I have absolutely no idea how I did it.
In Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, I decided to pick series poster boy Akira over my user-friendly usual fighter, Jacky. My opponent, the artificial intelligence, was Pai, who is quick with the reversals. I'm a pretty terrible Akira fighter, and I threw a lazy palm thrust aimed at Pai's midsection. I wasn't surprised that she was able to catch my predictable attack and proceed to reverse it with a sweep. I still panicked, and I must've pressed something different because I saw a move I had never seen before. Akira reversed Pai's reversal, performing a burly backflip over Pai's leg. That amazing moment has only happened once in my fighting game career and it simultaneously sums up both the strongest and weakest points of the game.
Sega used the painful pun "Patience is a virtua" as the tagline for the first game's conversion to their doomed 32X peripheral, but it might as well apply to the fourth installment as well. Patience is a virtua, because patience will get me a supped-up version of Virtua Fighter 4 with two new characters, a fleshed-out single player mode, more useless trinkets for fighters to wear, redone animations and graphics. Of course, this all comes in the more attractive bargain privilege of a PlayStation 2 Greatest Hit at less than half the price of the original release.
Even as I took out the 20 dollar bill out of my wallet to purchase this game, I asked myself why I'm bothering paying to play a game I had mastered and even reviewed almost a full year ago. The answer is pretty simple: I really like the game. So much that I'm willing to pay to see the new additions.
Unfortunately, my biggest problem wasn't what was added to the game. But more importantly, what remained in the engine, and the things I had forgotten about it. I stated in my original review that a player would need to dedicate an unhealthy amount of time with a character for the game to be a rewarding experience. What Evolution reaffirms is that the hours one has to spend in the training mode are not just superfluous. I had forgotten everything about my Jacky, the same fighter I had mastered to the High King rank of the arduous, uphill battle that was Kumite. I had forgotten his combos, juggles and guard cancels. I scolded myself for forgetting how to do a "guard-throw-evade!"
Unlike its only significant competitor, Evolution is not so forgiving on beginners and button-mashers. The fact that I was able to do Akira's reverse reversal only once by freak accident is a testament of the engine's strictness. Two attack buttons (punch and kick) may not seem very substantial, which leaves a lot of work to be done for the left thumb and the digital pad. With all those combinations of directions to memorize, patience will make you a virtual encyclopedia of the series' moves and strategies.
This frustration only lasted until I tried out Evolution's quest mode. It works like Kumite mode in that you gain special superficial bonuses through fighting, and it replicates the arcade feel of reputation depending on a single match. Evolution takes this a step further by turning the player, with .hack inflection, into an up-and-coming arcade gamer looking to earn a reputation. Each fight will have certain requirements that help hone basic skills, like evading or quickly dispatching enemies. Only then can the player compete in tournaments for reputation and bunny ears for Akira-one of the hundreds of items that can be collected for the fighters to wear. The AI for this mode remains ever vigilant, outstanding in its progression and learning ability. No other fighting game has AI this organic.
Evolution maintains and improves upon the depth of the original game, even with the two new oddball characters—kickboxer Brad and grappler zombie Goh. But the hit detection also still remains strict as ever with its hard and fast rule of high, mid and low attacks. A high kick will connect with a midsection-attacking opponent, even if real world logic would clearly have the high attacker's foot to sail over his opponent. The game's unwillingness to bend the rules convinces me it's really more like a high-tech round of rock, paper, scissors. The engine is as hard as a rock, which sounds great on paper but just doesn't cut it otherwise.
Even worse, Evolution is just as user-nasty as the previous game, demanding hours of time to receive the just reward of mastering a single character. And mastering the engine and characters is rewarding in itself. But accessibility is a key ingredient for a great game. A player shouldn't have to be asked to revisit the training mode whenever time passes since you last played the game. A player shouldn't have to slog through command list after command list before fighting a particularly challenging AI or human opponent. Patience may be a virtue, but it can also mean really stubborn.