This article is available in both written and video format. The voiceover in the video version is me reading out the article below, so if you watch the video you won’t have to then read the article. If you enjoy the video and want to see more, there’s bonus unedited footage of the game (without my voiceover) at the bottom of this page.
Welcome to That Time When, a new series dedicated to weird and wonderful moments in the history of gaming. In episode one, let’s go back to that time when Sonic played football in Virtua Striker 3.
These days when you think of football games, there are only two series that stand out: FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer.
Back in the day though, there were a load of different football series all vying for gamers’ attention. And their money, obviously.
Whether it was Sensible Soccer, Actua Soccer or Konami’s own International Superstar Soccer series (which Konami ran parallel to Pro Evo for a while), football fans were spoilt for choice.
A sub-genre of this was the arcade football game. While home titles strived for realism and extensive play-by-play commentary, those released in arcades played exactly how you’d expect: simplistic controls, barely any rules and a ridiculous leap in difficulty when the game decided it was time to put more coins in.
SNK had plenty of success with its arcade football games, as did the likes of Tecmo and Taito. But perhaps the most interesting was Sega’s Virtua Striker, which was released in 1994 and ran on Sega’s Model 2 arcade board, the same family of boards as the likes of Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter 2 and The House Of The Dead.
It wasn’t one of Sega’s very first polygonal games like Virtua Fighter or Virtua Racing, then, but it was still a fairly early one, and was certainly one of the first ever football games to go with polygonal graphics.
Being an arcade football game, it had just three buttons: one for long passes in the air, one for short passes along the ground, and one for shots. When you were defending you had one button – slide tackle – and that was it.
It neither felt nor played anything like a real game of football: it was hard to dribble for more than a couple of seconds because opposition players would close you down almost immediately, meaning it felt more like a game of hot potato at times as you tried to pass or shoot as quickly as possible.
And yet, people who were mad enough to stick with it (like me) eventually figured out how to reverse engineer the game’s limitations to score some fairly impressive goals.
In my eyes – and not many others, to be fair – Virtua Striker is the best arcade football series ever made. Not so much because of how it plays, but because Sega, true to form, put some strange hidden teams in there.
The first game – which was only released in arcades and never had a home version at the time – kicked things off reasonably enough with one relatively sensible secret team.
To unlock it, you have to highlight and press Start on the following teams: France, Colombia, Spain, England, Germany and Argentina. That spells out FC SEGA, which is a team made up of various members of the game’s development staff. A lovely little easter egg, if a fairly mundane one.
Virtua Striker may not have won many fans in terms of gameplay, but there was no denying it was a looker and so it was popular enough in arcades to justify a sequel.
Virtua Striker 2 was released in 1997 and was made for Sega’s next arcade board, Model 3 (which was also used for games like Virtua Fighter 3 and Sega Rally 2). It was even more popular than the first game and was regularly re-released with updates: as well as the standard 1997 release there was also Ver. ‘98, Ver. ‘99 and Ver. ‘99.1.
Eventually Sega launched its new arcade board, NAOMI (which shared the same architecture as the Dreamcast but was more powerful). Along with that came the final arcade update for Virtua Striker 2, Ver. 2000, and since the Dreamcast was Sega’s shiny new console, a port of this version – named Virtua Striker 2 Ver. 2000.1 – brought the series to players’ homes for the first time.
I know, it’s confusing. Here’s a rundown. Virtua Striker 1: arcade only. Virtua Striker 2: loads of arcade versions then a Dreamcast port.
The Dreamcast game upped the secret team ante by featuring three of the pricks. FC Sega returned once again, although the method used to unlock them differed slightly: this time it was France, Chile, South Africa, England, Germany, Argentina that you had to press Start on.
Still, they were more or less the same team, once again made up of Sega developmental staff, though this time the captain had a panda strapped to his arm and some of the players had unique goal celebrations.
Much better than this was the game’s second hidden team, MVP Yukichan. You could either unlock them through normal gameplay, or my doing the usual trick, this time pressing Start on Yugoslavia, USA, Korea and Italy.
MVP Yukichan is a strange team consisting of giant cartoon characters. The goalie is a massive turtle, there’s a ghost in defence, there are a bunch of Inuit chaps thrown in there for good measure.
There’s also a massive white squirrel thing, a mariachi with a guitar strapped to his back and – easily the best of all – an enormous snowman for no real reason I can tell. On top of this, even though there’s usually no weather in the game, when you play as MVP Yukichan it’s snowing.
As if that wasn’t strange enough, holding Start while selecting MVP Yukichan on the Team Select screen gave you access to the third and final hidden team, MVP Royal Genki.
Genki is a Japanese developer who, at the time, had just helped port Virtua Fighter 3 to the Dreamcast while also working on its Tokyo Xtreme Racer series.
Although it had nothing to do with Virtua Striker 2 that I’m aware of, that didn’t stop it being honoured with this space-themed team, consisting of a bunch of aliens and two scary-looking robot things.
Much like playing as Yukichan made it snow, playing as MVP Royal Genki would cause stars to rain from the sky and shatter when they hit the ground. All very sensible stuff.
“This is all very fascinating, Chris,” I hear you say. “But where in the blue hell is Sonic? I thought that’s what this article was supposed to be all about.”
Enter Virtua Striker 3. The story of this one was similar to that of the second game: it was originally released on a new Sega arcade board (the NAOMI 2), before it got an updated version – called Virtua Striker 3 Ver. 2002 – on another one.
The twist here was that the new board was the Triforce: the special arcade hardware developed in a three-way partnership between Nintendo, Sega and Namco. The Triforce was basically GameCube hardware in arcade form, so sure enough, Virtua Striker 3 Ver. 2002 was then ported to the Cube itself.
This was the first game in the series to go widescreen, and it enjoyed a visual upgrade over the second game too. If it looks a little blurrier in these screens than the Dreamcast version does, that’s just because the GameCube lacked the lovely, crisp VGA support the Dreamcast did and my captures don’t look as good as a result.
The GameCube Virtua Striker is easily the best of the bunch. As well as a proper campaign mode of sorts – where you take on a series of friendlies and world tours to train your team up for the game’s unofficial equivalent of the World Cup – it had substitutions, player names (albeit fake ones), an Adidas sponsorship and just generally felt better to play.
And yes, it also had hidden teams, but this time you couldn’t just press Start a few times on the Team Select screen: you had to earn them.
The game has a Ranking mode, where you play three matches in a row and are then given a ranking from A (the best) down to… um, Panda. Look, I don’t know why.
Each time you play through Ranking mode you’re given some points – between 1 and 5 depending on how well you did – which build up towards a mystery tally. When you get 30 points you’ll unlock MVP Yukichan again, although this time it’s called Yukichan United and there’s a couple of new characters including a polar bear, a smaller snowman and a penguin.
Far more importantly, when you hit a mere 20 points you’ll unlock… drum roll… FC Sonic. As you’d expect by the name, this is a team consisting entirely of Sonic characters, although considering this is the early 2000s there weren’t really enough great characters to fill a team and so there are a bunch of Chaos in there to make up the numbers.
Naturally, Eggman is the goalie because he’s a big lad, but the likes of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy Rose also feature in the squad, and some of the characters even have their own goal-scoring celebrations.
It was a lovely addition to the game, especially given the general situation: Sega had only just bowed out of the console market by this point and had only been releasing games on its former rival Nintendo’s system for five months when Virtua Striker 3 came out.
In fact, after Sonic Adventure 2 Battle on the GameCube and Sonic Advance on the GBA, Virtua Striker 3 marked Sonic’s third appearance on a Nintendo system.
So what happened next? Well, in 2005 Sega released one more Virtua Striker game – the cleverly titled Virtua Striker 4 – as well as a Ver. 2006 update, both on the Triforce arcade system. That’s for another episode, though.
After that, the series was put to bed, meaning we’ve now gone 13 years without a new Virtua Striker game. With any luck, Sega will eventually bring it to the Switch through its fantastic Sega Ages series, but given it was generally regarded as a bit rubbish by most people I think that’s probably just wishful thinking on my part.
If you’d like to see more of Sonic in Virtua Striker 3, here’s ten minutes of unedited footage, free of any pesky commentary from yer man Scullion.
Virtua Striker 3 ver 2002 is available on the GameCube. You can buy a used copy from Amazon UK or any other boutique that specialises in forgotten GameCube football games.
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