Virtua Fighter is the Beck of the gaming world. Adored by critics and shouted about by its fans, but virtually inaccessible to newcomers. It's never reached a wide audience like Street Fighter or Tekken, but now Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown has dropped the cost of entry to just £9.99/$14.99 there is no excuse for fight fans not to step into the ring.
Game historians know the series' story. The first fighting game to use polygons all the way back in 1993, for all its vaunted complexity it just uses eight directions and three buttons — punch, kick and guard, though a fourth 'evade' button was temporarily introduced for Virtua Fighter 3. Like all the best fighting games, a button-bashing newcomer will always lose to a skilled veteran, though progressing from one to the other takes a big investment of time and attention.
Helping to speed up that process in VF5FS is a set of new training modes. While the standard free and command training modes are here to let you improvise or learn your character's moves, there's a new beginner's tutorial that takes you through the basics: throw escapes, evading and more. It's a good start and sure to be a welcome resource for newcomers to return to, but it's not quite the full package: there's no mention of guaranteed throw moves, evading throw escapes, sabakis or other high-level Virtua Fighter concepts. To be truthful, most players won't miss them and those that do aren't short of expert resources online. There's also an excellent training mode in PS2 Classic Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, available for about £7.99 through PSN.
If you've mastered the basics but you're not ready for online competition, there're several single-player modes to make it through. Arcade is a standard series of fights, culminating in a boss, and score attack brings points into play, but it's the licence challenge that will likely last you longest. Each block of challenges either asks you to implement something you've learnt — use three offensive moves to win, don't let your opponent evade six strikes — or introduces special rules, like playing in half gravity or winning with Shun-Di's drink meter at 0. As you clear stages your grade improves, but this isn't displayed anywhere other than licence mode, so think of it as an extensive training tool rather than a way to strike fear into your opponents.
VF5FS's biggest draw is its online play, brand new to PS3; Virtua Fighter 5 on Xbox 360 came with rudimentary online play, but it wasn't very good. PS3 supports ranking and player matches, with up to eight friends able to play each other and watch matches in progress. Play against someone from your region and your experience will likely be smooth, lag-free and highly enjoyable; come up against a spot of lag, though, and you'll encounter real difficulties getting through the match rage-free. VF5 requires equal parts reaction and planning, and even slight latency makes the game unplayable. Stick to regional matches and you'll do great.
VF has never been about the biggest roster and Final Showdown's roster of 19 fighters looks paltry next to Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition's 39, but it's got variety on its side, and there's arguably no fat on its muscle. While other fighting series offer rosters of similar fighters with slight differences, no VF character plays like any other, with fighting styles ranging from drunken kung-fu to professional wrestling and everything in between. Matches between skilled players are delicately balanced, whether it's series staple Akira versus returning sumo champion Taka-Arashi or energetic luchador El Blaze (with his baffling trademark cry of "hot dog!") against nondescript newbie, karateka Jean Kujo.
All characters have enough new moves, animations and reworked combos and options to make sitting down with an old favourite interesting yet familiar enough to feel comfortable. For instance, Sarah (this reviewer's main choice) has gained some new pokes at the loss of combo and throw options from her flamingo stance, but inputs for her powerful Sweet Pain throw have been simplified. Tiny details like this might mean nothing to VF first-timers, but the series is about constant refinement, not radical overhauls, and Final Showdown is the culmination of VF5's development. It's not enough to be called Virtua Fighter 6, but it represents over five years of changes since the original VF5 hit arcades.
All this for £9.99/$14.99 sounds like incredible value, and it is. What used to cost £40 on Blu-ray is now a fraction of that price, with hundreds of small improvements. However, the price of entry doesn't get you everything VF5FS has to offer, so let us explain the DLC situation.
If you want to customise your character's appearance, you have to buy DLC — there's absolutely no character customisation included in the standalone game. You can buy individual packs for £3.69, two sets of character bundles for £9.99 each or the game and DLC all in one go for £19.99. You won't be able to see custom characters of people you play against online unless you buy that character's DLC pack, and people won't see your El Blaze in his Samba De Amigo gear unless they've bought his pack.
Buying all the DLC might seem expensive, but it also unlocks a special sparring mode, which puts you against customised characters one after the other. It's nowhere near the depth of past games' Quest modes, but it expands the single-player offering and provides a constant conveyor belt of weird and wonderful customisations. SEGA fans will get a kick out of seeing fighters dressed as classic characters — Sarah has an Ulala costume, complete with headset and a special blasters pose — but it's by no means essential to your satisfaction.
Ultimately your enjoyment of VF5FS comes down to how much you want to get out of its fighting system. If you're perfectly happy playing some casual matches online your £9.99 won't go to waste, but VF5 has much more to give to players who can dedicate the time and effort to learning its intricacies. The series' nickname of "speed chess" holds more meaning the more you get into it: expert players plan strategies several moves in advance, taking into account their opponents' possible reactions. It's complex and a true test of dexterity, but astonishingly satisfying when things fall into place.
At £9.99/$14.99, there's no excuse for fighting fans not to try Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown. Intricate and occasionally obtuse though it may be, it's also wonderfully balanced and endlessly varied; those who get past its initial barriers rarely go back. One of the world's best fighting games at this price should not be missed.