I have to be honest, I only ended up with this 1996 trilogy of unconnected stories because the Virtua Fighter book I really wanted (Virtua Fighter 2 Ten Stories, if you were wondering) wouldn’t ship to the UK and these were cheap enough that I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give them a go in its place. Unfortunately when they arrived my initial impression wasn’t exactly favourable either as a quick flip through revealed a panel showing Akira “comically” tripping face-first into Pai’s chest and the chapter intro art was so over the top it almost looked like my beloved manhua, massive eyebrows and all.
The good news is that the boob “gag” was a one off and Yoshihide Fujiwara’s wonderful illustrations soon won me over with their expressive line work and fabulous poses, and the stories Nanatsuki Kyoichi’s created for this series sensibly never try to overwork source material that can be summed up as “A ninja’s stolen robo-mum and nice movie star lady’s dad are bad people”. Virtua Fighter’s canon has always been a rather vague excuse to have a big scrap at the best of times, unlike Namco’s Tekken or the Mortal Kombat series’ overwhelming mess of alternative timelines, and Kyoichi has worked this to the benefit of his three tales by taking established basics such as Jacky’s racing talents, Pai and Lau’s turbulent relationship, and Kage’s pursuit of Dural, then using these to go wild and create approachable, energetic, and off-the-wall stories of battle trains and secret research fortresses, Pai having an adopted temporarily-evil ass kicker of a little sister, and Kage hiding in a fat suit for a good chunk of one book. There’s a good mix of light and dark too, with neither making the other feel awkward – some of the Dural scenes are brilliantly unsettling (effortlessly slaughtering a load of people while brokenly singing a lullaby, for one example), and yet the cast are still rounded enough to laugh, cry, fight, and forgive all within the brief 200-ish pages each book’s given them.
They’ll never be accused of being highbrow literature but they are an awful lot of fun and what they do they do very well, pages filled to the brim with your favourite characters having a good time and engaging in some fantastically kinetic battles – Fujiwara’s art positively crackles with energy and is an absolute joy to behold, with beautiful framing and superb lines that effortlessly capture personalities and recognisable moves without ever feeling constrained by AM2’s legendary games. Some of the panels are the sort of thing you wish you could have on your wall, they’re just that good. The stories offered are an interesting clutch of tales that weave what we do know about the cast with some exciting “what ifs” that waste no time in getting down to business and showing off some gripping action – they know you’re here for the fights, and they’re happy to oblige.
These tales were never going to leave a lasting impression on the franchise as it’s never been one concerned with tying itself up in canon in the first place, but even with them really being just a bit of branded fluff you never feel as if you’ve wasted your time as every one of these self-contained stories is well paced, to the point, and beautifully executed. Throw in five short bonus chapters focussing on individual characters and a glorious comedy section at the back of the Akira book and you’ve got an exceptional set that covers every “Virtua Fighter, but as a manga” base a fan could hope for.