‘Virtua Fighter’ no frills, all thrills

The “Virtua Fighter” series is the grandfather of 3-D fighting games, but despite critical acclaim, its popularity has been surpassed by flashier games like “Tekken” and “Soul Calibur.” The latest installment of the series, “Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown,” is the best one yet. Though it may lack the electric fists and karate-fighting bears of its rivals, the sheer perfection of its combat system quietly demands your attention.

People often make jokes about fighting game storylines. After all, who cares why people from around the world have come together to beat each other up? It’s all about the fighting anyway. The “Virtua Fighter” series does nothing to refute that argument. Not only is there no story mode, you aren’t even rewarded for beating the boss with an ending. The presentation is a little rough around the edges, with unremarkable character designs, forgettable music, and voice acting bad enough to elicit winces out of anyone in earshot. I would recommend playing the game on mute, but then you’d miss out on the endearing ‘70s kung fu movie sound effects the game attaches to every punch and kick.

What “Virtua Fighter” lacks in style, it makes up for with substance. “Virtua Fighter” has always had some of the most rhythmic, refined, and strategic combat in the genre, and “Final Showdown” adds yet another layer of polish on top. There are also two new characters, the silver-haired pretty-boy karate master Jean Kujo, who hits like a freight train full of meteors, and Taka-Arashi, an enormous sumo wrestler. Taka’s every movement is slow and heavy, and when the other characters try to toss him around they visibly struggle to lift his weight. This eye for realistic detail makes up for a lack of projectiles and super moves found in other games and gives the series its signature look. Though many of the characters look a bit generic, all of the hard-hitting fighting styles in the game are based off of real martial arts, and feature some of the best animation in all of gaming.

The core gameplay hasn’t changed much over the years. Imagine a game of rock paper scissors, where attack beats grapple, grapple beats guard, and guard beats attack. Now imagine that each character has dozens of different attacks, stances, counter moves, and character-specific abilities, and you’ll begin to see the complexity of “Virtua Fighter’s” combat. Despite the sheer amount of action going on, the simple control scheme and relatively easy-to-pull off attacks means that when you lose, it’s not because you messed up the motion to a super move, but because you failed to guess what your opponent’s next move would be. “Virtua Fighter” is the rare fighting game where you actually feel like you’re learning from each victory and defeat.

“Final Showdown’s” Dojo mode returns to teach new players advanced maneuvers like offensive evades and the many ways one can recover after being knocked to the ground by a boot to the face. It’s not the best tutorial mode in the series’ history, but in an era when fighting games usually provide the player with nothing more than a list of combos to complete, “Final Showdown’s” attempt to replace button mashing with higher learning is admirable.

Conspicuously absent from “Final Showdown” is the series’ much-lauded Quest mode, in which players travel from one area to the next, roughing up computer opponents and fulfilling various challenges and tournaments. Without this feature, the single-player experience is weak, but the smooth online Versus modes mean that you should be too busy filling up your fight card with real opponents to worry about duking out it out with the computer anyway.

At a mere $15 dollar price, “Final Showdown” is a steal, but only if you aren’t interested in the cosmetic character customization options. Each of the game’s twenty characters has dozens of hats, hairstyles, and wacky accessories to spice up their look, but playing fashionista won’t be cheap. Unless you buy the special edition of the game, each character’s customization options are five dollars extra. They say beauty is pain, but your wallet will be screaming if you don’t keep your need to accessorize in check.

It may not be the coolest cat in the ring, but “Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown” impresses with slick animations, complex and rewarding gameplay, and realistic martial arts techniques. If you’re tired of fighting games where your opponent can pelt you with lasers and fireballs from across the screen, “Virtua Fighter” might be just what the sensei ordered.