The console version, meanwhile, has remained abandoned for those five years. This long-awaited digital release, appropriately titled Virtua Figher 5 Final Showdown, gives console owners Sega AM2's years of hard work on their flagship title all at once for a pittance of $15 on the XBLA and PSN. (PSN+ members get it for free this month.)
What's new this time around? Most apparent are two additions to the roster: Taka-Arashi, a slow, bone-crushing sumo who has been missing since Virtua Fighter 3, and Jean Kujo, a hulking karate practitioner who specializes in single, massive strikes. This brings the roster to 20 unique martial artists, including the comically overpowered (and banned for competition) boss character Dural.
The graphics, while certainly dated in 2012, have been cleaned up quite a bit over the years. Animations have been redone almost across the board: even attacks whose functions haven't changed have been re-animated from scratch, just to give them more physical immediacy and impact. For example, interactions with the massive Taka are all animated differently to reflect the sumo's weight: most characters strain to lift him. This is by no means a martial arts simulator, but it's committed to its own reality.
While the arenas remain flat and squared-off, the environments have changed size and layout: some stages are walled in one round but pop open for ring-out shenanigans in the next. Most interesting of the new additions are narrow hallways that leave close to no breathing room between the combatants and the potentially deadly wall.
Though it's not nearly as intimidating as its inflated reputation suggests, this is a heavy, serious fighting game with great wells of complexity and tactics. As such, the highly praised tutorial mode last seen in Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution (and skipped in the original VF5) has made a return. Though not as in-depth as the textbook-length, character-specific guide seen in VF4, Final Showdown provides a briskly paced and interactive tutorial. Expect a tour of genre concepts so basic they're universal to all games (see also Skullgirls' tutorial) and tactics so advanced and specific (like fuzzy guarding and option selects, oh my!) that no other fighting game tutorial has ever bothered to cover them.
The popular single-player Quest mode from previous titles has been replaced by "License Challenge," which drops the player into a series of matches that must be won in a row, while fulfilling some specific objective like "get two counter hits!" They're meant to be lessons in the basic systems, but most of the objectives are neither edifying nor exciting ... putting aside, of course, the occasional battle fought with moon gravity.
There are many challenges to fight through, the difficulty scales up steadily and, unlike previous Virtua Fighter titles, the AI is a little too clever to succumb to the same move used over and over again. Unlike the old Quest mode, it will take a truly tough player to work their way up to the top rank. That said, as all costume items are no longer unlockable and are now paid DLC, there is little to show for taking on this considerable challenge.
Online play, which was already strong in the earlier Xbox 360 version, has been expanded with the amenities we expect from modern fighting games. Private rooms, arcade-style winner-stays "quarter lines" and of course the ranked online ladder are all present. We tested online play both cross-country (NYC to CA) and locally: cross-country play was mostly smooth with occasional hiccups, and fighting a local player felt like they were there in the room.
The last bit in particular gives some pause. Shouldn't somebody have said something about this before release? Sega actually had a contest to name the CPU opponents you fight in Special Sparring mode, and certainly a lot of fans must have signed up thinking "I'll be in the game!" Slapping an additional $30 on that small, personal thrill is going to leave a bad taste in many mouths. Sega has cited file size limits on XBLA and PSN (the game clocks in at just under 2GB, all of the DLC costumes total a hefty 4 gigs), but why then deny a player the small excitement of seeing "their" character on the screen, if only in a plain default outfit?
How's it hold up? Fighting games are designed to stay fun five or even ten years down the line, which is exactly why upgrades like these are considered inevitable in the genre. Counting its arcade tenure, Final Showdown is actually two years old already. Let's say it's been aged.
A new fighting game is necessarily a work in progress: sometimes, as with recent Capcom titles, they can even feel like the player is beta-testing for the developer. On the other end, an old soldier like Final Showdown is not just a comlpleted game but a matured one, tuned, tweaked and settled from its original version. Some bulkier systems from the older game (like throwing) have been streamlined for greater accessibility. If an idea didn't work in the old game, it's out. Character move lists have been extensively reworked, and feel more complete now. Trim the fat, add carefully: that's the design philosophy that makes a 2006 game just as engaging and relevant as the 2012 crop.
Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown is a fighting game about the genre's most basic elements. Even the Street Fighter fireball is beyond its scope. Its floaty juggle combos don't go on for hours like Tekken's, and you won't find the swords and explosions of SoulCalibur. VF concerns itself with two characters punching and kicking each other in close quarters, and it does so intimately. With just three buttons, it's a simple game, but it's also extremely deep, fast, flashy and brutal.
Though it doesn't have the same amount of single-player bells and whistles that might have gone into an on-disc release, this is the definitive 3D fighting game of the generation in a package that's perfect for the genre fan or competitively-minded player. At $15, it's a steal.
This Deja Review is based on a download of the Xbox 360 version of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown, provided by Sega.
David Cabrera is an arcade game obsessive residing in New York City, and a regular writer for Anime News Network, animeanime.jp, Colony Drop, Namako Team, and Otaku USA magazine. His personal project is the acclaimed Kawaiikochan gaming comic. His life's goal is an edgy Hollywood remake of same. Follow him on Twitter at @sasuraiger.