Virtual On: Sega Saturn

Virtual On: Sega Saturn
Virtual On: Sega Saturn

Insert Disk collects Virtual On for the Sega Saturn.

Today’s retro game review is Virtual On for the Sega Saturn. This retro gaming classic is was a number one hit in the Japanese arcade. Known under its full title Virtual On Cyber Troopers the game thrilled arcade gamers with its fast and frantic arena battle game play. The aim is to battle with robots such as Fei Yen and Temjin in order to win the round. Expect a mix of long and short range weaponry along with various degrees of speed and power. Virtual On has an incredibly diverse player roster making it a game with a long shelf life and great replay value.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. For just about as long as I can remember I’ve been playing games published by Sega. From the humble origins of their 2D masterpieces to the more elaborate polygon based titles. Join me today as I revisit a much loved cult classic in Virtual On: Cyber Troopers.

For a significant amount of time Sega’s ability to bring the thrill of its arcade titles in to the home was a major draw for gamers like myself in the UK. The massive 16-bit catalogue followed up by the 32-bit Titan chip sets and then the more advanced titles running on the Naomi hardware have undoubtedly shaped a generation of gamers. Here in the UK arcades were in steep decline by the mid to late 90’s. Ask most people born after 1990 where you can play on an arcade cabinet and most will reply at the bowling alley, ice-skating hall or if you’re luck the local pub. It’s for this reason the Sega Saturn won an important place in our hearts. 90’s England wasn’t exactly downtown Shinjuku where you could just walk through the pachinko halls or down to the multi-level arcade to your hearts content. For many the Sega Saturn became our window to the world of mystery and magic that is Japanese arcade gaming.

From memory I can only ever recall seeing a Virtual-On cabinet once here in the UK. The custom hardware such as the cabinet control sticks meant that there was an instant barrier for any number of them to find their way to our shores. What became the Japanese number 1 coin-op of 1996 made it here via the Sega Saturn and it was worth the wait. To get to the heart of Virtual On I could best sum it up as a tactical mech fighter. In essence giant robotic fighters battling it out in a variety of arenas. There’s a decent cast of characters each with their own strengths, weaknesses and personality. There are of course the fan favourites such as VR Temjin and Fei-Yen but there’s a lot of merit in trying out the whole cast. All players can dash and most will have 3 main attacks. Something resembling a short range bomb, a laser sword and a ranged attack. Throw in to the mix though that some of the troopers will have homing missiles whilst others will have devastating handheld weapons for up close and personal attacks. Some will have the ability to flay for extended periods whilst others will be near rooted to the spot with heavy armour. The roster is very well thought out indeed and it’s not just a wireframe and skin swap. Each character genuinely feels different to play with. In turn, each opponent feels different to play against. Heavier troopers such as Dorkas will launch seriously heavy attacks if you get too close whist troopers such as Viper 2 and Fei-Yen will be far more agile around the arenas. All of this pushes you to learn the control mechanism, appropriate distance to keep and most appropriate shot type and tactics to use.

What may look incredibly chaotic here is actually a really immersive and fun experience. It feel like a real fight and incredibly tense in situations when you are down to lover energy levels. It’s worth saying that the original arcade version was operated via twin sticks to immerse yourself in the real feel of operating your trooper. This was a feature brought in to the home release. If you were willing to stump up the cash you could be the proud owner of the twin sticks. With a minimal software library to use with them though its clear that this was a very niche peripheral. You could of course buy the game software on its own and operate via the joy pad with somewhat modified controls. The controls are fairly full on when you first play. Almost every button on the pad is utilised but all are in a logical place and you can configure them if needed. After a while the controls do become second nature and you’re really left to feel the awesomeness of the game itself. As you may have noticed the music in the game is fantastic and well worth spinning up in your CD player. The tracks are typically Japanese electronic rock. Track 8 Green Hills would rival any tune from the Castlevania series. My hats off to the composers on this one, its the perfect accompaniment to the frantic on screen action.

With this being a Sega Saturn release we did of course get CD quality audio. The graphics on the other hand have taken a bit of a hit. Firstly the frame rate had to be compromised but unless you have ever seen the original hardware running this isn’t too much of an issue. Whereas Japanese editions of the Virtua Fighter series pumped out a solid 60fps, the UK PAL edition of Virtual On can only run a steady 50fps. It’s not game breaking but we would have to wait until the Sega Dreamcast versions for the version of the game we all really dreamt of owning. The way that the Sega Saturn handled layered transparencies gives some objects a slightly unusual aesthetic to those not so familiar with the system. Again, these are cosmetic issues rather than game play issues so I’m more than willing to overlook. As with other small concessions such as the camera now more static rather than tilting during cornering. The action is so frantic anyway most of the time your brain will be focussed on the action.

Now, I know there’s probably quite a few of you that watch the channel that don’t own either a Saturn or a Dreamcast. First of all, what are you doing with your lives, they’re both amazing systems in their own right. The Japanese 2D fighter series on the Sega Saturn is well worth the entry price on its own for any serious 2D fighter fan. For those without though you may want to opt for a PC edition of Virtual On. Despite it being very long in the tooth I was able to configure my Windows 7 system to run a PC edition of the game. You will have to run patches for the software to correct some common compatibility issues but its actually well worth the effort. Please ignore the terrible skills on show as I’m using the keyboard for 8 directions + jump and 3 different attacks.
The game play is still very solid and the graphics certainly shine once restored to their higher polygon count and richer textures. For an authentic feel though I still come back to the Sega Saturn edition as it was the version I first played.

The game features several Easter eggs including hidden costumes. My favourite has to be the hidden Sega Saturn units on the troopers. If you look carefully you can make out the units held on the back of the troopers. As the characters jump you are even treated to a quickly glimpse of the spinning game disk. It’s one of those long running threads at Sega to hide versions of their hardware and software within game themselves. Perhaps the best know example is the Dreamcast back-packs in Typing Of The Dead.

For those of you that enjoy physical collections Virtual On is really well packaged on the Sega Saturn. In the UK you’ll be familiar with the plastic tray / cardboard outer combo. The manual is a decent length and covers standard controls plus the twin stick editions. Overall it’s a nice piece and its everything you would want from the release. Here in the UK expect to pay anywhere between £10-£20. For North America you should be able to pick up the NTSC edition for around $25. Japanese editions are more common for around the $15 mark whilst the twin stick editions sell for much higher rates depending on condition.

So, is Virtual On Cyber Troopers worth collecting? For me it’s a solid yes. Virtual On represents that arcade to home experience that only Sega of Japan have ever done in this way. The Saturn edition although slightly hobbled by the systems limitations retains all of the frantic action that made this game the arcade number 1 hit. There’s something very charming about this game, whether it’s the cheesy pulsing Japanese rock, the touches of care in the model design or just simply the epilepsy inducing action of the flashing screen there’s something to be said for Virtual On. Its noisy, action packed and addictive. What might have been a difficult conversion of the game was saved purely on the merits of the end result feeling like arcade experience. Virtual On perhaps won’t be on the top of many collectors’ lists these days. This one is for those that yearned for the 90’s Japanese arcade but could quite afford the plane fare. A solid game, great music and a decent challenge. Well worth a pick up for those with a taste for Japanese arena battles.

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