Virtual-On Force Playtest: A Charm For Every Flaw

By Kris . April 8, 2011 . 1:02pm

Virtual-On and I have a bit of a history. As a kid, I adored the first Virtual-On (Operation Moongate) in the arcades. It had everything you could want at age eight: giant robots, incredible graphics (for the time), and faster movement than any other arcade game out there.  Unfortunately, as a grade-schooler I didn’t have the cash to spend a lot of time in the arcades, so getting to go to an arcade and play Virtual-On, with its strange, cockpit-like arcade cabinet and dual-joystick setup became a rare and joyful event.


When the sequel, Oratorio Tangram, came out, I didn’t know of any arcade that had the game, nor did I have a Dreamcast to play the home version on when it was released in 2000. However, despite mostly missing the game constantly hailed as the best in the series, my love for the Virtual-On stayed strong. Naturally, when I heard that a new Virtual-On was coming to the Playstation 2, a console I actually owned, I was ecstatic.


When I purchased Virtual-On Marz, I noticed something was up. The arena combat had been replaced with a single-player campaign that didn’t really capture the intense spirit of the arcade game. However, it was the only Virtual-On that was easily available to me and the Dualshock 2 replicated the twin-stick setup pretty well, so I played a lot of it. I later learned that Marz was an attempt to bring a facsimile of the Japan-only, arcade-exclusive Virtual-On Force from 2001 to the PS2.


Cut to a few months ago: When I heard that Sega made Virtual-On Force region free, I was excited. Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram had been a big factor in my purchase of my Xbox 360, and the idea of more Virtual-On of any kind appealed to me. However, now that I’ve put a few hours into the game, I’m not sure it was entirely the gleeful experience I expected.


Things I Liked:


Despite the giant "4" on the cover, Virtual-On Force is actually the third game in the Virtual-On series. The "4" and "The Fourth is the Force" tagline apparently refer to the game’s new hook. It’s the first in the series to include two-on-two team battles, and in order to accommodate this, the cracked-out speed of the original games have been halved, the attacks don’t lock on as effectively, and the amount of options for each Virtuaroid have been decreased. However, as a Marz player, I felt right at home with the more leisurely pace.


If you’ve never played a Virtual-On before, the games essentially are about giant robots (called "Virtuaroids" or VRs) shooting and slashing each other to pieces while dashing all over the place in an assortment of arenas. The games use two sticks (in arcades, although I like to use the control method that emulates them on a standard gamepad, too) and control in a tank-like fashion.


Press one stick up and the other down to turn, push them in opposite directions to jump (which re-centers your lock onto a particular enemy), and push them together to do crouching attacks or block (when in range). Each stick has a turbo button and a weapon trigger. The turbos do exactly what you’d expect if you use them alone, boosting your VR in whatever direction you’re pointing the stick(s).  However, at the end of each dash, there is a slight delay in which you are open to attack.


Each VR has three different basic weapons, left (activated with the left trigger), right (activated with the right trigger), and center (activated with both simultaneously). Now, while that initially sounds somewhat limiting, there are a ton of ways to modify these attacks. Dashing forward and attacking will be different than dashing back or sideways and attacking. Crouch attacks can be faster than others, and by holding a turbo button, your moveset changes and everything does much heavier damage.  On top of all of this, there is a pretty well-rounded and enjoyable melee system that has a variety of attack modifications of its own.


Even with the decreased amount of abilities compared to Oratorio Tangram, there are still a ton of options with each character in Virtual-On Force. Throw in hidden special abilities and each of the ninety-one Virtuaroids in the game feels pretty versatile.


The new team mechanics in Force are interesting as well. Each team has a leader, and if the leader is destroyed, that team loses. If a teammate is damaged, a VR can use a rescue dash, which moves health from one VR to the other. Their overall health percentage doesn’t change at all, but the two VRs split the difference between their two health bars. It’s a challenge to keep the leader safe while taking down the enemy leader, since staying too focused on one enemy can leave you open to attacks from unseen enemies.


The home version of Force allows you to customize an AI partner for use in battle. While they start out laughably weak weak, continued battles allow you to create a pretty intelligent (and somewhat customized) ally. There is a downside though: you have to create AI companions one at a time since there’s no option to transfer skill points from one VR to another. It takes a lot of battles to develop a variety of partners.


A mech game is nothing without cool robots, and the game’s Virtuaroids are awesome, designed by Macross veteran Katoki Hajime. From the military-style Apharmd models to the maid/ballerina hybrid Fei-Yen, Virtual-On’s clean mech designs are very distinctive and add to the game’s arcade-y feel. Considering that Force is an upgraded port of a ten-year-old game, the visuals complement the art-style quite well. Honestly, one of my favorite elements of the game is simply trying out the different VRs to see how their attacks work or how they distinguish themselves from the others in the game.


Since the game does include 91 Virtuaroids, it stands to reason that there would be a bit of overlap. While most of them are variants of twelve base models, each one is pretty unique. More importantly, while some VRs are marked improvements over others, they’re unique enough to not feel like replacements for prior models.


Like playing as the sword/rifle wielding Temjin but want to have more long-range options? Use the heavily-armored 747H model.


Too slow? Use the less defensive but still dangerous 747F.


The variant models are awesome in their own right, even if they aren’t the most practical versions of that particular VR. For instance, there’s a version of Apharmd that swaps his tonfa for chainsaws on his legs! Chainsaws!


While having a ludicrous amount of options sounds like it makes it easy to find an incarnation of each VR that meshes with everyone’s playstyle, unlocking all of the VRs can be a total pain. The only way to unlock new VRs is through the annoyingly hard mission mode.


What I Didn’t Like All That Much


The mission mode has a few issues. First of all, one would expect that having all of your missions laid out in a list from the beginning would mean that players get to choose whatever mission they wanted from the start. However, while you can start from three different points when you start mission mode, you cannot go onto a mission unless you’ve completed the mission directly before it.


While this doesn’t sound that bad, when some missions are essentially forced "survival modes" that have you fight six battles in a row (one culminating in a boss fight) the inability to skip these gets really frustrating. I literally spent an hour finishing one of these missions, unable to skip it, despite the game awarding me an unfinished "B" rank. What’s the point of ranks if they won’t allow me to move onto the next mission?


VO Force offers the ability to alleviate the difficulty of mission mode with "EX Options," unlockable points that allow you to increase your health and damage output. While you unlock them one at a time, it only takes an hour or two to unlock them all. While EX options allow you to breeze straight through arcade mode, they almost seem like a necessity for mission mode. It’s very frustrating to have to use EX Options to stand a chance, because with the options on full, the game goes from being hair-pullingly hard to a dull cakewalk. The difficulty curve seems almost impossible to overcome without cheating, but I wish I didn’t have to do so to unlock more VRs. The dependence on mission mode to unlock VRs eliminates any reason to play arcade mode as well.


Although I was initially excited by the promise of Force’s multiplayer, that has fallen short for me in a variety of areas as well. While it does improve on Oratorio Tangram’s complete lack of local multiplayer, Force is very picky about how you can play with friends. Want to play split-screen with two players? Instead of the screen being split cleanly in half a la 2003’s Virtual-On Marz, this game relegates its players to tiny little boxes floating in the black abyss that fills the rest of the screen. This wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, as the gameplay remained intact, despite my squinting, but the friend I was playing with ran into some issues due to the decreased visibility.


When I tried to add a third player into the mix, Force immediately became uncooperative. While AI can be pitted against a team of two players or act as their teammates, there is absolutely no way to play the game with three people on the same console. I could only play the game with two or four people. I have no idea why three people couldn’t play, but needless to say I was a little disappointed.


Online play didn’t make me much happier. The good news is, although the game has been out for a few months, there are still a few people playing online in ranked matches. Getting into one of these, however, is hell. Most of my attempts to play online went like this:


1. Press "Quick Match"
2. Watch a graphic of swirling planets and listen to repetitive music while I waited for the game to gather four players for a couple minutes.
3. Finally acquire four people. Enter lobby and begin ten-second countdown.
4. Have someone leave the lobby, booting all players to the Xbox Live menu on the main screen.
5. Repeat until too frustrated to keep going.


While I assume most people left the lobby because I’m playing over a Wi-Fi connection in America (when most players are in Japan), finding online matches became too arduous a process for me to play more than four of them. The netcode seemed fine when I connected, but it was way too rare for me to have an enjoyable time online.


But I Can’t Stop Playing Anyway


Despite all of Virtual-On Force’s shortcomings, it has a charm that keeps me coming back. Perhaps it’s due to my obsessive-compulsive nature when it comes to unlocking things (I only have like 46 out of the 91 VRs so far!), or my love for giant robots, or just how the game makes me feel like I’m recapturing a bit of my childhood.


For everything that frustrates me about the game (like the fact that your completed missions aren’t saved if you turn your 360 off before exiting the mission menu), there’s something that I adore. The game contains the soundtracks for the original Operation Moongate (my personal favorite), the Sega Saturn version, and Oratorio Tangram as swappable music in the options menu!. Besides, it’s still the only game I’ve ever played that allows me to use a character with chainsaws strapped to its legs.


Food for Thought:

Although I know very little about the storyline of Virtual-On, I am curious as to what military genius decided to make Guarayakha, and why they decided that a robot that looked like it came out of a magical girl anime should be used to control the ungodly might of the game’s mid-boss, Jaguarandi.

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  • Awesome review. I find it amazing that your VO experience growing up is near identical to mine. (Grew up on VOOM in arcades, missed out on Tangram due to no ‘cast and no arcades anymore, picked back up for Marz, then Force on 360)

    Sadly, I haven’t really played much since going through the trouble of importing this on release. I really should find a guide or two to navigating ‘dem Japanese menus and get back to that. I think another obstacle arises from the feeling that I really should be playing this co-op.

    Last, well, I’m kinda surprised you didn’t mention two of the glaring issues with this game. First is the weirdness of saving a co-op profile. A friend and I found that your co-op buddy’s progress isn’t saved unless they have a pre-existing save file (you can’t create one on boot up), and that it doesn’t seem to save progress unless you -lose and don’t continue-. Picking “exit to main menu” seems to ditch any progress you made for your sync ratio.

    Speaking of, what is the deal with the sync ratio? I love the idea that you as a character become better with your preference in Virtuaroid. I’m trying to figure out if this affects my speed and performance at all in piloting and if it does affect anything, it feels extremely frustrating and grindtastic that you get a whopping 1% per victory. =

    (Also, yay for delicious music select options. Variety and selection of music is something every game should have as a bonus for us audiophiles. :P )

    • Kris

      I can’t believe I forgot to mention the coop issue! It was on my mind the whole time, but somehow didn’t find its way into the about 2000 words that I wrote. :p Yeah that’s a total pain, especially when you have a ton of options and your friend has like ten. I actually didn’t really notice the progress saving thing outside of mission mode (since I didn’t play much arcade mode) but that’s ridiculous.
      As for sync ratio, the higher the ratio gets, the slower it increases. Since I like to hop around between a few different VRs, I doubt I’ll ever reach 100%…

  • Code

    Netplay sounds like my experience with Senko DUO; Japanese players generally avoid playing with anyone with a less then full bar connection if you ask me. I mean I can totally understand, no one wants to play on a crappy connection (which is why I seeked out other importers) but it does make online play feel like paradise lost omo;

    Could never get into Virtual-On myself, although the temptation to keep trying is always there, if nothing else because of how closely it’s related to Senko >w<'' But also seriously 91 characters, even if most are just variations — that is pretty badass xwx;; Do you unlock them or are most of them already unlocked? It's regional free isn't it?

    • Kris

      Haha, no worries about not being able to get into VO, I’ve not played much Senko myself (despite my love for G.Rev). If I were you, I’d try the trial for Oratorio Tangram (and use twin stick type A controls!) to see how you like it before you run off and import Force (which is region free).
      You only start off with 10 or so VRs, and unlocking them all definitely takes a while, too! It’s kind of like getting a trading figure when you beat a mission, it’s really exciting to see if you’ve unlocked something new or just an alternate color.

      PS: Senko Duo isn’t region free, is it? I know you have a Japanese 360, but I was wondering if I should go for that or just get “Wartech.”

      • Code

        Nah, Senko DUO isn’t regional free, it’s locked to Japanese systems but Wartech: Senko no Ronde, is bargain bin, usually between $8-$15 (new) and regional free to boot >www<;; Still I had no idea though that Force has so many VR.

  • malek86

    I haven’t played many of these giant robots games.

    The only one I’ve finished is Slave Zero, but that was very different (still cool though). I tried the VOOT demo, but it looked too much like something that should be done with friends, not for the single player.

    Is this one any different? I’m not really into multiplayer.

    • While it’s all a matter of opinion, Virtual On (to me) really is a game all about playing and getting competition going with friends. Sure you can play through arcade or mission mode, but it’s going to be hardly as much fun as throwing it down with friends and seeing who is the superior pilot. ;3

      So that said, if you’re not into multiplayer I personally wouldn’t recommend VO. Maybe Oratorio since it’s only $15 on xbla, but not a 50-60$ title like this one.

      • Exkaiser

        I don’t know, I always had a blast playing V-On by myself in the arcades. Such a great game.

  • MisterDandylion

    The fact that this classic was remade just…..too…. *starts crying like a little girl*

    This game was part of my childhood (this and Time Commando) and I’m grateful…. fully grateful that despite it’s flaws, the game itself, can be an enjoyable gaming experience :)

    Thanks Kris for bringing back memories to this grumpy gamer :D

  • Zero_Destiny

    I remember going to the arcade and playing the game in the big booth that was made to look like cockpit and it had all the mecha controls and I was just like “YES! I’m in love. <3" When the Dreamcast came around I had to get it. Well when I finally got my Dreamcast since it was pretty much on it’s last leg by that time. Some fond memories of my childhood right there for you. :) I see Kris was kinda similar. ^_^

    Loved that Dreamcast game so much. Should probably import this puppy. Well that is if I can get more money. :( Oh well at least I still got my Dreamcast version. XD I have to say on an unrelated note that at least I got my Custom Robo the GameCube and DS games were fun. They make the lack of Virtual-On feel a bit less painful. :)

    • PrinceHeir

      oh my god same2 O_O

      i played this in the arcades, soo much fun. it actually feels like your a mecha pilot :P

      this game is basically the “mercenaries” modes of the mecha genre. one on one fights in a arena with timer and all.

      soo much fun, hope they bring a brand new one instead of a remake.

      • Zero_Destiny

        Yes :D Such good times in the arcade playing the game. It really does bring back some good memories of that time. Would love to see a new one come out in the west. But I am really just happy with Custom Robo. It is diff but it does make the lack of Virtual-On easier.

  • AaqibRawat

    listen up everybody you have to list your fav robots you can only have 5


    great review i am so happy that this is region free
    man i could do with some nostalgia!

    • Exkaiser

      The Viper II is my favorite, followed by the classic Temjin.

      • AaqibRawat

        Man the viper 2 transforms into that plane !

        I would love a model of that thing !

        • Exkaiser

          Well, Kotobukiya did make a Viper 2 model!

    • Kris

      1. Apharmd
      2. Temjin
      3. Fei-Yen
      4. Specineff
      5. Angelan, maybe? I love that dragon she summons.

      I was never a big fan of Cypher/Viper/MYZR for some reason…

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