The common idea of a martial arts hero is a rigidly moral person being endowed with strengths and abilities beyond the reach of a normal human. They can present bodies of dozens of foes they single-handedly defeated, and despite their painful and probably fatal wounds they still stand. Sometimes they possess comic book-like powers, leaping or falling from incredible heights. For most westerners, the mass media has provided exposure to this mystical Asian fantasy, most notably in film. The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most recent example, but everything from Tsui Harks historical epic movies to John Woos bullet ballet noir also offer romantic, exotic and stark glimpses into the mentality of a martial artist.
Video games, a mutant strain of entertainment that have only recently found their legging in the mainstream, also add to the mystique of the martial arts superhero. Fighting games have become a significant genre since Street Fighter II, which featured high-flying, fireball throwing men and women from all over the world. This genre calls for performing special moves that unleash great power and defy natural physics, all of which require arcane movements from the joystick and buttons. Over the years, these games and the gameplay that defines them grew to feature more a more exaggerated style that makes them less believable then before.
In 1993, Yu Suzuki released Virtua Fighter, which was the first fighting game to feature fighters designed with 3D polygons. The game restricted movement to a 2D plane, and the polygons lacked textures but were smoothly animated. It had no fireballs. Nobody could do upside-down spinning kicks or flash kicks. There wasnt even any blood. Since then, the series has evolved using this template of pure martial arts fighting. In its two sequels, the games had graphic overhauls, deeper and sometimes more experimental gameplay (sometimes not so successful, like Virtua Fighter 3s evade button) and extra moves to characters that were already balanced.
Virtua Fighter 4 is the latest in the series evolution, and it is the deepest, most beautiful and most balanced of the series, and maybe of the entire 3D fighting genre. The game focuses on one-on-one martial arts matches achieving victory by knocking the opponent out cold or out of the ring. Like the first two installments, it features a single-directional input for the D-pad and a punch, kick and guard button, eschewing the previously mentioned evade button (the feature is still in the game though). The game features 11 of the characters from Virtua Fighter 3 (minus Taka Arashi, the sumo wrestler) and two new fighters: an African-American street fighting female named Vanessa and Lei-Fei, your archetype Shaolin monk, complete with Gordon Liu looks.
The learning curve is easy enough for a beginner, but the depths one can go to mastering this game are nearly endless. The game features three different training modes. Command training lets you try out the moves of each character, giving advice along the way to perform it correctly. Free training is a standard training mode, allowing you to customize your dummy partner to suit whatever you feel like practicing. But learning all the special moves can only get you so far in this game. Trial training mode features different trials to learn advanced techniques. Some techniques are indispensable, like the evade (which calls for pressing up or down just as the opponents attack begins), and some call for virtuoso finger gymnastics on the controller, like the "guard-throw-evade," which allows you to evade an attack, and guard or evade a possible subsequent attack or throw. Throw the concept of high, middle and low attacks and their rock-paper-scissors relationship amongst other things and you can see why this series have had literally volumes written about the gameplay. A strategy guide on Gamefaqs.com only for Akira Yuki, the Virtua Fighter poster boy, goes up to 101 pages.
The arcade mode is standard and presents little challenge or value. Kumite mode is where the true single-player experience begins. You start with a fighter, give him a name and throw him into an endless sea of artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled fighters with their own names and unique looks. The memory card saves your every win and loss, along with every move you make. When you meet some certain circumstances, you will encounter a ranking match. Winning it will advance you through ten ranks of "kyu," then ten ranks of the relentless "dan" level, and on towards more grandiose and eccentric titles, like "Subjugator" and "Dragonlord." This mode is among the most profound ways to increase your skill level. As you gain rank, you do not gain new moves or have any increase in statistics. Instead, your rewards are purely cosmetic. Vanessa can wear a beret or have an assault rifle on her back, while Akira can have a bunny on his shoulder. It mimics the experience of an arcade challenge by presenting something at stake by the result, for if you lose you can lose rank or even gain an embarrassing reward, such as the aforementioned bunny. The only other thing noticeable as you plow your way through is your increase in skill, thanks to the punishing AI. It learns your patterns and responds to them accordingly. It isnt superhuman in that it blocks or reverses your every move, but its timing is impeccableas apparent as when you realize the computer-controlled Akira can flawlessly perform his most difficult moves. And that is where the heart of the gameplay lies. Most of the moves are relatively simply to pull off given that your timing is accurate. Playing the game becomes akin to a rhythm game. After mastering Jacky, the Jeet Kune Do fighter, I turned the games music off and performed poorly. I realized that the rhythm of my movements were off without the music. I trained with the music, and the music, unfortunately, had become part of the state of mind I must be in to play the game well.
The game also mimics what a real life fight might entail. A martial arts "simulator" such as this begs the question, "Would all of this really work in real life?" The answer lies within the game. If you only have a slight handle on the basics of your art, a person who has no grasp of martial arts can easily overwhelm you with unpredictable movements. That person would be the gaming equivalent of a button-masher. Its possible to lose against a button masher if your skill is limited. However, mastering your character will reward you in easily dispatching a button masher. Its that level of competition that drives a player towards mastery of this game. And if two skilled fighters engage, the bout becomes akin to a fencing match, which is a game of expectations and reaction.
Barely worth mentioning, the game features an AI system that lets you to train and develop your own AI fighter and pit it against the computer or other customized AI fighters. You can train it by teaching it moves, sparring with it or having it watch replays while you judge what is good or bad to do. More of a novelty mode than anything else, it is something to do with friends when youve absolutely exhausted the rest of the game, which wont be for a long time thanks to the kumite and versus modes.
The graphics are stellar and a definite crowd-pleaser. Running at 60 fps, each character is huge and has detailed textures right down to their shoelaces. Seeing Lei Fei or drunken master Shun Di perform their moves with life-like coordination is jaw dropping, as are some of the special effects in the arenas. The arenas are either open, closed or have breakable walls, and feature weather and lighting effects. The palace level has players fight in ankle-deep water, splashing and rippling with a life of its own. Another has fighters knee-deep in snow, and as the fight commences their marks are made through the snow.
The sound department isnt as impressive. The voice acting is as bad as they come (Quoth the Wolf: "Did you feel the real power? Go back to school."), and the music is your typical arena synth-rock. The sound effects are recycled from previous games, but are appropriate. Some standouts are the bone-crunching sounds Vanessa makes as she pummels your limbs.
Nary a negative thing can be said about this game. If anything, the AI mode takes up valuable memory that couldve been used for more rewards in Kumite mode. The game is a gorgeous and perfectly balanced game where no fighter is better than another is. Kumite mode helps define this game as purely skill-driven, but its simplistic controls make it accessible to anybody. More than any other game, Virtua Fighter 4 lives up to its "simulator" label by exemplifying the struggles of a martial artist through its depth and addictive Kumite mode. Its inhibition in violence and gimmickry sharply contrasts the far-reaching depths of its gameplay. The game is significant enough to present yet another angle at the mystical world of the martial artist fantasy, doing honor to its source material.