Although hugely-popular in Japan, the mech combat genre has never really enjoyed anything more than a cult following elsewhere in the world. This, despite the best efforts of SEGA, who have probably done more than most over the years to give the genre a wider audience with their arcade-based Virtual On series.
For it’s Live Arcade debut, SEGA have chosen to remake the most-celebrated entry in the series; Cyber Troopers Virtual-On: Oratorio Tangram, originally a Model 3 coin-op which later appeared on the Dreamcast to much acclaim, although sadly not in Europe. This new version is based on the final (M.S.B.S. ver.5.66) incarnation which ran on the newer NAOMI arcade board and featured a number of tweaks and additions over the Dreamcast edition.
One of the more endearing qualities of SEGA’s arcade games from the Model 2/3 era was the superb look the games had – each title packed with a level of vibrancy and imagination, giving them an almost timeless quality. VO:OT was no different, and the strength of that excellent visual design comes shining through a decade later, requiring only a mild high definition makeover for it to retain it’s visual impact.
Despite their relative size, the elegant Virtuaroids that do battle one-on-one within the arenas are no clunky robots. They are in fact quite the opposite – responsive, very agile and move gracefully over land and air. They’re also packing some serious firepower, which makes for a fast-paced game.
The speed of the gameplay and the range of moves and attacks available actually makes VO:OT play a lot like a traditional martial arts fighting game. A lock-on system is employed when the opponent is in your field of vision so its very much a case of both players being constantly on the move, looking to counter and outwit the other into allowing a long-range shooting opportunity, or dashing in close to deliver the far more deadly melee attacks.
The single player structure of VO:OT also resembles a traditional fighting game, but in a similar fashion, its a game best played against another human. When paired with a similarly-skilled opponent, the full depth of the game can be explored and the ensuing battles can be every bit as intense and dramatic as any epic Street Fighter bouts you may have experienced. Also, with this version featuring online play, having someone to play with is just a few button presses away.
Despite all this praise, there’s no getting away from the fact that Virtual-On is designed to be played with a Twin Stick controller and that has always been a major stumbling block for previous home versions. However, even when played with just the regular controller, this is a far more engaging and user-friendly experience than it ever was on the Dreamcast. It still isn’t the easiest game in the world to pick up and play, but the simple fact that you now have a 2nd analogue stick, with which to turn your mech, makes for a much smoother experience. There’s also an optional configuration that uses both analogues in an attempt to replicate the arcade setup. Its a good substitute, fine for general play, but probably won’t convince hardcore Dreamcast players to give up their Twin Sticks.
The other slight problem with VO:OT is the price. Perhaps sensing that this XBLA edition will also enjoy a limited audience like it’s predecessors, SEGA or Microsoft (or whoever decides such things) have priced it at 1200MSP, which is probably too much for newcomers to make an impulse buy, but anyone who appreciated the game in it’s previous guises (or wanted to, but couldn’t because of the controls) shouldn’t need any invitation.
In fact, those of you who know that M.S.B.S. stands for Mind Shift Battle System, have probably already downloaded it.