The game of the anime of the game isn’t usually the sort of sales pitch that fills my heart with joy; even less so when we’re looking at the Game Gear interpretation of a series famed for being at the bleeding-edge of arcade technology at the time. But none of that apparently matters as here I am anyway with a copy of Virtua Fighter Mini in one hand and clinging to the faint hope that this might end up being the sort of off-kilter fun the manga was with the other.
The meat of the game lies in the enticing story mode, a thirty minute or so adventure that mixes a dash of 2D-fied Virtua Fighting with certain key events from the first twenty four (of thirty five) episodes of the anime. To stick as closely as possible to the feel of the original plot you can only pick characters that were around for that particular scene to fight as, with the remainder acting as back-up choices should you lose. Cutscenes are frequent and impressive for the hardware, clearly mimicking specific frames from their TV counterpart and making excellent use of some simple animations to convey movement.
Unfortunately we now have to move on to the battle system, which is something of a let-down.
The good news is every last one of the eight available combatants are instantly recognisable even though they’re only thirty pixels or so high and they all possess a decent selection of their most iconic moves, so they manage to look the part and feel well animated all things considered. Ambition seems to have gripped the team like an angry terrier on a postman’s sausage though and in an attempt to embrace Virtua Fighter’s need to pioneer the latest gaming advancements Mini includes a disorientating and visually ugly fake sprite-scaling option, which in practise means it instantly flips between standard sprites and enormous ones as fighters move towards or away from each other during a bout. If the larger sprites were significantly more detailed then you could make a case for them being an excuse to show off a level of graphical flashiness that would normally be unseen on the Game Gear’s sub-par screen, but as they’re just the standard sprites, doubled, there’s no reason to use this weird zoomed-in view. Mercy comes in the form of an option before the start of every fight that lets you decide if you want to lock the view to the standard smaller sprites (best), use only the larger sprites (never), or ‘realtime’ that switches between them as you play (also never) – it feels like they really wanted to nudge you towards the fancier options, but knew in their hearts there was only one mode that offered a playable fighting experience.
Virtua Fighter’s standard three button input system hasn’t been tweaked at all to accommodate a system with only two main buttons and an iffy d-pad, meaning guard is stuck on the Game Gear’s start button – and yes, the game does expect you to press P+G or K+G to execute some moves. On your Game Gear. I know. You could argue that changing defending by holding back just isn’t the Virtua Fighter way, but when you’re already as far gone as developing the 8-bit handheld tie-in game of the anime of the arcade smash hit I wouldn’t have thought it’d matter – nobody’s playing this to get some practise in before heading out to the arcades. The classic PPK combo and similar entry-level barrages are all available for you to use, although it’s sad to see the AI immediately block, block, and block again once you get going, and to the point where you can consistently win by Ring Out because the AI apparently has no other response for these moves. A fighting game where only one of you does the fighting doesn’t make for a particularly exciting experience. The option to battle a friend over link-up obviously sidesteps all the problems found when playing against the AI, however as there’s never been a time when Virtua Fighter Mini was cheaper or easier to find than any of it’s superior home alternatives I have no idea why anyone would bother – as fancy as story mode’s event scenes are this game can’t hold a candle to Takara's Game Boy efforts.
On the one hand I have no doubt that some serious effort was put into Game Gear-fying Virtua Fighter and fans of the anime will no doubt enjoy seeing the pixel art version of their heroes, but once you’ve swooned over the cute continue animations and worked out how to play as Dural there’s no real reason to come back for more.