Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown is the antithesis of everything that's happening in fighting games at the moment. While the competition looks to cram as many modes, colours, tag-team combinations and nuts graphical effects into their electric battlegrounds, AM2's five-year old effort sits calmly in its dojo, meditating on the purity of competition and the precision of combat. It's fighting games distilled - mind games, dexterity and timing on a digital canvas- and it's a masterpiece.
In truth, the differences between this and Virtua Fighter 5 itself are minimal. The combatants are slightly lighter on their feet and faster, throw-reversals are simpler, and a few minor balancing issues have been tweaked. There's a pair of new scrappers, too, in the form of lanky Karate-cum-Muay Thai fighter Jean Kujo, and the always entertaining Sumo destroyer Taka-Arashi. The real surprise, though, is the price and method of delivery. That the finest version of Virtua Fighter is now a downloadable game - and only costs a tenner - is a shining example of everything that's right with the modern games industry.
You could say that Virtua Fighter 5 has aged like a fine wine, but it doesn't feel like it has aged at all. This is still a beautiful and utterly relevant fighting game, and one that demands a new audience to fall in love with it. Virtua Fighter has long carried a reputation for being too complex and obtuse to get into, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While button bashing will get you nowhere, the level of dexterity - one of those three key tenets of the genre - required is actually far lower than Street Fighter IV or its Tekken-crossing brother.
Instead, focus is given to timing and spacing in the ring, and an innate understanding of the character you're playing with. Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown, as with the rest of the series, is in love with the martial arts it represents. So not only are the likes of Judo, Shotokan, Vale Tudo and TaeKwonDo mimicked in their movements, but also in their fundamental philosophies. Gaining an understanding of Goh, for example, requires knowledge of his move-list but also recognition that his aggressive brand of Judo involves figuring out any way possible of closing the distance and dumping your opponent on their head. Try and use him in any other way, and you're going to get beaten down.
Thankfully, Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown's masterful Dojo mode is a perfect way to learn each character. It's an interactive tutorial that lets you play through each move one-by-one, with video demos for trickier links and a painless reset button to get you and your training dummy back into the middle of the ring. Even playing through a movelist once with a character is enough to give you an understanding of exactly how they work, and from there you can pick and choose the attacks that you'll eventually form into your own strategies. Just like true martial arts.
Once you're in the ring, then, what does Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown offer that its competitors can't? Its fenced-in combat is probably the closest traditional fighting games have come to replicating mixed martial arts, with attacks and combos up against walls doing significantly more damage, and command of the centre of the cage as important as knowing which button does what. When the matches flow, they're a hypnotically fluid spectacle, as one-upmanship, aggression and counter-fighting blend seamlessly. A round can end in seconds or play out until a time-out, depending on the psychology of the fighters and the strategy each player chooses to employ. It's this purity, balance and tactical depth that make Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown the best in its class.
At such a low price, and including fully-formed online battling, character customisation (through DLC, but it's entirely optional) and the best AI in the business, it's a true grand master. Training starts now. Don't be late.