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Retrospective: Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1

When is a football game not actually a football game? When it's Virtua Striker, of course! The Dreamcast iteration of Virtua Striker 2 was initially released in Japan in 1999, under the slightly odd moniker of Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1; a title which you'd be forgiven for mistaking as a Windows update patch. This comparison isn't actually as outlandish as you might think though, when you consider that previous Model 3 arcade based versions of Virtua Striker 2 were bequeathed with similarly date specific nomenclature - Virtua Striker 2 was previously delivered to arcades in ver '98, ver '99 and ver 2000 before ver 2000.1 finally made its way into homes as part of the Dreamcast library.

Naturally, that this Sega AM2 developed soccer title has a numerical suffix hints that it is indeed a sequel, and not only that; for if you were to be even more inclined to combine inquisitive cognition and the human ability to conceive of future tenses (even though we are technically going into the past, here), then you'd also be totally correct to hypothesise that it is also simultaneously a prequel. Basically, what that absolute nonsense means in a nutshell is that there was a prequel (Virtua Striker) released in arcades 1994; and two sequels in the form of Virtua Striker 3 released on Nintendo Gamecube and in arcades in 2002; and Virtua Striker 4 released exclusively as a coin-op in 2004.

Now we've covered the potted history of Virtua Striker releases in very abridged form, let's get down to brass tacks. Cast your mind back to when you first started reading this badly constructed article and you'll recall that I rather brazenly announced that Virtua Striker is not a football game. And that's because it's not. Rather, it is football in the most arcadey format you're ever likely to see...which kinda makes sense given the actual arcade cabinet based origins of the series. Apologies if the constantly backpedaling mess of contradictory meandering is confusing the whole situation here, but I've had a long day and I just need to write something. Anything. And it's turned out to be this. Sorry.

Designed to be played in short sessions, easy on the eye and spectacular almost to a fault, the Virtua Striker games are divisive in the extreme...and Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 for Dreamcast does nothing to upset this particular apple cart. Indeed, I think I'm well within my rights to pompously declare Virtua Striker the Marmite of football games - you'll either absolutely loathe it; or you'll think it is the best thing since sliced bread (and then try to spread it on said staple before ravenously devouring it, you contemptible monster).

I remember when games magazines of yore would show screens of Virtua Striker, sometimes even going as far as to state that a Sega Saturn port was in production. I would gaze longingly at those chunky-legged polygonal footballers contorted into impossible shapes while toe-poking sharp-edged footballs into bulging nets, and dream of them someday adorning my beloved Saturn. Alas, that dream never became reality, and so my first real taste of Virtua Striker's flavour of footy came when Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 burst onto the PAL Dreamcast in 2000. 

Feverishly I loaded the GD into my console and was instantly mesmerised by opening cinematics of highly detailed footballers lining up for Sega-ised anthems in cathedral-like stadia. Footballing nirvana was a mere button press away. The hype was real, Virtua Striker 2 was finally in my living room and memories of ISS '98 on the Nintendo 64 were ready to be overwritten with the barnstorming return to glory of the mighty Sega. And then the game started and I almost cried. With sadness, that is.

Before I go on, I want to remind you that I'm writing this from memory - I was a teenager who had heard about how amazing Virtua Striker was, had never played it but been a fully paid up passenger on the hype train since the first time I saw the amazing screenshots of Virtua Striker 2 in magazines. And now here it was, finally being pumped into my eyeballs via the power of a Tatung CRT television (with full on mahogany surround and Fastext, I might add)...and yet I was heartbroken. Why? Because - and to be blunt - it played like absolute arse crack.

I was expecting something like ISS 64 but with CGI graphics; instead I was playing a computerised version of Subbuteo with a cloth pitch that hadn't been ironed properly so the ball never made it over the creases to the intended destination. Virtua Striker 2, here, in all it's amazing looking glory...but with no commentary, no changeable camera angles, about two buttons and a stupid 'swooshing' noise every time you attempt to tackle. Idiotic AI teammates, hardly any teams to actually play as, a daft time limit on matches, no half times, and no substitutions. I hated it. I hated what I was witnessing. How could they have gotten something that looked so right, so awfully and harrowingly wrong...?

To be completely honest, this is how my relationship with Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 pretty much remained for the vast majority of the intervening years since I first played it. If you can ever really have a 'relationship' with an inanimate bundle of binary pressed onto a plastic disc, that is. Yes, you could say that this is my fault for having unrealistic expectations of an arcade-focused title. In an age where YouTube didn't exist so you couldn't just nip online to see how a game played. But here's the rub - in recent times I have revisited Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 (hence this very retrospective being composed) - spurned on in part by my recent revisiting of those other Dreamcast football titles from equal and opposite ends of the spectrum: European Super League and UEFA Dream Soccer. The former inhabiting the sewer-like cesspit at one end of the effluent filled Stuart era ginnel, t'latter resplendent at the other like some kind of shining, effervescent viscount straddling a mighty steed, traversing the shit-filled street with nary a splatter of poo so much as attempting to stain his pantaloons.

Where then, does Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 fit into this rather pungent/unnecessary street scene? If you'd have asked me back when I originally played it, I would probably have silently pointed a crone-like finger towards the aforementioned cesspit; however in my more enlightened present state I'm more likely to turn viscoutward, and point my equally wizened digit if not directly at the landed gentry atop the horse, somewhere near to said equine beast's hind quarters. Near the horse's arse, basically.

See, Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 is actually quite a decent game if you approach it not as a football game, but as what it is intended to be - a daft arcade kickabout with only the slightest whiff of old Ralgex and fresh cut grass about it. I mean, it certainly looks like football - the pitches are about as lush and well tended as you could possibly hope to see on a Dreamcast. Likewise, the players and the stadia look absolutely superb. So detailed, so well modeled and so impeccably animated in that distinctly late 1990s Sega way. The crowds not so much, with whole blocks of static Lego people undulating like they're stuck to sheets of fly paper. Overall though, Virtua Striker 2 is easily the best looking football (soccer) game on Dreamcast.

So it looks like football. It just doesn't play much like football...but that's OK when you come to terms with the initial shock. Forget what you want Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 to be and instead accept it for what it actually is, and what’s here is a thoroughly enjoyable and rather unique title. One which, once mastered, becomes quite an addictive experience. Initially it will seem like a really stupid, over hand-holdy game heaping on ungodly amounts of CPU assistance and almost unbreakable midfield stodge; possession constantly changing hands (feet?) and the odd breakaway ending in a shot blasted straight at the 'keeper, hopelessly wide, or blocked by a defender before it even leaves the foot of the striker. But perseverance is key here, and when the game finally clicks and you accept that the Dreamcast just wants you to break free of the freedom (bizarre oxymoron - check) you're used to and play how the arcade gods of old want you to play football, then Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 transforms into something rather excellent. Arcade footballing nirvana, in fact. Oh, how ignorant teenage me was.

I think it's pretty safe to say that by this point you probably don't need me to explain that the gameplay in Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 isn't very realistic, but I'll do so anyway: it isn't very realistic. It isn't really even as grounded in pseudo reality as other arcade style titles such as Super Sidekicks and its numerous sequels (which incidentally, I really enjoy). 

No, the aim of the game here is the get the ball out of midfield as quickly as possible, get it to your strikers and then let them unleash some magic in front of the opposition goal, gravity and physics be damned. It all happens so quickly that sometimes you barely have a chance to appreciate the stunning 30 yard strike you just netted, or the ridiculous overhead kick or diving header that smashed past the hapless goalie; and the replays are equally fleeting. But when you do find the net it is super satisfying, regardless of the brevity of the celebrations or replays. 

The controls I mentioned earlier are actually quite effective despite their relative simplicity in comparison to other football games. You effectively have a single button to use when in defence - a sliding tackle - because simply running into your opponents will usually rob them of possession automatically if you don't fancy going to ground and incurring the wrath of the ref. Sounds good, but this can also happen to you more often that you'd probably like it to. 

In offense, you have slightly more choice, with a short pass, long pass and a shoot button. That's it. There is no sprinting, and the game changes the player under your control seemingly at random (although it does a fairly good job of placing you in control of the player nearest to the ball, so it isn't as horrendous as you might think). Virtua Striker 2 is as bare bones as they come in terms of gameplay controls and tactics - one of the face buttons is even employed to change your formation on the fly between offensive, normal and defensive play styles. You can't substitute players and you can't change formations other than with the presets each team is assigned as default.

And that's about it, to be honest. Virtua Stiker 2 ver 2000.1 - out on the pitch at least - is visually impressive, yet insultingly basic...and it has really grown on me the more I have played it in recent times. There's so much it does wrong; from the terrible sound to the way the CPU will make your players literally run away from the ball at times. But when you forget what you have learned about other football games and appreciate this title for what it actually is, then there is some fun to be had.

There are a multitude of international teams (and some really bizarre bonus teams to unlock), and some additional console exclusive gameplay modes for the discerning Dreamcast gamer to enjoy; but the real appeal here for me is the Arcade mode, in which you attempt to beat an ever more skillful opponent on your way to cup glory. Lose a game though, and it's game over...quite literally. And like evey good cup run, it's the underdog - you - who inevitably wins the hearts of the appalingly realised crowds.

Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1, then. A game that is not without its numerous and sometimes horrific flaws. And one which many people will dismiss as simply being a bit shit. But also one which, if given time and a fair crack of the whip, will no doubt win some people over with its ridiculously watered down gameplay, awful sound, pretty visuals and 'just one more go' factor. In a nutshell: Virtua Striker 2 ver 2000.1 - it's football Jim, just not as we know it.

3 comments:

Suspect said...

Thanks for the excellent summary of this game. It very much sums up how I feel about it. I know it is a terrible football game with infuriating AI, yet... I LOVE it. It is my go to game whenever I dust off my DC. I have so many fond memories of playing it in the arcade back in the day and then eagerly awaiting its release on DC. So yeah, it is one of those strange things in life that you know you shouldn't enjoy but do.

Great site by the way. I've been enjoying it very much. It has rekindled my interest in the DC.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks Suspect. Sadly I’ve never managed to get someone else to play this game with me, I imagine it might be slightly more enjoyable than playing against the AI

CrispX said...

I dream playing again this game, but this time having a team edit to create the entire team.