Why Virtua Fighter is like Magic: the Gathering

Ah, finally some new games to make that $600 PlayStation 3 purchase worth it! … Or maybe not.

F1 Championship Edition is pretty meh. Like a lot of racing games it does a terrible job of bringing you up to speed if you aren’t already a racing fan, but the racing parts themselves are okay. Graphics aren’t wowzers or anything. Mostly I thought the physics of the cars were off. It didn’t give a good sense of the mass of the cars; they moved too smoothly and appear to be almost floating on the road. So F1 fans can bite; otherwise wait for Motorstorm and Gran Turismo 5.

Vf_1 The bigger release is Virtua Fighter 5. The fighter looks great (though on closeups before and after matches some of the bare-chested guys’ bare chests look like single pieces of plastic — hello Jar Jar Problem). As a pure fighting game it seems deep and challenging.

And I think it will do absolutely nothing to grow the fighting game audience. It’s already pretty much lost me.

I started out by training with one character to try to get some of the moves down. I could pull most of them off, though some of the ones where you need to tap the d-pad multiple times are tricky. After 10 to 15 minutes, I went to an actual match. And I immediately forgot 99 percent of the moves I just practiced — because in the course of 15 minutes, I had only practiced each move once. That’s right: El Blaze has 70 moves. 70! Multiply that by 17 characters, and there’s a steep, steep learning curve to this game.

In his IGN review, Jeremy Dunham says attitudes like that are responsible for Virtua Fighter’s relative obscurity:

It’s a popular misconception among the press that Virtua Fighter’s mechanics are too complicated for the laymen. That’s a myth. What makes VF so compelling is that it’s as multifaceted as you allow it to be. Two beginners can hook up and execute a minutia of combos with fairly little knowledge of the system, but pit those same players against an expert, and they’ll see things they never thought possible. Therein lies the stumbling block of the media’s (and as a result, the uninformed public’s) view of Virtua Fighter — a depth of gameplay that rewards skill is misinterpreted as “too complex” for general audiences. Hell, I’m no pro myself but I can still see how brilliant the system is from the very start.

Two beginners can execute a minutia of combos all right — by pure button mashing. Pressing buttons haphazardly because there are so many moves and combos as to be overwhelming isn’t my idea of newbie-friendly. It may be a brilliant system, but it’s one that clearly requires tons of time to get into. I bought Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution for PlayStation 2 at some point because I had read how great it was, the best fighter ever, only $20, etc. I played for about half an hour and then gave up for the same reason.

Here’s the thing. This is going to sound weird, impolite, and hypocritical, but I think fighting games like this are a turnoff to the general gamer not only because of their complexity but because fully appreciating that complexity — by spending the time and memorizing all those moves — seems, in a word, nerdy. It feels like obsessing over and learning thousands of Magic: the Gathering cards in 10th grade.

Back in the day when Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat (up to MK 3, maybe) filled arcades, the games were easy enough that anyone could learn a couple characters’ moves. You would get smacked if all you could do was Ryu’s fireball and the dragon punch from one side, but at least you were doing some of the moves. And the same motions pulled off moves for multiple characters. But once Tekken and Virtua Fighter came on the scene, fighting games became more about hardcore players who learn 70 freaking moves for a dozen or more characters.

Also, when Street Fighter II and MK came out (’91 and ’92), the gaming audience was still relatively young. I was 11 and 12; most people filling the arcades were my age or at most in high school. That’s the age when the Guy’s Rain Man Gene is most powerful. When I was younger, I memorized tons of baseball cards, Magic cards, superhero origins, video game moves and codes, Simpsons quotes, sports stats, that sort of thing. Now if I’m going to take up that much room in my brain, it’ll be for the ins and outs of First Amendment law or something, um, worthwhile like that.

Look, obviously I’m a huge dork. I love video games; I still unintentionally memorize way too much “useless” pop culture information; I’m in a fantasy baseball league. But even I have my limits. And if I think the obsession and memorization required for getting even slightly into Virtua Fighter 5 is too much, just imagine how the average adult would feel.

— February 21, 2007

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