How to feel old with one simple sentence: Virtual On is now twenty years old.

That’s right, Sega’s arena-based robot beat ‘em up has now been around for two decades. Which also means that the “Model 2” arcade hardware Virtual On debuted on, home to some of the greatest and most successful arcade games of all time (Daytona USA, for one), is even older. If that doesn’t make you feel the icy chill of your own mortality then I don’t know what will, and I envy your youth, ability to not take games so seriously, or both.

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It all started out simply enough for the series – sit down in front of those famous twin sticks, take your pick from one of eight Virtuaroids, then fire lasers, missiles, and whatever else you had to hand at whoever was standing opposite you at the beginning of the match. The relatively complexity of the control system was alleviated by a lock-on system that would auto-target your opponent if you were firing while running or leapt into the air, and only having three weapons to worry about meant that in just a few goes anyone enthralled by the sight of these vibrant Sega mechs would soon be dashing behind buildings to avoid enemy projectiles and getting used to the feel of their favourite character.

And this is where Virtual On always differed from the competition – 3D “cyber” games were nothing new even back in 1996 – but Katoki Hajime’s (Policenauts, Super Robot Taisen, numerous Gundams) designs created machines that were somehow relatable while still being firmly in sci-fi robot territory. This strong design work didn’t just help sell Temjin model kits and allow for Phantasy Star Online 2 crossover outfits, it helped players get a good feel of the play style and weight of a VR before they’d gone anywhere near them – anime-style “hero” VR’s, more serious military combatants, and some really out-there mechs have always been a series staple and when they’re wrapped up in Virtual On’s beautiful style it means there’s a fighter to suit everyone.

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A superb sequel (Oratorio Tangram) and cameo appearances (Super Robot Taisen K, UX, and no doubt many more) came and went until we hit 2001 and Virtual On Force is released on Sega’s “Hikaru” arcade board, which was apparently so wonderful and powerful and totally custom built that Sega couldn’t afford to develop more than six games for it (including Planet Harriers and Star Wars Racer Arcade, if you were wondering), so Force was left in an awkward limbo where it’s already expensive two-teams-of-two-players setup was left to languish in a few Japanese arcades…

Until 2003, when a sort-of pared-down version of Force hit the PS2 in both Japan and the US in 2003 under the name Virtual On Marz. Suffice it to say, nobody likes Marz and it didn’t sell terribly well. 
But a little detail like that was never going to stop Sega from doing something crazy so in 2010, hot on the heels of Force’s arcade debut nine years earlier, the game finally got the arcade-perfect home port it deserved and Force saw the light of day on the Xbox 360. But only in Japan. It’s like they were trying to sell as few units as possible or something.

Anyway! Hori also got on the bandwagon and made an official 360 Twin Stick EX to go with the game, which only cost around five times as much as the standard edition of Force did at launch (30,857 yen for the stick, before shipping), and Sega released a limited edition version of the game that came with a booklet and six music CDs, because Virtual On has always had amazing music.

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Virtual On Force can be taken two ways really, on the one hand it’s a beautiful and reasonably accessible title with the not-insignificant added bonus of co-op play meaning you and a friend can battle together and learn/carry each other along as you go. It also has the ultimate allure of being a title that could have, but didn’t, see release outside Japan – and we all lust after those, don’t we? On the other once you become half-competent at the game you soon realise an ugly truth; Oratorio Tangram is the one Virtual On that really deserves your time and attention as that’s the one with the depth, speed, and complexity to take an enjoyable bash-around and turn it into something more - a deadly tactical ballet of giant mechs knocking the stuffing out of each other. Thanks to XBLA Oratorio Tangram is also the one entry that’s been sitting under our noses all this time, but we were too busy wishing for the newest and shiniest game to notice.

There may have been peaks and troughs over the past two decades but Virtual On remains an iconic and exhilarating series even though it feels like it’s constantly trying to be as awkward and unbuyable as possible. With Border Break taking over in arcades as Sega’s team-based mech game of choice and Oratorio Tangram’s best version remaining a digital-only 360 exclusive it’s unlikely that the series will ever reach the audience it deserves, but it has managed to carve out a respectable niche that both the developers and dedicated fans have every right to feel proud of.