Real Talk By: Cmack The Don
I’m here with a review of a maybe forgotten but definitely not gone 90’s arcade hit: Virtual On.
Developed by Sega with participation from one of their in-house developers, AM-2 (famous for their work Virtua Fighter) in 1996, the first Virtual-On was an arcade success worldwide, spawning a 4-game series, plastic model sets, and even audio dramas that fill in or add to the game storyline.
People often say that the console is what killed the arcade game, with consoles being able to offer the same experience in the comfort of your own home without having to lug an unwashed sock full of quarters (or it could be old, gently worn undies, I won’t judge) to an arcade just to get clobbered by some pizza-faced punk that lives just to see you cry.
Sure, sounds reasonable, until you consider that Virtual-On offers with its arcade machine and set up a great interactive experience you can’t get on the home versions.
Yes, there is a Sega-Saturn iteration, Virtual-On: Operation Moongate, and a Dreamcast version (Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram) that come close, offering you peripherals that come close to the arcade experience, however they’re rare, expensive peripherals that can really only be used for that one game. So unless you’re a hardcore Virtual-On devotee, then the arcade is the only place you’ll be able to experience this game in its full glory.
Virtual-On is unique due to its double-joystick control system, with triggers and alternate fire on each stick, that when combined, can pull off unique movement combinations. The game is a round-based fighting game combined with the feel and mechanics of a vehicle simulator. Honestly, in arcades, I feel there’s not a whole lot else like it.
Virutal-On is all about movement and responsiveness, and the controls are quick, tight, and force you to have the kind of exact timing and reflexes that an actual mech pilot would need. There is a steep learning curve, and especially when playing against human opponents, the movement style and control format of this game can be frustrating. I know that I despite having fond memories of this game, when playing it again for the first time in probably over 13 years (that upcoming birthday is starting to sting, whoo lordy!), got absolutely wrecked by players who knew what they were doing, and I had to teach myself how to play all over again.
Once you spend enough time with it, and pick a machine that has a fighting style you can work with best, playing in matches becomes very satisfying, with the cabinet and controls really doing a lot to contribute to the experience. After all, if mechs actually existed with all those moving parts, you can’t expect to just be able to climb right in and start doing loop-de-loops and skywriting, it would take practice, like any other vehicle (although most other rides don’t have an atomic core, not sure what your whip is like).
Overall, Virtual-On is an excellent concept that I’ve yet to see get implemented into many other vehicle game types. A fighting game/vehicle simulator combination is a fantastic idea, I could see a Twisted Metal Arcade (which was apparently planned) or an Ace Combat machine being an excellent one-on-one experience, but things moved the way of the console, and investing the money to build a cabinet as complex as Virtual-On, never mind an update, probably would be difficult now, even with the resurgence in arcades with Barcades slowly becoming a fixture.
Until more are made like it though, it’s a unique experience with excellent graphics and sound for its time, with designs for the mechs made by longtime Gundam mech designer Hajime Katoki (who also designed mechs for the Hideo Kojima-helmed Policenauts). When a match gets heated, you really feel as if you’re piloting a mech, and considering that’s a type of vehicle and technology that doesn’t exist, that’s impressive!
For any fans of mech or Gundam anime, Virtual-On is a must play. I would also recommend it to fighting game fans, as the strategies of range and distance you would normally use in a Street Fighter type game still apply.
For providing an immersive experience that really embodies what arcades are supposed to be about
4 Out of 5
+A unique experience even by today’s standards
+Nice Mech Variety
-Controls aren’t for everyone