Though overshadowed in recent years by the more mainstream-friendly Tekken and Soulcalibur series’, Sega’s Virtua Fighter games have always held a special appeal to fans of cerebral fighting games. Whereas the upcoming Tekken Tag Tournament 2 boasts over 50 fighters, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown includes a mere 20, yet the downloadable Xbox Live Arcade/PlayStation Network fighter contains almost endless amounts of replayability owing primarily to the fact that every martial artist is intensely unique and brings with him or her a vast depth of attacks, counter attacks and defensive maneuvers. Like previous Virtua Fighter titles, Final Showdown includes a simple three-button control scheme which both makes the series accessible to new players and ensures that fights often come down to which combatant has a more complete grasp of the myriad tactical possibilities offered by his or her chosen fighter — each of whom requires literal months of play to master.
As its title suggests, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is the ultimate iteration of Virtua Fighter 5, a game that first saw arcades way back in July 2006. Version B of this game was released on the PlayStation 3 to coincide with the system’s launch, and an updated Version C of the game hit the Xbox 360 on February 2007 as Virtua Fighter 5 Online. Since that time Japanese arcades have seen two substantial updates of Virtua Fighter 5 (Virtua Fighter 5 R in 2009 and Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown in 2010) while American gamers were largely left out of the action. Sega has finally seen fit to conclude the series with the new downloadable versions of Final Showdown, and while they drop a key feature of the earlier Virtua Fighter 5 home releases, these are still the most complete, engaging Virtua Fighter titles to date.
In their earlier console incarnations, both Virtua Fighter 5 titles included an intensely in-depth gameplay mode that tasked players with virtually touring Japanese arcades, competing against computer-controlled characters who had been programmed with the tendencies and play styles of top Japanese Virtua Fighter players. By beating these fighters players both honed their skills and earned new unlockable character customization options. In total every character could accrue more than 100 miscellaneous items that allowed players to alter their aesthetics in amusing ways. It was never the key focus of the game, but it offered substantial impetus for playing through these faux arcades dozens of times over in an effort to trick out your character’s appearance as completely as possible. Likewise, your character would gain ranks as he or she defeated increasingly stronger opponents. These new titles were largely superficial, but again, they served as a viable reason to keep playing, and at the time this level of replayability was almost unheard of in a fighting game.
Unfortunately, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown ditches these virtual arcades almost completely. All those customization items are available to players from the start (assuming you’re willing to fork over cash to download each fighter’s complete wardrobes — all told, an additional $20 will give you access to everything), and those meticulously programmed AI characters are all found in the game’s simple offline battle mode. Those who play Virtua Fighter 5 purely for online battles will appreciate this streamlining of the game, but it does strip away a solid chunk of the game’s offline replayability.
Then again, almost everything in Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown seems designed to push players toward online combat. The ranking system I mentioned above still applies to online battles, and with its netcode drastically improved over prior console releases, the vast majority of a player’s time in Final Showdown will be spent punching foes over the ‘net. Arcade and offline battles exist, but realistically they serve as little more than training for the online experience.
Though the offline experience seems a bit neutered in this incarnation of the game, the basic tenets of Virtua Fighter 5 have never been more refined. Final Showdown includes every character to ever appear in Sega’s series, all of whom boast more moves than ever before. Given that Virtua Fighter 5 has been in existence in one form or another for most of the past decade, the game’s development team has had an immense amount of time to playtest and tweak this game, and it shows. Every character is immaculately balanced, given his or her role in the title (wrestler Wolf is a huge lumbering mound of muscle who hits like a tank, while the diminutive Eileen must rely on quick reflexes and acrobatic dodging to best her foes), and there are almost no attacks that could be deemed “cheap.” Though the game relies on a relatively simple “rock, paper, scissors” system for attacks and counterattacks, every character has such a wealth of options that discovering novel new ways to punish opponents who rely too heavily on a single attack is truly entertaining and addictive.
Owing to its age, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown can’t stand toe to toe with recent fighters for aesthetics and sound, but then again this is a title originally released during the second Bush presidency. For that time period it looks utterly gorgeous, but in 2012 it lags behind Soulcalibur V and Capcom’s latest 2D fighters. Then again, outside of the first Virtua Fighter, which wowed critics by being one of the few games of the time to employ polygonal characters, the series has rarely been about wowing players with its superficial packaging. Moreso than any other fighter available, Sega’s series is defined by a “substance over style” design philosophy that might turn off those gamers who judge virtual pugilism purely by its potential to cause epileptic seizures, but should be a welcome change of pace for those who crave strategy and technical depth.
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is a game designed with the hardcore fighting game fan in mind; it relies not on flashy, stylized bombast, but instead on interesting gameplay mechanics and nearly infinite depth to appeal to players. Assuming you know that going in, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is as excellent a fighting game as anything on the market today, and given its bargain $20 price tag, it should be a no-brainer purchase for anyone who enjoys throwing virtual punches.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sega)