3D fighting games like Virtua Fighter are fondly remembered – but which one of these polygon pugilistic playtimes packed a potent punch?
Throughout the early 90s gaming was walking through a literal shift of dimension. Both in the arcades and at home. I wasn’t particularly interested at the time, at least until I saw Virtua Fighter. It had definitively chunky polygons, which didn’t stand out for me in pictures, but seeing those humanoids shuffle, you didn’t have to believe that this was going to be the future.
You could see it was.
Virtua Fighter led the way in popularity, but it isn’t top in this serviceable recollection of my favourite 3-D fighters. And as previously outlined in my most favoured 2-D fighters, this is a wholly personal list concerned with the joy these games offered over what (if any) technical showstopping they brought. So no complaining.
#5 Tekken 3
Serious was the atmosphere about this game on the run-up to its arcade release in early 1997. Sega had released Virtua Fighter 3 months before and thrown the technical rulebook away with it. It was stunning. When Tekken 3 debuted, still running on more than half PlayStation power alone, it was hard to see how this could go well for Namco. It looked old, at least in the arcade. But in converting it over to PlayStation a year later, it looked superb and was the catalyst to get my PlayStation chipped and grab a copy on Japanese import.
I’d put decent hours in on the previous Tekken’s, but this third game… all those great character designs that had never before shifted so smooth. Light sourcing and polygon shading! Crunching and graunching sound effects! And more 90s Japanese style than being sliced in two with a katana.
Now it wasn’t Virtua Fighter. No Tekken was, or is. But Tekken 3 was as fluid to play as we had seen of the series and had a killer sense of its place amongst the PlayStation competition. That is to say that there wasn’t any. Tekken 3 was a fitting end to a sequence of first generation 3-D fighters for the machine, and a frenzy of two-player gaming.
And speaking of frenzies. Fourth Place…
#4 Power Stone
A game full of curiosities, from its fascia to fight mechanics. Was Power Stone a fighting game? A brawler? Was it something very clever or very dumb? Should it have made this list or shouldn’t it? I have considered all of these things and the answer is that it was most of those things, as well as being a furious collect-em-up. It was released for the Dreamcast in 1999 and its maker Capcom was clearly in the mood. And a good mood at that.
Capcom had been switching up the colour faders on their games for some time already and those faders held fast in Power Stone. Plus it ran on Dreamcast which came with all faders already glued to maximum. All told the relatively simple art direction arrived in an already classical state. Incorruptible.
And the high-pressure, scuttle, collect and attack gameplay matched it for design. Power Stone was simple to get your head around, apparently revelling in its counter-intuitive accessibility against the tide of ever more technical-at-both-ends competition. Here, each of the effervescent characters bounced about just for the apparent joy of doing so. Yes they were kicking each other in, and firing off the odd collectable rocket launcher, but the execution was more like the exuberance you get from an out-of-hand game of swing ball; simple, chaotic and always worth another slam.
Now for something a little more serious. None more serious. Third Place…
#3 Virtua Fighter 3tb
I believe I have made my feelings about this game known already on this website. I cannot recall it precisely, but I think it was a prickly apologetic against the general conception that Virtua Fighter 3 was somehow the less favoured of the Virtua Fighter family. Balls to that.
Virtua Fighter 3 was a Sega AM2 arcade titan, and when I picked up the conversion along with my Japanese Dreamcast it was the last word in sophisticated skull-crackery. The speed of the thing; this was a game of micro timing. You could spam on the buttons, and this entry came with a few more auto combos, but this was a thing to master your surrounding of, to shift about with a flick of the Escape button and knock your opponent off a rooftop. Bang. Round over. Ora Ora Ora!
Tekken always had it beaten for mood but Virtua Fighter 3 caught on to a more careful tone, between the bright characters and the just so calculations of stage dressing. If both games were a part of an orchestra then Tekken would be the brass section. Virtua Fighter is the strings. You had to keep coming back just to begin to get a feel for the rhythm of it, and you really needed an arcade stick to go further and reach the higher pitches, but there was a reason that Japan was as crazy for the game as they were.
In my opinion, this game wasn’t just better than Tekken, it was better than Soul Calibur. And Sega isn’t even done yet. Second Place…
#2 Fighting Vipers
It was the autumn of 1996. Spring and summer had already been a blinder as the next generation machines became simply the current generation and extended their stride. There was so much content available and on the horizon for the Christmas period, but all I wanted was what I thought was the most exciting arcade conversion of the year: Sega’s Fighting Vipers on Saturn.
Conversions of Sega’s premier coin-ops to the home always had a pendulous swing on the Saturn and I think this one sat for most people below the standard set by Virtua Fighter 2. I don’t think that was true considering the job at hand, and I enjoyed the dynamic lighting that had somehow found its way through.
But what I enjoyed most was how this AM2 game had taken the pace of their own Virtua Fighter games and attached it to something wholly more violent and scrappy. It was like an entire urban catalogue draped over Jack Reacher, with characters of the sort of abandon that only Sega produced in the 1990s. You could go moodier with other fighters, and you could certainly go cooler, but the gameplay combination of technical, tactile, and take that! impacts very nearly put this one on the top step for me. Perhaps the only thing that kept it was that however simple and well executed the design of counter attacks were in Fighting Vipers, my number one did them even better.
#1 Dead or Alive
Of all the games with all the reputations, in all the world, why does it have to be this one?
It comes down to a button, but I will tell a story.
Growing up on the Welsh border never put me in that great of a position to play arcade games, which was a shame as I dearly loved them. But earlier in life I had been born in Essex and my family would often take trips back. That meant Southend on Sea and that meant in the summer of 1996 I got to throw some silver in the direction of a Dead or Alive arcade.
I could see that this game was a third-party deal with Sega so that developers Tecmo could use their amazing Model 2 board, and I could see that it had worked out very well for them. This game looked and played like it could have come from AM2 themselves. The speed of inputs and fluidity of what then happened was like for like, albeit with some flourishes like explosive outer rings and bouncing attributes. And there was a special button, one that quite naturally altered the balance of flow.
Counter attacks had been a thing for a while, but their use had always been secreted away amongst the top tier. But now, and I think for all the best reasons, they were out in the open. One half-intuited press of the Hold button and you could slap or elbow an attack in return and get back on a swirling offensive.
The execution and thrill of that staccato shift in play amongst the depth and space of those just-so characters; even how it converted to the Saturn, I see no shame in it at all. Dead or Alive was 3-D fighting perfected. Shame it all went over the top from there.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.