There’s currently some pretty slim pickings for fans of 3D arena fighters. Tekken 7 has carried the competitive scene for years now, while SoulCalibur VI maintains its air of flashy appeal. Both games are fuelled by long-running nostalgia, but neither title would be where they are if it weren’t for the grandfather of 3D fighters – Virtua Fighter.
Sega’s fighting series first hit the scene in 1993, and it immediately exploded in popularity. There was a wave of regular and consistently refined entries in the series until 2006, when Virtua Fighter 5 first came out. The series has been in stasis since then, with the exception of some recent cameos in Dead Or Alive and re-releases of that fifth mainline entry. Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is the latest of these, bringing the competitive king of fighters to the PlayStation 4 in hopes of establishing a renewed competitive scene.
That focus on turning Virtua Fighter 5 into a modern esports giant is worn on the sleeve of this re-release – it’s literally called “Virtua Fighter eSports” in Japan, for one. They’re clearly prioritising the PvP aspect of the game with this release, as online modes are at the forefront and full of polish. You’ve got easy-to-access 16-player lobbies with slick spectator options like real-time match viewing and live sticker-chat reactions. There’s also a slew of bracket and tournament options to mess with in order to craft your ideal tourny setup.
While this esports-focused release disappointingly lacks rollback netcode, the existing online code used to fuel matchmaking in this release is still solid and reliable. I’ve had a small handful of matches where lag reared it’s head, but for the most part my experience online has been smooth.
The offline experience in Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown, though, is severely lacking. Prior version of this game featured single-player content like Quest Mode, Time Attack, Survival, and Combo Trials – none of these return for the PlayStation 4 iteration. You have access to a quick and basic Arcade Mode, as well as solid Training and Tutorial modes, but that’s it.
Even the hefty and silly costume customisation feature of prior entries has been stripped down. You can no longer unlock a bevy of silly crossover costumes or new hairstyles and accessories for your character. Instead, each character is given three different outfit sets sprinkled with some coloyr variants to customise. It’s usually easy to look past a fighter with slim single-player options, but when these are options and modes that existed in previous versions of the game, it’s hard not to be upset about them disappearing.
A lot of work has gone into making Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown stack up visually with modern fighters. Despite being a 15-year-old video game, Ryu Ga Gotoku studio has done an incredible job at polishing the package and giving it a fresh coat of paint. The entire game has been ported into the Dragon Engine that fuels the modern Yakuza and Judgement games, and the port to that new engine comes with incredibly beautiful new lighting and shadow effects. The neon-filled stages and flashy hit effects are totally gorgeous.
Character models have been updated too, but not consistently. Some characters have gorgeous new textures and sharpened models, while other characters look like they got plucked right out of the PlayStation 3 version of the game. Still, when the fights are happening and characters are throwing down, the fluid animations and sharp post-processing effects more than make up for the slightly clunkier character models.
For as much work as Ryu Ga Gotoku studio put into updating the visuals, though, they made sure to be as hands-off with the combat and gameplay as possible. Virtua Fighter 5 feels and moves exactly like it always has – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The simple to grasp and hard to master three-button combat system of the series has always been a perfect mix of arcade simplicity and competitive depth. Tekken 7 is full of flashy, crunchy attacks and explosive combos, but Virtua Fighter 5 maintains a consistent pace with attacks and throws that carry a far more realistic momentum and weight to them.
Lucha fighter El Blaze has quick hops and kicks that transition into tight repositioning movements, while sumo practitioner Taka-Arashi is so large and heavy that attacks and throws straight-up work differently on him. It’s easy to pick a fighter and mess around light-heartedly, but there’s still a huge amount of depth to Virtua Fighter 5 that really does make it a strong case for the esports scene.
There’s plenty of love for the DNA of Virtua Fighter here, beyond the dedication to maintaining its classic combat mechanics and feel, so long as you buy the Legendary Pack DLC. As much as the visuals have been upgraded, you can purposefully swap character models to chunky polygonal old-school versions whenever you want. Voice lines for each character have remain unchanged too, leading to English-speaking fighters like Sarah sounding just as charmingly clunky as she did in the old-school arcades. You can even swap the music playing during battles to any track from any prior Virtua Fighter game – yes, even Virtua Fighter Kids. It may not seem like it due to the axing of so many single-player modes and customization options, but Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is still absolutely dedicated to remaining faithful to what Virtua Fighter is all about.