Exploring Physics Through Play — Virtua Tennis 2

Virtua Tennis 2 encourages us to be curious about sports-science, through play.

When I play Virtua Tennis 2 in 2024, all I can see is physics. Once considered cutting edge graphics, Virtua Tennis 2 (also known as Tennis 2K2 in the USA and Power Smash 2 in Japan) on the SEGA Dreamcast presents the sport of tennis in a brightly colored visual format. The visuals emphasize its gameplay with sharp color contrasts, clearly defining the boundaries of its world in-play. My attention naturally narrows in on the action.

Perhaps more notable, is the tennis ball, traced with shadows and motion blur. It contrasts well with the matte-painted courts. There is minimal visual distortion and so the ball is easy to track. In turn, Virtua’s batted-ball physics have unexpectedly captured my attention and my imagination. And so I ask: what kind of shots can I pull off in this old-school arcade game?

Agents of Science

As game players in VT 2, we inhabit its Virtua world through the agency of digitized tennis stars. We not only compete in matches, but we experiment — with different shots, we leverage different angles, and we impose varying levels of force upon the spinning green globe. We can explore what is possible within the game’s white-painted lines.

In a way, us sports gamers unwittingly become sport-scientists, probing the hidden laws of gravity embedded within the source code of this SEGA Sports tennis universe. We can study the game engine’s rules through trial and error, akin to scientific inquiry in a digital medium.

The ball’s physics stood out to me the moment I powered on the game this past May. Now, it is all I see. Perhaps I’ll never glimpse Virtua’s actual source code, nor would I comprehend it, but games like VT 2 encourage us to ask questions about what’s achievable simply by playing.
Virtua Tennis 2 upscaled in 4K on PC via ReDream software. SEGA | Hitmaker | 2001.

Play and Discover

Virtua Tennis, with its smooth 128-bit color pallets, has a way of presenting the game of tennis in an elegantly clean form. The gameplay screen has just the right amount of information. Free from noise and commentary, VT 2 allows players to play tennis from a bird’s eye perspective — one that hones in on the fundamentals of tennis. Consequently, the game’s clean virtual court feels like an ideal test environment for game players to search for new ways to manipulate the ball and score points.

Further, when us sports gamers test new animations or explore game mechanics, we inadvertently sample the physics of the virtual world we inhabit. If we think about it, SEGA Sports gave us the ability to hypothesize and actively observe what is possible on its digital tennis court. Hence why the game can be viewed as a sports science sandbox, and the different shot types are the center of our experiments.

I once read that the beauty in sport can be found in its improvisation; and what is improvisation? Is it not a spontaneous hypothesis and inquiry into what is possible in a given moment; in a given circumstance? Virtua Tennis has glimmer of this magic.
Serena Williams, Virtua Tennis 2. SEGA | Hitmaker | 2001.
I think it makes sense to think about games as our own test environments when we consider how the games are built. The development kits of the games themselves may speak more directly to the idea of 3D sports games as sports science test environments. For example. engineers test locomotion and physics in test environments before installing into the final build of a sports game. Scientific inquiry is already taking place at this stage.

To provide a specific example, we can look at one engineer’s public doctorial research. Data Scientist Sebastian Starke researche(s) data-driven character animation and deep learning as a part of his Ph.D. program at the University of Edinburgh, School of Informatics. Stark tests animations and physics in 3D test environments such as Unity engine, attempting to simulate the human body and its movements. Circumstantial evidence suggests Stark’s research contributed to Electronic Arts’ HyperMotion technology for their industry leading EA Sports FC and Madden NFL games.

Taking it one step further, I cannot help but wonder if sports game engines like Stark’s can help researchers study real-world sports-related phenomena. In theory, if we input the properties and physics accurately into a 3D modeling system such as a sports game engine, perhaps the game can become something else entirely. “Legend, Mr. Wayne.” Speaking of which, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s in-game engineering mechanics are being used to teach masters students about machine structure and design at the University of Maryland. The precedent for real-world application is there. Games can teach us things.

It follows that sports gamers are just one step removed from the technical side to sports gaming science where scientific inquiry clearly and purposefully takes place in the development stage. Comparatively, I contend that VT 2, with its hyper-efficient gameplay, would make for an amazing starter development kit in 2024 to trial new physics and animations.
Animation testing by data scientist and sports game engine developer, Sebastian Stark, 2021 — in Unity.
And so Virtua Tennis 2 is more than a game to me. It is an example of what was possible in 2001, and simultaneously a promise of what our sports games can be. Maybe games like Virtua Tennis had more utility than many of us realized when it was released.

I like to romanticize about sports and gaming. And the potential for sports games to take on a new form and function — to support scientific inquiry — is one of my favorite possibilities for the genre.

Farnation: Gameplay Footage Surfaces of Unreleased SEGA Dreamcast MMORPG!

Credit: fuperslizzle

"Farnation" is a name that is probably more familiar to the most diehard of SEGA Dreamcast fans. The game's existence was first revealed in August 2000 by GameSpot. The site's staff would then go on to be shown the game in private at the end of the same year, and were impressed by the amount of gameplay mechanics that were shown off, along with the visuals. Confirmed to be an online-based massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) that was to serve as SEGA’s answer to EverQuest, the game's development was eventually confirmed to have been shifted from the Dreamcast to another console in 2001 (with sources within the industry believing the new console in question to be the Xbox). For a great summary of all information known about the game, I highly recommend checking out this Reddit thread by Useitorloseit2.

A whole 23 years later, footage has finally surfaced of this long-lost MMO, courtesy of a Reddit user called "fuperslizzle". About four months ago, they posted a photo of the title screen, which you can see above. When asked for more, they replied with "I'll be blowing your collective minds shortly with actual video." Today fuperslizzle has released not one, but two videos of Farnation; one showing off the gameplay, and the other showing off an in-game menu that displays all the different textures available for use in the game.

Credit: OG_JoeCain (YouTube)

In a Reddit post that was posted early this morning (UK time), fuperslizzle explains that the footage "is from a legit disc belonging to a friend of [theirs] who worked at Sega during the time Farnation was in development." They finally sign off their post with the words "rest assured, more is coming!" You can see both of the gameplay videos below.

Update: a third video has been uploaded, this time showcasing some character movement and exploration.

Well there you have it. We've finally got to see a taste of what those GameSpot employees got to see all those years ago. Maybe one day we can get our mitts on the game’s disc image to play for ourselves. What do you think of the footage shown off? Let us know in the comments below, or via one of our many social media pages.

PlayStation Emulation, Silent Hill 3, Metal Slug, New Indies and more on Dreamcast! - Dreamcast News Round-Up July 2024

It's 2024, we’re now into July, and the SEGA Dreamcast is still not dead. Critics are baffled. "It was supposed to have been declared dead in 2001, dammit!" - some PlayStation 2 owner, probably. In fact, there's been so much Dreamcast news recently that I've found it hard to keep up with it all, so in an effort to convince you all that I'm still in the loop (perhaps not sanity-wise), I've rounded up all the best items of recent news into one post. So, here's everything that has happened in the world of Dreamcast recently...

Indie and Homebrew

Or "bedroom coders" as people used to apparently say back in the '80s. I wouldn't know, as I literally didn't exist. Anyway, this supremely talented bunch are doing some cool stuff with software on the Dreamcast. Let's take a gander.

A huge breakthrough in Dreamcast development...

Credit: Orc Face Games

A few weekends ago, Ross Kilgariff, the Dundee-based maestro behind the highly anticipated Dreamcast indie HarleQuest and head of Orc Face Games, dropped the Junkyard a DM about a big breakthrough in Dreamcast development which will result in a significant performance upgrade for new games being developed for our beloved platform. Take it away, Ross... 

"We (Orc Face Games) recently hired TapamN to get the HarleQuest! engine running as fast as possible. For those who don't know, he's one of the best programmers in the unofficial Dreamcast scene, with over 20 years of experience and he's helping elevate everyone's understanding of the platform. 

While optimising the code, he found a critical bug in the operating system that's used as a basis for many unofficial projects including HarleQuest!, Simulant Engine, Spiral 3D and more. This operating system, KallistiOS, is a community-driven effort to provide re-usable code that makes Dreamcast development easier for everyone.

The issue is quite technical but I'll try to keep it simple. There's a special kind of memory inside the CPU called the cache. It's way faster than RAM, but also way smaller (only 16KB in the Dreamcast's case). Normally the cache works automatically and doesn't need any special programming - it just stores things you've accessed recently so it's faster to get them next time. However, the Dreamcast's CPU has a special feature called OCRAM that lets you take control of half the cache manually. This can let you get great performance, but you need to actually program it. It's not on auto-pilot anymore. 

The bug is that since November last year, OCRAM mode was being enabled by default in KallistiOS. This meant every game was saying "give me manual control over half of the cache" on startup, then simply not using it - in effect being left with only 8KB of automatic cache instead of the full 16KB. 

As soon as we made the KallistiOS community aware of this they got straight to it and fixed the bug within a few hours. Falco Girgis identified the cause and worked with darc and BBHoodsta to coordinate the fix. The developer responsible for the Doom 64 port (jnmartin84) verified the fix and reported that with this change along with another optimisation, the busiest areas of the game don't chug any more and play much more smoothly. 

On one hand, it's unfortunate that the bug occurred in the first place, but the benefit is that all those cool 3D demos and games we've been seeing recently will be able to pull the latest version of KallistiOS and might get an automatic speed boost. 

Hopefully this is one step closer to seeing more high-quality games on the platform. I have a good feeling about 2025."

Thanks to Ross for letting us in on this big development and for supplying us with an explanation. The future sure is bright for Dreamcast game development! Speaking of Ross, last month he put out the first part of a video series showcasing the results of his "What Dreamcast Gamers Want" survey, which is well worth a watch.