Virtual-On Retrospective: Oratorio Tangram

Previous: Operation Moongate

Virtual-On was a relative success for its time. It saw most of its popularity in Japan due to larger availability of arcades and the Saturn doing better there than anywhere else. For America however, the success was much more limited. Less arcade machines to go around and Saturn’s lukewarm success were the main reasons. The PC version, much like other Sega’s PC releases, was less emphasized over their own console’s port. This lesser success seemed to convince Sega’s European section not to release the Twin Stick controller in the region. Despite how the game is considered a sort of landmark for Sega and mecha games overall among fans, that’s all mostly in retrospect. Its impact didn’t exactly topple any towers, and ultimately met similar niche status as Sega’s other Saturn seller title, Panzer Dragoon.

The decline of arcades, and Sega’s mismanagement of their hardware side (especially during Mega Drive’s later years and Saturn overall) limited Sega’s business success overall, with Sony taking their place as Nintendo’s main rival with the PlayStation. That is not to say that Virtual-On ended up being some sort of sales catastrophe, as Japanese arcade goers took the series close to their hearts. This being Sega, they gave more emphasis on this fact rather than considering the franchise’s world wide success.

Despite Sega Model 2 being a success on its own rights, Sega was always pushing their arcade hardware further. If Nintendo has an obsession to introduce 3D to home hardware, then Sega had an obsession to push the 3D hardware at arcades. Hang-On, OutRun and Space Harrier are all examples of 80’s Sega finding ways around to introduce 3D-like effect to their games, and you could even argue that Sega’s teams became master of sprite scaling in this fashion.

Sega didn’t cut much corners with their arcade hardware, and Sega Model 3 supports this approach, as it was the most powerful arcade system board of its era. As Sega’s last piece produced by their partnership with Lockheed Martin, it contained graphical hardware designed by Real3D and Mitsubishi, which was a spin-off company from Lockheed Martin. However, Real3D only saw success with Sega, and their partnership with Intel and SGI ended up as market failure, and in the end was sold completely to Intel in 1999 due to changed arcade markets.

The reason why Mitsubishi was brought into the partnership was Real3D had a series of delays with their GPU. Originally, the Model 3 was supposed to be released in 1995, but had to be pushed back to 1996, with Yu Suzuki claiming it would deliver the best 3D graphics thus far.


Model 3, of course, ran the latest Virtua Fighter

Model 3 emphasized on pushing textured polygons in-real with multiple kinds of anti-aliasing, shadings, multiple light sources and motion blur, to name few, in real time as much as possible. It was also set apart from its predecessor was Model 3 steppings, with each of them increasing CPU clock speed, speed of the 3D Engine and overall changes in the board architecture. Despite Model 3 being a beast its support was ended in 1999 (with more economical approaches taking the lead overall due to home computers beginning to achieve similar results with hardware accelerated graphics) and arcades being declared dead.

In 1998, Model 3 Step 2 was the initial platform for the most celebrated entry in the series, Cyber Troopers Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram with M.S.B.S Version 5.2.

As a note, M.S.B.S. is a control system used to operate the Virtuaroids, and each iteration of the franchise has an updated number. These also denote the versions of a game, with M.S.B.S. 5.2 being first for Oratorio Tangram.

While I’m not sure if this is Model 3 or NAOMI cabinet, there shouldn’t be much differences. Sega began using this as a standard for their arcade setups, with Alien Front sharing the same build with different controls. There was also standing and generic models for cheaper options. A special version was installed in Joypolis, which had moving seats that corresponded to the VR’s movement

Model 3 hardware introduced the usual load of upgrades on the visual department. All the models had higher polygon count, though they still relied on a similar geometrical design, albeit with higher detailing on top. While 3D had become an everyday thing, the sharpness of the graphics and their clear-cut design stood out among the crowd, with the usual Virtual-On-esque presentation. To give some comparison points, games like Rival Schools and Soul Edge were hitting the scene around the same time, with Street Fighter III: 2nd Impact showcasing the last vestiges of truly outstanding 2D graphics and animation on the CPS-3. Comparison between Model 2 and Model 3 Fei Yen in Gamest magazine’s 209’th issue pushed the flavour difference further.

gamest_jp_209-60

While it may be redundant to say, I’d like to give some emphasize on how Fei Yen’s design evolution throughout the series reflects the pop-culture mindset. While Fei Yen was originally designed as a sort of Sailor Moon homage, the new one we got in Oratorio Tangram is more rounded and petite, with more cute and pop choices overall. Granted, Model 2 did limit some of the things they could do, but proportions and certain design choices were clearly aiming for a more “adult” look, if you will.

Oratorio Tangram‘s core stayed much the same as the original game’s, including the Twin Sticks. Some of the Virtuaroids were cycled out and replaced with more advanced VRs. Despite the fast paced nature of its predecessor, Oratorio Tangram increases this speed in two ways. First, the overall speed has been upped as actions take less time to execute, dashing is tad faster, controls are more responsive and so on. Supposedly, there are some speed differences between versions of Oratorio Tangram, with the initial Model 3 release being slowest, relatively speaking.

Secondly, movement options were increased. You could now dash in the air rather than just float around. Dashing has been tweaked to be more controlled overall. This applies to weapons as well, shortening the time you need to stay put, unless you intend using the newfangled Turbo Weapons, which require you to push Weapon and Turbo at the same time. This yields a stronger shot that consumes a whole lot of your gauge and keeps you grounded, but they have their use in various situations.

Further changes to the VRs themselves were made to balance out the close quarter combat compared to long-range combat. The close-range combat now includes quick-steps, where the player has an automatic speed in approaching, evading and attacks. This automated the close combat further, but also making it tad more accessible. Virtual Armour, or just V. Armour is a second addition that is intended to balance speed difference. It functions as a secondary armour that makes long-range weapons bounce off to a degree, preventing the likes of Fei Yen doing chip damage runs. Of course, this armour can be destroyed as it has its own meter, and you may even need to get through that before you can start dealing proper damage to the VR itself.

Within the canon, this is the Virtuaroid split the two factions have. DNA on top, RNA below, with RNA favouring close combat more

As mentioned, the cast was expanded from the previous entry. There is also a faction split, with the initial story set-up mentioning DN Corporation’s fall after Operation Moongate. DN renamed itself as DNA, while a splinter faction from it began carrying RNA as their name. Eight plants in charge of Virtuaroids end up being the warring ground between the DNA and RNA, with the 0 Plant housing Tangram, a pan dimensional reality synthesizer, being the end goal of both sides. The player can choose whichever faction to play as, which also decides the colour scheme. You can find these and more images on the official Xbox 360 Oratorio Tangram site.

Click a Virtuaroid pair for a larger view with a description.

As for the unplayable bosses, there is Bradtos, which looks like two Z-Gradts piled atop of each other.

Not nearly as threatening, though its attacks include multi-way beams, V-Disc shots and areal sweeps with squares. A hit from each of these take a load off of your energy gauges. Just like Z-Gradt, it can only be harmed properly when it exposes the crystal at its core, sandwiched by its two halves. As a midway Boss fight, it requires some careful stepping, though once you get used to fighting Bradtos it becomes a short chore.

Tangram is the final boss of the game, the very reason the two corporations are at each other’s throats. Its title, Pan Dimensional Reality Synthesizer certainly describes what it could do, but in the end, it is the player’s job to take it down.

Created by L’Ln Plajiner within the 8th Plant, Tangram stands at the nexus of all realities, able to control the causality of events

Unlike with previous battles, Tangram’s stage floats freely in three-dimensional space, meaning you can navigate up or down if you’d like, but most battles I’ve seen end up being about dashing sideways and shooting when the red eye breaks the surface. Tangram has multiple forms of attacks, from rings to scattering beam shots, and when you’ve managed to chip enough of its energy off, you’ll see clones of your VR flying around. At times, distances may be hard to determine, as Tangram is surprisingly large close up. Compared to Z-Gradt, it’s a more memorable boss fight and despite having a great impact at first, kinda lets the game down, just like Z-Gradt did. As per tradition, you get a Game Over if you run out of time.

Before the Dreamcast was out, M.S.B.S. version 5.4 was rolled into the arcades for Model 3 in 1999, and it was this version that the Dreamcast version was based on.

The Japanese Dreamcast cover is absolutely fantastic. The US cover, not so much. Also note that prior to Ver 5.66, Oratorio Tangram‘s logo was orange

Strictly known as M.S.B.S. Ver. 5.45, this version and its arcade counterpart included VR balances and speed tweaks. Some of the original Operation Moongate stages made a return as well. The home release also included the original 5.2 version if you beat the game with all the available VRs. In Japan, you could access 10/80 Special via a special promotional disc. Version 5.4, and by that extension 5.45, was considered the standard version of the game in competitions.

Speaking of stages, Oratorio Tangram continues on where Operation Moongate left. While you won’t really see the stages themselves due to the speed you’re zipping across, and none of them are as expansive as the forest stage in the original, they’re all well balanced. Some of the designs may be a bit too busy and have special effects in almost every bit of them, but some of them simply play out great. Some of the original stages really stick with you, and none of them are really tailored for any VR specifically, though one or two of them can be said to encourage certain ranges.

The Dreamcast version is overall arcade perfect, though absolute perfectionist fans will demand Twin Sticks as the standard DC controller is woefully inadequate. The port was released in 1999 for Japan, and a year later in America, published by Activision no less. It contained all the standard stuff you’d expect from a competent home release of the time; Arcade Mode, Training, two-player split screen, Survival and Custom modes.

The Dreamcast entry didn’t cut any songs from the soundtrack either. Both DNA and RNA have their own respective tracks, both sides having around thirty unique tracks, and overall amount hitting 70. DNA side is a bit peppier and follows more in-line with the original game’s music. The RNA side of tracks have slightly harder edge to them, giving their side its own, almost rock-like atmosphere. Not that RNA doesn’t have its own share of pop-n-go tunes, DNA just have them more. Very much like the first game, the tunes are of acquired taste and none of them will stick with you after you’ve finished playing. No iconic tunes here to be heard.


While RNA may have the worse colours in some cases, it’s soundtrack side tends to be much more fitting

Europe and the rest of the PAL region never saw the game, most likely due to three reasons. Firstly, Oratorio Tangram did not enjoy a large success in America. The only place the game saw success was Japan, both in the Arcades and at home.

Secondly, Dreamcast was infamous for its arcade ports. After Model 3, Sega decided to make a more economically viable arcade system, the NAOMI, and use the same basic architecture with the Dreamcast. This arcade system was easy to mass-produce, relying on large ROM cartridges instead of Dreamcast’s GD-ROMs, though alter ad-on to the PCB enabled this as an option. The base key difference between the two is in NAOMI having twice as much system and video memory, and four times the sound memory than the Dreamcast. Multiple NAOMIs could also be clustered to improve performance or for multiple-monitor setups.

NAOMI overall was very successful for its time, mostly due to Sega licensing it to outside developers, like Capcom, Sammy and Tecmo. It was a very flexible system, covering larger variety of games than some other Sega’s systems, and due to its close relation to Dreamcast, games were easier to port to the system. This may have been Sega’s trump card, offering the arcade experience at home, a marketing tactic that they had used at least since the Mega Drive. This plan had backfired in the end, as home consoles and PC now offered more bang for the buck. Arcade games had become passé, and games like Final Fantasy VII were used as a point of comparison.

Thirdly, it was clear that the Dreamcast would soon fold and further resources to optimise the game for PAL regions were deemed waste of resources, especially after the low sales of the US release. In March 2001, Sega announced their withdrawal from home console business and became a third party developer for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. This was the result of Sega mismanaging their home consoles for almost a solid decade.

In 2000 the last official version of Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram was released in the arcades as M.S.B.S. Ver. 5.66 with the added subtitle 2000 Edition. This version ran on NAOMI instead of Model 3 and as you can see, this version changed some of the design elements to emphasize it. The cabinets also included a slot for Dreamcast’s Visual Memory Units, which allowed data to be transferred between the home console and arcade machine. This was also the time when Sega had restructured itself, and had merged AM3 into Hitmaker, emphasizing home console markets, with Ver5.66 being of their first arcade titles.

Much more subdued, more change of the third millennium in many ways, and still using the same cabinet

2000 Edition changed some of the elements from previous iterations. It introduced some of the Virtuaroids we saw earlier, namely 10/80 Special, Apharmd C and Stein-Vok. This of course meant some tweaking in the balance department was needed, and as it was running on NAOMI now, its graphics were updated a tad. It was probably developed in some sort of unison with the Dreamcast port, or at least was based on it to an extent, as a special demo disc for 5.66 was released in GaMaga, a dedicated game magazine that re-titled itself according to Sega’s console, titled Dremaga (ドリマガ) at the time. It allowed viewing the VRs and changing some of their visual aspects, like making your own emblem and using that in the arcades. This demo was denoted as M.S.B.S. 5.6, but it’s not much of a game on its own rights. This disc is a holy grail to collectors and fetches a rather large price. Some crackers have managed to make a bootable disc out of the contents and enabled a test mode, where you could take the new VRs for a spin. Needless to say, 2000 Edition never saw releases outside of Japan.

Against all expectations, Sega released a digital-only version of Oratorio Tangram on Xbox 360 in April of 2009. For the first time, M.S.B.S. 5.66 was available internationally. While the visuals allowed for upgraded or original look, the port lacked local versus mode altogether. The only way you could have played against another player in the same room was to huddle two screen and link two 360’s together. The lack of split screen in the 360 port hurts it quite a lot. Online play requires subscription for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold account. The game’s demo is somewhat short and on the easy side, so but gives some chances to get used to how things work.

Outside this, the port’s currently the definitive version to play, despite the Xbox 360 controller not being the best on out there. However, you could emulate the Twin Stick setup with the dual sticks, something a Japanese modder took advantage of.

In principle, you could make this based on whatever arcade board or whatnot, as long as you set up buttons and sticks properly

Outside this, Hori released official Twin Sticks for the 360 to support Oratorio Tangram, Force and Operation Moongate, Japan only. These sticks tend to fetch a hefty price on the aftermarket due to their limited availability and heavy weight.

[27.11.2019 update] With the release of Cyber Trooper Virtual-On Masterpiece: 1995~2001 on  the Japanese PlayStation store, the Xbox 360 version of the game has made more or less moot. Being effectively the direct port of the arcade version with some bells and whistles added, the PlayStation Store collection is probably the definitive version of the game, outside arcades. VOOT, just like the rest of the games in the collection, has Twin Stick support for those who managed to pick up Tanita’s Twin Stick.

Oratorio Tangram was supposedly developed as the last entry in the series, if some of the rumours floating around are true, with the title having the meaning of Grand Space Opera.

This entry in the series overall is considered the best one in the series by the fans, achieving and eclipsing everything it and its predecessor set as their goals about high velocity mecha action. However, it didn’t stay as the final entry in the series, and fans would have some hard time with the future entries in Virtual-On.

Next; FORCE

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