The rise of fighting games in esports has been a blessing for the genre. In the mid-2000s, many fans thought the genre might be dying off due to the big franchises either being quiet (Street Fighter) or going through an identity crisis in what they wanted to be (Mortal Kombat). One series that didn’t struggle during at the time was Virtua Fighter. Virtua Fighter 5 dropped in 2006 and was seen as one of the best fighters at the time of its release. Now 14 years have gone by. Most fighting series have come back and made a name for themselves in esports through the FGC, but Virtua Fighter hasn’t. There hasn’t been a new release in the series since 2012 with an updated version of VF5 called Final Showdown.
Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is a full-on graphical remake of the original Virtua Fighter 5 using the Dragon engine from Ryo Ga Gotoku Studios. The game also comes with enhanced music, a new user interface, a new opening cinematic, and pivotal online features such as ranked matchups, room lobbies, and tournaments. Do all these new fancy enhancements bring Virtua Fighter back into a new fighting game world? Yes, but there’s still some work to be done on one major front.
Still packing a punch
Let’s start with the gameplay itself. Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown nails that department just like the original did. Commands and combos feel just as intricate and amazing to pull off as before. The new tutorial mode also does an excellent job explaining to newcomers how Virtua Fighter can be simple on the surface, but much more complex to players that want to learn all the tools at their disposal in combat. This is still the Virtua Fighter players will remember that emphasizes a mindful strategy of your move set, and challenges your awareness in the arena since you can be knocked off it if you aren’t careful.
The decision to remake the game with Ryu Ga Gotoku’s Dragon Engine was a brilliant one. SEGA AM2 and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio could have just used the engine to take Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown and give it a clean-up. But in remaking it from the ground up, the game looks and feels like it has leaped from the seventh generation of consoles to the eighth. All the stages and character models look sleek and clean like a Yakuza game. The new character redesigns either feel in touch with the original designs or they feel like massive improvement like in the case of Eileen. The new menu interface also gives the game a fresh coat of paint, and the redesigned music is all shockingly strong (Jacky’s new theme in particular is a banger)! Finally, the customization mode for each character is massive and very fun to play around in with your main characters to see new equipment and color variants you can use. By all accounts, the decision to remake from the ground up paid off in dividends to bring the game to a new audience.
Delay Vs. Rollback
So let’s address the big elephant in the room. If you’ve read anything about the game, or you know how fighting games work online, you’ve probably heard about the controversial decision to use delay-based netcode over rollback for the game’s online servers. It’s a decision that upset me too, but I get why SEGA decided to go with a delay-based netcode.
To give a simple rundown for the uninitiated, rollback netcode provides a near flawless experience for peer-to-peer connections. Every button press is recorded in a log and is executed on the local system, which then sends that information to the system you’re connected to. While that information is being sent to the opponent’s system, the device’s AI is predicting your next button press in real-time. If in the event that input is incorrect, the netcode corrects itself by “rolling back” the state of the game a specific number of frames, making the speed of the match seem unaffected.
Delay-based netcode is different in that commands are transferred to each of the players simultaneously. When data is traveling over long distances like the United States to Japan, the gameplay will stop as the systems need more data to continue the match. This causes periods of lag which can lead to missed inputs and connection failures when systems lose frames of connection to each other.
So Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown decided to go with delay-based netcode. Given the circumstances in the last year, I get why the decision was made. It was much easier to use the same netcode technology from Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown with the limited resources the development team had In the state of the last year with the pandemic, implementing rollback was always going to be a herculean task.
But I can’t lie and excuse everything. The issues of using a delay-based netcode are present at the launch in Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown. Whether they affect you or not can be completely random given the nature of connecting to a different player for every match. Unfortunately, I ran into them quite a bit. I had severe connection lag at about a rate of around 30% of the matches played in ranked (11 out of 30 matches). For good connection but noticeable button command lag I had around 70% of matches played in ranked (19 out of 30). These numbers were better in pre-set room matches (1 out of 10 and 3 out of 10 respectively), but room matches took forever to find that didn’t have a passcode or that you could join freely.
“You can get back up!”
There is still work to be done to fix the online play and get it into good shape. It’ll take TIME, but it can be done. But how you might ask? Just add in rollback? No. There is an easier and faster switch that can be made.
Adding in server selection based on the region you want to play in would help tremendously. Right now you can select servers based on desired connection strength. But players have found this can lead to very weird connections that can cause moderate to severe command lag. Especially in ranked matches. Adding the ability to pick servers from your region and play against other players on the same server could massively cut down on issues concerning the connection between players. This could come when tournament mode is added later, but at the time of this review tournament mode is still not available on the menu and we have no date when it will become accessible. Like I said, adding in a feature like this will take time. But it can also drastically improve on connections between players and fix the button input lag and time it takes to find matches. I don’t think rollback will be added in any time soon, so this might be the best approach given the current state of the servers at launch.
“It’s not time to give up the fight!”
Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown feels like a game that is consistently fighting with itself because of one major flaw. The gameplay and content itself is wonderful. It does everything and more to welcome new players to the long-standing franchise. But if SEGA wants this game to work for esports, the online needs fixed somehow. That glaring issue could keep players away when this game needs a playerbase to get it back in fighting tournament circles. What the future holds for Virtua Fighter after this, I don’t know. But I do want to keep playing. I do want to keep plugging away at the online with hopes it gets fixed because I want this series back for new fighting game fans. If that means dealing with the warts while they get frozen off in time, so be it.