Posted on : 30-11-2010 | By : Cacophanus | In : Reviews
Back in 1995, SEGA were pretty much surfing the crest of success when it came to arcade games. With hardware that antiquated its competitors, the then new Model 2 boards were host to a slew of very impressive games. However, one game in particular wasn’t intended to be just eye candy. A small team at AM3 had ambitions for something more functionally complex and involved. To the extent they wanted to distill the core of real robot mecha combat and make that accessible to gamers at large.
The game they birthed was Virtual On and it was a milestone in many ways, from the use of a twinstick control setup to the innovative dashing focused combat. There are few games in the mecha pantheon that have defined so many that have followed in their wake. Even less that have influenced games outside of the mecha genre, to the point of distilling functional elements that many gamers now take for granted. Virtual On was and still remains to this day a very important game as without it many subsequent mecha games simply wouldn’t exist.
Like most enduring mecha games, Virtual On approached the mythos from a distinct functional standpoint; that of the lateral movement seen in most anime based mecha dogfights of the era and then built a rigid game system around that. One that distilled the sense of positional importance when massive bipedal mecha square off.
Virtual On’s functional premise was fundamentally quite simple; a fully three dimensional closed arena versus shooter with giant mecha that use fixed length directional dashes to move around. The dashing element was key though, as it acted as the glue that linked the ranged combat with melee. As you’d stitch dashes together to engage with your opponent. At the end of each dash attack you’d suffer a tiny period of immobility before you could move again. One of the main tactical elements this brought to the game was how players could out think their enemy so that they’d end up prone during the sweet spot of your dash attack, or at the very least end up within melee range when they were at their most vulnerable. All this conspired to produce a very engaging and intense multiplayer arcade game, that quickly found an eager fanbase of gamers to pit their skills against one another.
One of the most shrewd and wonderful decisions for the game was how it chose to use a set of twin sticks for its controls. Whilst a simple joystick and buttons would have sufficed what the twinsticks brought, bar a nascent nod to mecha fans, was the fact that the importance of piloting any mecha would be consistency of input. The sticks were actually borne from the intense and repeated directional inputs, as well as jumping and crouching, that needed precise and above all easily consistent inputs from any player. A normal single joystick and buttons would have slowed the game down in terms of the repeated inputs and utterly crippled the player with cramp.
This was in stark contrast to games like Cyber Sled, released two years prior, where the sticks were there to basically create a simple tank simulator. Whilst comparisons were often made against Namco’s arcade arena shooter, it’s worth remembering it lacked any form of dashing, close combat and even an orbiting lock-on. Virtual On’s use of twinsticks was far more involved and complex by comparison, which was hardly surprising considering that the mecha in question were wholly imaginary and as such far more of a challenge to construct a coherent game around.
Yet that is what Juro Watari and his team did. Toiling right up and until literally the last minute with balancing, tweaking and fixing bugs, they managed to birth a game that has acted like a functional beacon for mecha gaming ever since. To get a feel for the influence the original Virtual On had on gaming; titles such as Zone of the Enders simply wouldn’t exist nor would From Software’s Another Century’s Episode games either. Their respective core mechanics rely heavily on the growndwork Virtual On laid in the mid-nineties. From the circle strafing close combat copied in Zone of the Enders, to the ranged boosting attacks seen in Another Century’s Episode. Even broader gaming mechanics such as the “Z-targeting” in Zelda Ocarina of Time owe a lot to Virtual On’s use of a similarly orbiting lock-on system for melee (bearing in mind that Virtual On pre-dated Ocarina of Time by three years too). As with many innovative games, Virtual On’s reach across the medium has been extensive but somewhat unnoticed by the general gaming throng.
So in summation; Virtual On defined a panoply of distinct ranged and melee based rulesets linked with a coherent dashing system. Merging effectively two disparate games into a brilliantly new whole. It has subsequently influenced mecha gaming in ways that the genre now actively takes for granted. That makes it so very special indeed.
The following review is for the arcade version of Virtual On but the video shown is from the, admittedly arcade perfect, SEGA AGES PS2 port.