Virtual-On Retrospective: Operation Moongate

This post is first in a series of five. You can access all posts in Robot Related Section linked above, or move between sequential post at their beginning and end

Virtual-On is one of Sega’s hallmark game franchises, developed by Sega’s AM3 department. It had everything the arcades required in 1996; 3D graphics that you wouldn’t see at home, unique controls, flashy graphics and fast paced gameplay. When most of the 3D mecha combat games on the market aimed for slow and emphasized on realistic simulation, like Shattered Metal or Mech Warrior 2, Virtual-On hit the arcades with sharp, colourful 3D models in fast paced third-person action with (relatively) easy controls. This is perhaps the best example of East VS. West mentality when it comes to giant robots. Even in arcades, among other blooming 3D games, Virtual-On stood apart with its excellent presentation and unrelenting game play.

 

What made the game tick was Sega’s Model 2 arcade board. The Sega Model 2 has an interesting history on itself, being co-developed with Martin Marietta, which would later merge with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin. This is due to Yu Suzuki designing the system around texture mapping chip, which was based on General Electric Aerial & Space’s texture mapping technology, which he had to convert for the Model 2 use. This, combined with the new CPU, Intel i960-KB, the Model 2 was something of a beast and was cutting edge technology for the time. Perhaps it was because of this why the industry gained mass-produced texture mapping chips, just like how Virtua Fighter 2 introduced motion capturing to video games. Considering Sega had envisioned a textured 3D system, not just flat shaded 3D like with Model 1, the Model 2 hit the spot perfectly.

Model 2 ended up being a success, running games like Dead or Alive, Dynamite Cop and Virtual-On. It would seem Dead or Alive was the only series on the system that went on being a major success, having more titles in the franchise than any other game on Sega Model 2. Virtual-On, much like many other Sega franchises, would have a rough time transitioning from arcades to home consoles, in the end.

To be exact, Virtual-On ran on Model 2B CRX variant of the Model 2 board, which had upgraded geometry engine DSP co-processors and increased VRAM

The Virtual-On cabinet boasted a standard 29″ Nanao monitor with stereo sound system. While not explicitly anything from the standard, Sega has always made great looking arcade cabinets and didn’t cut too many corners here either. Usually donned in the dual setup as above for competitive play. Some the cabinet’s were split from each other with a semi-transparent plastic screen in the middle. There has also been a single-player standing style cabinet’s with more generic design, which isn’t much to write home about.

Of course, what made the game stand out from the crowd compared to other sit-down cabinet’s was its Twin Stick controls.

This is what made the core arcade experience of Virtual-On, and something that would determine the game play to a large extent. To many Virtual-On fans, using one of these is the only right way to play the game, while others may see it almost impenetrable. Arcades could offer this sort of experience for a quarter, but elsewhere, you’d need to invest money properly.

The Twin Sticks controls were a follows; using one of the sticks would move your character slowly, using both made it run. Turning to left or right was done by pointing the other stick forwards while pulling the other back. Pulling both sticks apart would engage a jumping motion. Each stick had a set of top button and a trigger, each corresponding to character’s Left and Right Weapon, with Center Weapon being launched when both were pressed at the same time.

Each of these weapons has a different way of firing depending on the state of the character. A standing Right Weapon would be a very normal shot, while dashing shot would yield a sustained fire. All characters share a similar setup ion weapons, where their Right Weapon is their main tool, Left Weapon being more defensive or explosive type, and the Center Weapon being the strongest. Each weapon has a corresponding meter that automatically refills when not in use. The top buttons were used for dashing.

With these controls, having your opponent in the field of view is rather difficult. This is due to the fast paced nature of the game play, where both players would zip around the stage. The only way aim at your opponent is automatic lock-on, which can be engaged in two ways. The first is jumping, which also causes your unit to turn around and directly face the enemy. The other is to use a dashing attack, which is slower. More often than not, it would be more preferable to jump and cancel the jump right away to center the enemy and use the more powerful attacks in your arsenal. All the shots, bombs and whatnot also home into the opponent to certain extent, except few exceptions that are powerful linear attacks. It all really feels like things were remedied with automation, because the core setup was decided first.

This core set-up sticks with the whole series from the start to end, with some minor tweaks here and there. It is exactly what it sounds like, and arguably isn’t exactly as great as the fans of the franchise makes it sound to be. However, it still offers incredibly large amounts of options, making the game relatively easy to get into, but hard to master. Each console iteration would have to adapt new ways to adapt the Twin Stick setup, with PS2 onward allowing emulated Twin Stick being used due to existence of two sticks. Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2 and 360 would see their own home version for Twin Sticks, each with higher and higher quality of construction and price.

Front row, playable units from left to right; Viper II, Bal-Bas-Bow, Raiden, Temjin, Fei Yen (AKA Mecha Sailor Moon, Apharmd, Dorkas and Belgdor. Back row, bosses; Jaguarandi and Z-Gradt

Virtual-On‘s roster was designed by Hajime Katoki, a Gundam fame. These designs are probably Katoki’s second most famous works overall, considering the series brings back four of the eight main mecha in upgraded forms, and Japanese pop-culture likes to refer to Temjin and Fei-Yen on an occasion. Each of these mechas have an extremely expansive background story, something you never see in the games themselves, and I recommend giving the Virtual-On Wiki‘s entries on them a look, as there is a lot more information on there compared to what I can put here. I’d like to mention that Katoki did manage to avoid his long-legs syndrome to a large degree with these designs.

Each of these eight playable mechas, called Virtuaroids, are more or less unique. You can determine their style from the get-go just by looking at them, which has to be given to Katoki. These Virtuaroids were designed with the limitations of the Model 2 board in mind. These limitations have yielded very geometrically driven designs in similar way how Virtua Fighter looked like early on, using the polygons as an effect rather than just trying to smooth things out too much. Nevertheless, detailing was not overlooked, but compared to what Katoki does nowadays with decals, it’s comparatively sparse.

Click a Virtuaroid for a larger view and description.

The Crystal there is supposedly named as the Earth Crystal

The two boss characters back there can be played to certain extents in some of the iterations of the game. Jaguarandi doesn’t exactly joke around, as it’s a penalty boss for taking too long for defeating opponents. It may be large and slow, but its arsenal hits like no other. A 10-Way Laser, a repeating bazooka and Trap Bomb all make it a massively difficult boss outside Easy mode, where it can stand damage all the while dishing it out. If you lose against it, you’ll fight its downgraded form. This sort of penalty boss mechanic is rather unique to Virtual-On, and would make a return later on. In the lore, Jaguarandi is a bug in the simulation, a malformed VR that was never purged from the Conversion systems.

You can see Sega Saturns on its legs, on the knee joints

Z-Gradt is simply just a huge walking fortress that doesn’t take proper damage, unless it pulls out a giant cannon and turns golden. It acts as the final boss of the game, and is probably the weakest part of the game, considering it throws any resemblance of balance out of window. There is also a time limit in the battle, and if Z-Gradt is not defeated by that point, even if you have more energy left, you lose. At least home releases allow timeless Death Matches. Even the design is rather lacklustre, almost out of place among the rest of the cast. This grey behemoth makes otherwise fun game to have a lacklustre end.

One the most overlooked elements of Virtual-On is its stage designs. Pretty much everything comes together with these stages, as they’re required to give sets of elevations and obstacles to make use of. Even if a stage has only two levels, their setup, distances and positioning is everything and makes or breaks the game. As the controls have an automated lock-on and normal turning is slow, you need to have large amounts of situational and environmental awareness to make the best use of the stages and weapons. This can’t be really achieved without playing the game few times over, but like with most arena fighters, the stages have been optimised to hell and back.

Not only that, but the stage variety in visual terms is great. Not one stage feels the same, from an ocean platform to sparse forest, from ancient ruins to Moon station. These stages also use Virtual-On‘s bright and clear colour palette to a great extent, allowing things to pop into view in a great way. This, combined with other pleasing choices in graphics, makes the game overall a pleasure to watch at, though some of the effects will grow old after some time. Not that you’ll be looking at the game too long, a standard playthrough lasts about ten minutes. A more skilled player can cut that time down significantly.

The music was done by Kentaro Koyama, also knows as Kentaro Kobayashi when using his alias, is also known for his Monster Strike and Yakuza III soundtracks. The music is overall a mix of upbeat and sombre techno songs, something that you can listen in arcades just fine, but none of the songs really get stuck in your head. They’re made to fit the aesthetics of the presentation, and work well with the game. However, the soundtrack is very much acquired taste, and very Japanese for better or worse.

This being a Sega game, it was promptly ported to Sega Saturn, where it saw its most widespread exposure to the audiences. As Saturn wasn’t as powerful as the Model 2, some corners had to be cut here and there. Lower resolution, 30fps, and lack of lighting effects are standard things to lose. Two-player mode got hit the worst, with some of the geography was removed during competitive play. Certain weapons were tweaked for the Saturn release as well. There was also a Netlink and SegaNet versions that allowed players to link their game through the Internet.

In the PC version you can choose either 30 or 60fps mode. It also runs on similar, if not on the same, resources as the arcade version, just with more washed out colours due to how powerful Model 2 was. It runs on a higher resolution than the arcade original, and allows mimicking the Twin Stick setup if you have two identical two-button joysticks that use the gameport standard. There were also two releases, one for American markets and one for Japan’s. Difference between these two is that the Japanese version uses 3D acceleration via PowerVR.

It’s like an explosion of painted glass in darkness

Perhaps the best version of the game can be found on the PlayStation 2 in the Sega Ages line. The 31st entry in the line, Virtual-On got its first arcade perfect port with some added bells and whistles, including Z-Gradt mode, widescreen support and a Chibi-Mode, which turns all characters into super deformed versions. It also boasts updated models, and allows you to connect two PS2 consoles together for more arcade-like versus experience. Faiyubu, the original version of Fei-Yen, is also included as a new hidden boss, which you can also unlock for you own use. You can also grab this release for the PS3 from the PS Store, assuming you have a Japanese account, as the release was Japan-only.

There is also a release on Japanese Xbox Live Arcade, in Sega’s Model 2 Collection line of games. If you have access to Japanese XBLA, you can make the 360 most definitive platform to play Virtual-On series on.

[27.11.2019] With the release of Cyber Trooper Virtual-On Masterpiece: 1995~2001 on  the Japanese PlayStation store, this has become the definitive method we currently have to play the first three games conveniently. There are online modes and Twin Stick support for those who managed to pick up Tanita’s Twin Stick. Going for 4 950 JPY, the collection is a definitively worth picking up over other releases, considering there are no problems with importing and meddling with lesser ports. You need to set up a Japanese account on your PS4 for the game, but that’s not a problem in itself, as the ‘net is full of handy guides.

As for the story of Virtual-On, there is an incredible amount of backstory, with very little of it in the game itself. The basic premise is that in Virtual Century 0, DN Corporation discovers lost technology on Moon’s ruins named Moongate in form of Bal-Bas-Bow, and bases their Virtuaroid technology on it. The core of this technology is the V-Converter, which initiates Reverse-Conversion. During this process, it reads digital blueprints and materialises this data unto the physical plane. A V-Disc is V-Crystal’s pressed down mode, and looks like a giant CD, the one you see on a Virtuaroid’s back. As per Sega standards, the casing for these V-Discs looks like a Sega Saturn.

Sega and Capcom really liked to do stuff like this back in the day

This technology is developed further and spread among other fields of tech, as this sort of realisation of virtual world opened new possibilities. Military technology was in the forefront of this, though originally in secret. However, within the Moongate, something’s going awry. In order to eliminate the threat posed by the Moongate, large amount of Virtuaroids were dispatched to deal with the looming threat of the Solar Cannon, which would be able to destroy the Earth. First half of the game takes place in a virtual environment to prepare the player for the entry into Moongate, and after this has been passed, the player would control a real Virtuaroid on the Moon.

The above is a revised version of the story, with the original stating how DN Corporation had send arcade cabinets back to the past, where arcade players controlled Virtuaroids in the future to assault Moongate.

During game play, you get hints of all this with in the mid-stage sequences, where the player is informed of them being sent into real battle, and in the end where their data is frozen.

Virtual-On really did make a splash in the game market in 1996 with all this. For the time, it stood alone in how it looked and played, something series like Gundam VS or even Armored Core would stand upon. As a first game in the series, it is a bit rough around the corners, but even nowadays it stands out as a  rather unique game and extremely fun to play in short, arcade-intended bursts.

Note that the Saturn release is titled as M.S.B.S. V3.3S, with the arcade version having B in there. C version was a bugfix update, and PC releases had W.

Lastly, I’d like to comment on the issue whether or not the series is spelled as Virtual On or Virtual-On. Unlike with Muv-Luv, the issue isn’t as clear cut. I took few minutes on the side to check this via Japan’s trademark registry search. Sega’s original trademark registries spell the series without the hyphen, as does their trademark entries for Oratorio Tangram. The backstroke is how the registry marks down spaces. I couldn’t find anything tangible on Force, blame it on my inability to search properly, but of course VO Marz ‘s entry uses the hyphen.

With this, I went to the US trademark registry, if things were any clearer there. The original trademark is now dead, since it was cancelled in May 16th, 2009. Of course, Marz uses the hyphen, though it too was cancelled on March 13th, 2013. However, Oratorio Tangram‘s entry, or rather CYBER TROOPERS VIRTUAL ON AND ORATORIO TANGRAM, is still alive, filed on December 12th, 2008.

Things don’t really get any easier when Xbox Live marks Oratorio Tangram as Virtual-On OT, which is first time I’ve seen it anywhere, all the while the downloads description does not use the hyphen and properly shortens some as VOOT.

In the end, I gave up on these and went to Sega’s official web portal for the series. A series timeline there has all the titles in English, all using the hyphen. It would seem, that despite the trademarks Sega has, they choose to use the hyphen. Unlike with Mega Man, where Capcom really had no damn idea how to spell it despite their standing trademarks always having it right. Looking further around Japanese wikis and other series related sites, it would seem Sega’s official form is Virtual-On.

Next: Oratorio Tangram

3 thoughts on “Virtual-On Retrospective: Operation Moongate

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