSpot AU spoke with agreed that while the series may be more difficult to pick up than other fighting games on the market, the reward--once you've taken the time to learn the game's intricacies--is well worth the investment.
Ryan Hart was quick to point out, "If there's ever been a time to get involved with Virtua Fighter, it is now. It's on console, it's new, and it's fresh. What more could you want?"
Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown launches in the second half of 2012, on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.