There was a time not so long ago when the words "Model 3" were acknowledged with equal proportions of awe and respect. It was Sega's newest arcade hardware, and a mighty three million polygons it did move. These days, such numbers are almost commonplace, with the arrival of the Dreamcast and the impending arrivals of polygon crushers from Sony and Nintendo. However, when the Model 3 hardware first debuted, it was with Virtua Fighter 3, the flagship fighter borne of Yu Suzuki's AM2 development team.
To think that in 1997 Virtua Fighter 3 almost made it to the Sega Saturn is, in hindsight, practically hysterical. To this day, the Model 3 hardware has only recently been superseded by the relatively inexpensive but comparable-in-performance Naomi arcade board. As PlayStation fans got every installment of Tekken ported right to their favorite console, Sega fans had to languish until more powerful hardware arrived.
Now that time has come, and the question is whether Virtua Fighter 3 (the complementary "Team Battle" tag amended), with all its encompassing history, has been worth the wait.
As fans of Virtua Fighter will attest, VF3 (as well as its predecessors) is one of the deepest games you will ever play. When it comes to technique, move combinations, and overall feel, few games can boast the sophistication of VF3's fighting engine. While not as instinctive, perhaps, as a 2D fireball-throwing, dragon-punching series that will go unnamed, VF3 features a depth nearly unsurpassed in the 3D arena. Certainly, button mashing will certainly get some gamers a fair amount of success in the one-player mode, but match a novice up against a skilled Virtua Fighter veteran, and the difference in their skills will quickly become apparent. Building on the simple three-button interface of the groundbreaking VF2, part three adds a dodge button to the mix as well as two new characters, Aoi and Takarashi. With the established VF fighting engine already in place, the dodge button adds a whole new slate of moves to the labyrinthine arsenal of attacks and defensive strikes. Unfortunately, since games like Soul Calibur have used the benefit of hindsight to further the genre in a more refined manner, VF3's dodge function could have, admittedly, been implemented in a more intuitive manner (see Tobal 2 for a good example) than simply having you thwack an extra button. After all, Virtua Fighter 2 had practically perfected 3D gameplay on a 2D plane, offering such an array of offensive possibilities that Tekken 2 could never seriously approach. By adding a fourth button to what was basically a perfect configuration, something was simultaneously gained and lost.
Aside from all that, how does the Dreamcast version of Virtua Fighter 3 Team Battle compare with the arcade version? It compares very well, especially when you consider the newly released American version over the rushed-to-production Japanese port. While the American version adds little else aside from a versus mode, which was somehow omitted from the Japanese debut, it's not so much that the features that have been improved, but that little glitches found elsewhere in the game have been removed. Gone is the slowdown when the camera zooms into certain arenas. The shadows that were found to be so imperfect have also been patched up a bit, so that the breakup found on uneven surfaces (such as stairs) is not nearly as problematic as it had been. However, even in the original import version, these problems were merely superficial and never actually interfered with gameplay.
Graphically, the character models in the game suffer from a lower polygon count than the models found in the arcade version, resulting in some odd blockiness at times. Keep in mind that the occasional blockiness doesn't stop VF3 from looking better than 99 percent of the other fighting games out there. Other touches like the loose, fabric-like qualities of Jacky's jacket have been lost, along with a couple other minute inconsistencies with the arcade version. However, all in all, developer Genki did an admirable job with AM2's techno-baby, and almost all this is nitpicking. Certain stages have lost a couple bits of polish along the way, like Aoi's stage, where the water and snow aren't arcade-perfect, or the desert stage, where you no longer leave footprints in the sand. For the most part, the stages look absolutely amazing: Pai's rooftop level and Sarah's subway arena are practically pixel-perfect, and they offer unique strategic possibilities that no other fighter (until the approaching Dead or Alive 2 is released, anyway) has. The upside and downside is that aside from the standard game (team battle notwithstanding) there is little else to hold your interest once you have beaten the one-player mode. While it can be argued that the game itself is littered with endless replay value, truly there is little incentive for anyone other than the hard-core Virtua Fighter fan. For some, this may be enough, but for others, spoiled on the fruits of Soul Calibur, this game is little more than a direct port of the arcade game. That is no mean feat, considering that this game was the arcade elite just a couple of years ago, costing upward of $4,000 depending on the size of the monitor attached. Now it can be in your home, nearly arcade perfect, for 50 bucks. Unfortunately, Namco has since proven, on Sega's own turf no less, that this can be bettered by a sizable stretch.
Brand loyalty aside (and there are VF fans who take offense to anything other than complete adoration of the series), Virtua Fighter is a great game that has a few flaws. As a port, it comes up a little shy of what's considered standard nowadays. While the game offers everything that a Virtua Fighter fan would need, the average gamer - unable to master the complexities found in the fighting engine - will find the process and resultant award daunting and ultimately unfulfilling. While the TB addition may have seemed novel when it was released in Japanese arcades a few years back, it is all but standard practice now. The same goes for time attack, survival mode, and the rest. By now, these features are more obligatory than anything else, and Virtua Fighter 3 seems a little too late to be revolutionary. With hardware increasing in power on an almost daily basis, so are the ideas and concepts that follow. That said, Virtua Fighter 3TB is a nearly perfect port of an excellent game whose ideas and innovations are no longer the trendsetters they once were. For Joe Blow on the street, Soul Calibur is still the better choice, but Virtua Fighter fans will find all they need neatly wrapped in this package. Highly recommended if you know what you're doing.