Virtual-On Retrospective; FORCE

Previous: Oratorio Tangram

Sega often had multiple arcade boards running at the same time and never really dedicated their library and efforts on just one board. For example, while the Model 3 board was developed to replace Model 2 and was introduced in 1995, Model still kept going until 1998 and was phased out only after NAOMI hit the scene. Furthermore, Sega had their System 21 running from 1987 to 1996, while their H1 system was barely a blip on the scene in 1995, with it being their last Super Scaler board and had only two games. Other companies, like SNK with Neo-Geo, emphasized the amount of games on a board for a more economic approach. However, Sega had made good business in the arcades with excellent selection of timeless classics, but as we saw with the Dreamcast’s end, all things must come to an end.

Sega Hikaru hit the scene in 1999, before Model 3 was phased out and after NAOMI was put into public use, the Hikaru is almost a high budget, envelope pushing hardware to NAOMI’s ties to more budget conscious approach. Despite being derivative of NAOMI technology, it was expensive to produce due to its chipset, and it was hard to code for due to its intricacies. It featured a custom build Sega GPU with advanced graphical capabilities, almost a standard for Sega’s flagpole systems, with additional CPU, sound and other custom processors that utilised the expanded bandwidth and memory. All this was partially to enable the Hikaru to do Phong shading, which was the most advanced shading technique of the time, which essentially calculated the needed colour per pixel, making triangles on a model seamless and allowed better specular highlights.

The Hikaru was developed almost exclusively for Brave Firefighters, a 1999 arcade game.

The game made use of Hikaru’s prowress with its fire and water effects, making the game essentially Hikaru’s demo. As you can see in the How To Play sequence in the video above, the game had a water hose shaped controller the player would use to spray water like a real firefighter in a railshooter fashion, making the game a distant cousin to The House of the Dead series. Planet Harriers used the board to a much greater effect, and was the best looking game of its era in 2000. However, due to the Hikaru’s costs and Sega’s games not needing such a powerhouse, the company opted to developed further NAOMI derivatives, like NAOMI 2, which would be cheaper and see more licensing.

The last game on the Hikaru was Virtual-On FORCE.

Developed by Hitmaker, to which AM3 was merged into, Virtual-On FORCE was released in 2001, with M.S.B.S Ver. 7.5. Unlike with Oratorio Tangram‘s revisions, FORCE‘s revisions were strictly character balance and bug related. No new stages or Virtuaroids were introduced in Ver 7.6 or 7.7, which was released in 2002. The game is pretty to look at due to Hikaru, with presentation still being top notch. FORCE boasts one of the best designed GUI and HUD in the series thus far all the while still using clear and easily readable text and colours.

A familiar arcade cab

FORCE‘s title, and the logo’s 4, refers to the four-players the game now has in any given battle. While the core is still the same from Oratorio Tangram, the left Turbo button has been replaced with a Lock switcher. While this takes away some of the options per Virtuaroid, another larger introduction to the series was usable models per VR. Double jumping has also been removed.

Each VR now has a base model and variety of upgraded variations. For example, Temjin 747 has its base model, an armament and air mobility upgrade, heavy armament upgrade and an armorless prototype version, with high mobility. These three models also have a Commander upgrade to them, which all have ever so slight visual changes to them, which all are not represented in the listing below. For example, Specineff Type R can be recognised for having an open skull face. All these different variations would change weapons sets, movement options and overall behaviour of the VR to some extent, including faster shots.

Another supposedly big thing was the inclusion of dozens of paint scheme options from the get go

Below you can access the playable cast of Virtuaroids in the game. Please click an image for a large view and a description. I would recommend checking the previous two entries in the series for larger context how each returning Virtuaroid has evolved, if needed.

 

In the arcades, the players had a pass they could use to save their progress as they collected items to unlock these different model upgrades. In the end, this caused the difference between starters and veterans to be rather high, as veterans tended to have powerhouse versions that steamrolled over beginners’ base VRs. This system was implemented to level the players’ skill levels and preferences, but it didn’t work out as intended.

Furthermore, the game’s overall speed and pacing has been taken down a notch, slower than Operation Moongate. The reason for this seems to be the addition of four-player gameplay. Constant four-player mode affected the stages to be designed from different standpoint from previous two games. Some stages are almost chock-full of objects, while others have large enough open fields that weapons won’t carry from one end to another.

The four-player standard brought in cooperation elements in form of healing and revival. You can heal your partner with certain motions, if they’re going into critical energy. Reviving is what exactly as it sounds, and can be done by touching the spot where fallen partner’s marker is. These two elements do make things slightly more tactical with the added emphasize on cooperation outside selecting complementing Virtuaroids.

While this seems like a logical approach, the stage designs themselves mostly don’t really work. Due to these changes, matches slug along slower, and all the enemy attacks easy to see and avoid due to the distances involved. The HUD also has a minimap now, showing you the position of your team mate and enemies, trying to make these larger stages work better for Virtual-On.

The few matches that make the game shine have less drastic  height differences in geometry and are smaller, making the four-player matches hectic as you’re trying hit your locked-on opponent while trying to keep track on your teammate’s status and where the other opponent is. However, all these good points can only be enjoyed and seen in high-level of game play and normal play will be as sluggish as the VR introductions that appear between the levels that you can’t skip. This is where FORCE shows it has potential, but it is wasted with few wrong decisions in the stage department and terribly sluggish pace.

However, it must be said that FORCE can be enjoyed, if its approached properly. It’s not a blitz like its predecessors, and trying to tackle it as such will only yield disappointment.

The exception are the pair of final bosses in the arcade mode, Ajim and Guerlain, which simply are not fun to fight at all. A complete let down.

Ajim could be a completely new character too, as it acts and attacks completely differently compared to his Oratorio Tangram incarnation

What supported the game in the arcades was its community. The four-player element asked a partner to go with you. Alone you were gimped, as the player supporting AI can be outright stupid at times. The AI overall in FORCE can be infuriating, as it seems it reads player inputs and acts according to those. Nevertheless, the game really came together when you had a large amount of people to play with rather than tackling this alone, something that detracts from the game on the long run. However, this close human contact aspect also is why the game still has a following behind it, along with the whole getting new VR aspect it has.

The slower speed of the Virtuaroids wasn’t hand waved away though, with the lore explicitly stating that the performance of these Virtuaroids is not on par of Earth’s due to Mars’ and Jupiter’s V-Crystals being of lower quality. The game’s plot surrounds on the war for Mars’ and Jupiter’s Crystals and who would be able to take control over them. Just like how Operation Moongate‘s first half is a simulation before sending you to Moongate, and Oratorio Tangram taking place first on Earth, then in space, FORCE starts on Mars and moves to Jupiter.

Since Oratorio Tangram had a marginal success, and giant robots were enjoying their last days of popular glory, it mean the series had gone from mainline success to something only the otaku crowd mostly enjoyed. Later Oratorio Tangram materials introduced bunny girl Fei-Yen and Angelan, and the decision to turn Fei-Yen into waitress was part of this fanservice. Waitresses were popular in the early 2000’s, after all.

The 360 port was released in 2010, year after Oratorio Tangram‘s. It would seem Sega tested the waters if it was worth releasing the game on the platform, which seemed to hit the spot. It is a superior port compared to its predecessors’, despite still being rather lacking in bells and whistles department. However, Apharmd the Hatter from MARZ was included as an unlockable VR,  split-screen multiplayer was introduced alongside with some DLC missions, making FORCE to have more bang for you buck. It is also region free, which is something Sega probably decided on after assessing the success, or the lack of it, Oratorio Tangram‘s 360 release had.

As FORCE was a physical release, it had both standard and collectors’ edition, named Memorial Box. This collector’s edition included Virtual-On Chronicle 15, a massive book that looked back at the fifteen year history of the series at the time, a six disc soundtrack collection Virtual-On Official Sound Data, and to offer service to certain demographic, and a download code for an item called Thorax, which allowed the player to adjust Fei-Yen and Angelan’s bust sizes. Two superballs were also included, both having Tangram printed on them in red and blue.

[27.11.2019 update] With the release of Cyber Trooper Virtual-On Masterpiece: 1995~2001 on  the Japanese PlayStation store, we’ve got a new definitive home release for the game. This digital collection saves you the problem of importing (unless you prefer collecting physical games), and does support Tanita’s Twin Stick. You have online mode and such to go with it as well. However, if you are a XBOX One user and have your original 360 disc, the game is backwards compatible, though no word yet if you can use 360 Twin Stick on XBOX One. T

VO had a relatively low-key doujinshi scene, but there are still those who make good use of Angelan and Fei-Yen

With these releases, Virtual-On models took a new wind, with pretty much each and every variations getting its own kit. These weren’t mediocre kits that the series saw in the 1990’s, but competitively high-grade injection kits produced by Hasegawa. They’re rather complex and fragile, and require just a step more skill to build than a Gundam kit, though Bandai’s Gunpla has superior quality in every regard. Most paint applications came on water transfer decals, which were in high numbers due to the most complex paint schemes the series had seen thus far. These kits are still in-stock at some places, with prices ranging from thirty euro to hundred depending on the model.

Virtual-On FORCE would be the last game in the series to debut in the arcades. Sega would develop more affordable arcade options for the ever dwindling market, while concentrating to produce games for platforms that were their competitors just a year prior.

I’ve had this model in the box more than a decade now. I should build it and paint it gold. Because it seems I’ve lost all the decals

Next: MARZ

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