Virtua Fighter has a revered reputation among fighting game aficionados. Unlike Tekken or Mortal Kombat, fantastical elements here are stripped away for a grounded emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. There’s still combos to learn and master but there’s less bells and whistles, like mystical projectiles or charging bars for special moves, flashing for your attention.
While this might sound like a dream for newcomers, the reality is Virtua Fighter 5 might be the most intricate fighting game ever made. You can get so far against the AI by haphazardly pushing attack buttons when there’s an opening, but you’ll be quickly dismantled when tackling veteran players online. It’s a game designed for purists, from the weighty movement, deliberate flow of attacks and reliance on defence which separates it from almost any other fighter out there.
The steep learning curve — coupled with the forgettable presentation — is perhaps why Virtua Fighter hasn’t maintained relevance over the past decade. The last release was Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown in 2012, a revised updated version of the original 2006 release. This version has appeared in a variety of Yakuza games since, so it’s apt their Ryu Ga Gotoko Studio helped develop this enhanced remake for the PlayStation 4.
Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown represents a chance to revive the franchise. Considering the game’s name in Japan is literally Virtua Fighter Esports, they aren’t exactly sheepish with their intentions. As a result, Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is disappointingly barebones outside the core fighting experience, which might prove a hurdle for newcomers expecting the expansive suite Tekken 7 and Mortal Kombat 11 Ultimate offer.
Virtua Fighter 5's mechanics are still worth giving a spin (Picture: Sega)
The fact it’s a freebie for PlayStation Plus subscribers for the next two months, selling for £24.99 after that with DLC, does negate some criticism. Even then however, it’s hard to forgive the removal of features present in Virtua Fighter 5, like quest mode. For single players, there’s only Arcade mode and training tutorials, which are downplayed towards the bottom of the menu underneath the game’s clear focus point, online multiplayer.
You can play in ranked matches or create rooms to spectate or compete in tournaments. Online play is smooth and stable at launch, yet considering their esport ambitions, it’s baffling Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown doesn’t have rollback netcode — something that’s become necessary as many tournaments remain online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All 19 fighters are unique and well balanced (Picture: Sega)
For all the oversights, it’s hard to argue with Virtua Fighter 5’s core appeal. Each of the game’s 19 characters has distinctive movesets which are remarkably balanced across the board thanks to years of refinement. It makes for consistently intense matches where you never feel wronged by spam tactics, giving every win enormous gratification for the skill needed to outwit and outmanoeuvre opponents.
Graphically, the game holds up too. There’s an endearing throwback quality to the presentation as a whole, even with modern refinements. The sound effects and voiceovers especially sound like they’ve been pulled from the 90s, with loud slaps, spanks and thuds making each connected hit land with a comic effect unique to it's arcade origins.
If Virtua Fighter’s future depends on Ultimate Showdown's success, this barebones revitalisation might be too thin to have long-term impact. With few modes and a basic approach to online, this feels like a quick fix to get Virtua Fighter back into the FGC spotlight. If you’re after a fighter with significant brains however, the incredible mechanics might be enough to rope you in.
Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is available on PlayStation 4. PS Plus subscribers can download the title for free over the next two months.