by Justin Sevakis,
If there's one anime genre that truly deserves all the criticism that's been heaped on it over the years, it's video game adaptations. They're almost always terrible. There's nothing inherently wrong with attempting to cash in on a popular franchise, but in most cases the games being adapted don't really make for compelling storytelling.
Fighting games tend to adapt the worst. The games seldom have any discernible plot at all, and so the anime version has to somehow come up with a story to serve as a flimsy device to get all of the characters to fight as much as possible. And, since fans of these games often made for budding otaku, tons of these games got anime adaptations, and nearly all of those anime got licensed. This resulted in a lot of real garbage on anime shelves.
Consider the crap-fest that was Tekken. Or Samurai Showdown. Or Battle Arena Toshinden. Or Voltage Fighter Gowkaiser. (Okay, I'll admit Fatal Fury had its moments, and most incarnations of Street Fighter II were decent.) Strangely, the one fighting game anime that American fans turned up their noses at happens to be the best one.
Virtua Fighter was the 3D fighting game that never got no respect in the arcades, and with decent reason: the first game in the series was a polygonal fighter about three years before technology could support a polygonal fighter. The result was hilariously blocky characters moving awkwardly over barely-there 2D backgrounds while the camera whipped around and made the player dizzy. It was mildly amusing, but couldn't stand up to the addictive Street Fighter II series or the poor-but-ultra bloody Mortal Kombat games. Later, Tekken and others of its ilk took what Virtua Fighter started and managed to pull it off much better.
But Virtua Fighter was pretty successful in Japan, and so a 35-episode anime series was made. Managing to scrape together actual characters from the cubist blocks of wireframe that were the in the game, the inherent lack of pretense (or character development, as some would call it) meant that the anime staff could basically do whatever they wanted. The result was silly, free-wheeling, and surprisingly entertaining jaunt down some of the genre's most hopeless clichés. The series clearly had a big, stupid grin plastered on its face the entire time.
We start with Akira, who's ostensibly the series' Ryu knock-off, so I suppose he's a wandering fighter out to prove he's the strongest. He's in Los Angeles Chinatown trying to eat fifty plates of dumplings in a half hour, because the sign says anyone that can do it gets to eat free. His meal is interrupted by the local branch of the dastardly Koenkan crime syndicate (they're easy to identify with the black outift and the evil expressions) fighting a girl. The ensuing fight scene involves Akira trying to choke down the remaining food while fighting the bad guys.
As played out as eating jokes are in anime, this one somehow still manages to be pretty funny. Nevertheless, Koenkan is after the girl, Pai, because her evil father is forcing her to return to Hong Kong so that she can marry his lead henchman. Akira cheerfully decides to take the restaurant owner's offer of free grub in exchange for rescuing Pai. Pai, of course, doesn't really want the help. Along the way racecar driver Jacky and his sister Sarah -- both martial artists, get introduced and get sucked into the ongoing battle with the evil overlords.
Okay, so the story is a little trite. The real charm is in the characters, believe it or not. The actual fighting is almost a backdrop, though it's fairly well choreographed. Virtua Fighter plays like a violent sitcom, relying on sharp-witted dialogue and likable characters. While most fighting anime tries really hard to be cool, Virtua Fighter seems to know instinctively that there's no possible way it can be taken seriously. Instead, it goes for laughs, and given how silly the set-up is, mostly succeeds.
The series is directed by Hideki Tonokatsu, who seems to specialize in accessible, if not always good, series: his best work includes the Hellsing OAV series and Requiem from the Darkness, and the other end of the spectrum is summed up with the series "Happy Lesson." Here, he uses a light, tongue-in-cheek approach, mixing good humor and goofiness to come up with something of a unique approach to fighting. Sarah's pet flying squirrel Alexander becomes the token cute animal sidekick, something that might have made Street Fighter II very... different from what it was.
The series itself is helped in no small measure by the dub, a raucous affair that ranks among Coastal Recording's best. Coastal was always best with tongue-in-cheek situational comedy (as evidenced by their crowning achievement, Shinesman), and here director Scott Houle cranks up the self-referential sharpness to its highest potential. The script adaptation is remarkable in that it doesn't significantly change much of anything, but simply reworks what's being said with a spark of wit. Tony Schnur is spot-on as the clueless Akira, while Amy Tipton brings a lovably comedic edge to the feisty Pai Chan. One must also mention the WWE-style announcer who must explain every fighting technique as if it were the force that would stop wars for generations. Coastal regular Michael Granberry, however, steals the show as the sharp-tongued Jacky. One memorable moment: after Akira ticks off the wrong girl Jacky turns to him and says, "You know, I think I've figured out your problem. It's basically your entire personality."
The anime release of Virtua Fighter was at least a few years too late to get any heat off the franchise, and sales of the VHS release lagged. The dubbed characters even comment at one point that they were unlikely to ever see the conclusion of the show. Sure enough, Media Blasters pulled the plug on the series after only twenty-four episodes.
I don't think there's a point in making a fighting series that aspires to be great art. Fighting video games are fun entertainment, meant as much to get the blood pumping as for having a good time with friends. Virtua Fighter is the only fighting anime I've seen that actually does both. In a genre that usually does neither, that's quite an achievement.
|A||Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.|
|C||Common. In print, and always available online.|
|R1||US release out of print, still in stock most places.|
|R2||US release out of print, not easy to find.|
|R3||Import only, but it has English on it.|
|R4||Import only. Fansubs commonly available.|
|R5||Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.|
|R6||Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.|
|R7||Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.|
|R8||Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.|
|Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.|
Where to get it:
The twenty-four completed episodes of Virtua Fighter were released on DVD in two 12-episode sets, and while they might be out of print, the discs were such slow sellers that it's hard to tell: they're still in stock everywhere, and can usually be had for dirt cheap. I'm guessing retailers, sensing a video game tie-in, probably over-ordered and were stuck with way too much stock. As a consumer, it's hard to complain about that. We'll probably never get the last 11 episodes, but without the excellent dub there probably wasn't much point in watching them anyway. The series is so much fun, I don't miss having an ending too much.
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