Its title doesn't make much sense, but far be it from your typical arcade gamer to speak ill of Virtual On. Sega took the basic one-on-one fighting game premise and applied it to giant robots with giant guns to create a one-on-one 3D shooter that has garnered immense popularity in arcades all across the world. It was only a matter of time before Sega ported Virtual On to its 32-bit console and subsequently the PC. But as it turns out, Virtual On for the PC is convincing evidence that some arcade games aren't meant to be played at home.
Virtual On for the PC offers the same great cast as its arcade counterpart. From the nimble, feminine Fei-Yen to the hulking, hammer-toting Dorkas, each of the eight selectable Virtual On cyber troopers is distinctive and interesting. A far cry from the ungainly, overheating mechs you may be used to, these 'bots are blessed with lifelike agility and personality exemplified through highly detailed, colorful polygonal models. Watching the cyber troopers sprint around the battlefield and take to the skies as they unleash flurries of guided missiles upon one another is truly a sight to behold. But even if you can exceed Virtual On's steep requirement for a Pentium 166 with MMX, you'll still encounter a frame rate that's unreasonably sluggish. You can switch to a lower resolution, but even then you'll be hard-pressed to approach the arcade's blistering and uncompromising 60 frames per second. Here's one game that begs for 3D accelerator support and doubly proves that "Designed for Intel MMX" is little more than a slogan. At least all the arcade's metal-crunching sound effects and the manic, upbeat, synthesized soundtrack made it home without a hitch.
The arcade game is able to maintain its detailed graphics at such a furious frame rate only through the power of Sega's awesome Model 2 hardware, which far exceeds the comparatively piddling polygonal horsepower of an unaccelerated high-end Pentium. The arcade game was constructed to take full advantage of Model 2; tremendous polygonal explosions rock the battlefield left and right as the cyber troopers settle their score. But whereas the arcade hardware doesn't even hiccup at such pyrotechnics, your home PC will bog to a virtual slideshow whenever you eat a big missile... making it that much simpler for the opponent to feed you the next one.
Virtual On has remained near the top of the arcade charts ever since its late 1995 release not only because of its remarkable graphics but because of its intuitive, precise, and fast-paced gameplay. Arcade machines typically consist of two sit-down side-by-side units designed for easy network play. Control involves using twin digital joysticks with two triggers apiece to pull all the various fancy stunts from a behind-the-bot point of view. You choose one of eight cyber troopers and take on the opponent using your three progressively powerful weapon systems to try and blow him to smithereens. You can leap behind terrain for cover or rush toward him to deliver a deadly point-blank assault. The eight robots are fairly balanced and demand considerably different fighting strategies, adding considerable play life to Virtual On. The dual joystick layout makes circle strafing and other ace maneuvers readily possible and definitely necessary in dealing with the challenging, versatile computer AI, let alone a capable human opponent.
And herein lies the greatest shortcoming of Virtual On for the PC: The highly specialized arcade control scheme just doesn't translate effectively to any existing PC peripheral. Attempting to use the keyboard as a control device to any degree of success will invariably prove futile since there are so many movement functions, while most flight sticks also prove ineffective because they cannot distinguish between turning and sidestepping. Only those gamepads with shoulder buttons to allow for easy rotating and strafing can even approach the perfectly implemented arcade control scheme. To its credit, the PC rendition of Virtual On does allow one to emulate the arcade configuration by using two joysticks simultaneously, but this will only be a feasible option for a scarce few.
Between its uncertain frame rate and its less than ideal control, the PC conversion of Virtual On just doesn't pack the punch of its arcade cousin. Sure, the PC version supports multiplayer setups across the board, including Internet play - but you just can't get too excited about winning when your computer and your gamepad are far more important factors than your level of skill. And while the two-player simultaneous split-screen mode is a nice idea, unless you have a Pentium 200 or higher, you won't get any enjoyment out of it. At the same time, challenging the computer opponent over and over won't keep you riveted for long since Virtual On is intended for competitive play. As it stands, the PC conversion of Virtual On inherently lacks those key features that assured its quarter-munching longevity at the arcades.