Not-game games, Virtua Fighter style!

Virtua Fighters CG Portrait Series is relatively common and well-known among Saturn importers, even if only as That Thing I Probably Don’t Want To Buy. What’s less well known is that Akira and Pai’s CG Portrait discs had what more or less amounts to de-makes on the Game Gear in Japan, essentially making them the spinoffs of a spinoff of a tie-in music album.

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As most people are roughly aware of but generally don’t get to directly experience the CG Portrait series first-hand I thought it’d be helpful if we took a look at Pai’s Saturn disc first before diving into the more obscure Game Gear release, so here we go!

The Virtua Fighters CG Portrait Series runs across eleven discs, one for every character in Virtua Fighter 2. The standard fighters had their volumes released for general sale between October 1995 and March 1996, with Dural’s only being available to the first 50,000 people who mailed in cut-out coupons (found on the obi) from five different CG Portrait releases and attached them to the special postcard included with each CD. You can see both the mail-away postcard and the portion of the obi that was supposed to be cut out in the photos below.

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I should probably make clear that these discs aren’t games at all, but completely non-interactive music videos for a single track each from Virtua Fighter 2: Dancing Shadows. Thankfully the ‘video’ is presented as a fixed-order set of still images with some zooming/panning/overlays to give the illusion of movement, sparing us from experiencing the Saturn’s notoriously grainy FMV capabilities. The only options on the main menu are to play the track once or put it on repeat, as well as a karaoke mode for those who want to sing along – it may sound ridiculous to pay for a music video that’s basically a fancy five minute advert for an album, but it’s worth remembering that these were released long before the likes of YouTube and the internet in general made high quality art and music for your favourite game only a few keypresses away.

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Now we’ve got a baseline to compare it to, it’s time to move on to the Game Gear game!

GG Portrait: Pai Chan is part of the ‘Kids Gear’ range of software that came out very late in the Game Gear’s Japanese lifespan, and uses Pai’s giant-headed Virtua Fighter Kids model to create cute facsimiles of the Saturn’s more grown-up CG scenes. The art is a mixture of pre-posed 3D model renders dithered down to Game Gear standards with hand-drawn pixel art used to create a good chunk of the props and fine detail – the fish pattern shown on Pai’s dress in certain scenes, for example. This approach works as well as could be hoped for considering Sega were trying to squeeze 32-bit era 3D designs onto what’s basically a souped-up Master System, and the Kids-style model helps to retain a lot of Pai’s expressions and recognisable poses even with so much fine detail lost.

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But Sega knew that asking gamers to hold their Game Gears for a few minutes and then politely turn them off would feel a little bit hollow even if the box warns quite clearly on the front and back that it’s not a game, so Sega went and added some small interactivity to most scenes and a handful of very brief minigames to keep people on their toes. The interactivity doesn’t amount to much, but it’s completely different for every scene and as the images change so often a quick prod of either the A or B button will usually do something interesting, such as summoning a gust of leaves, ringing the bell on Pai’s bike, or making a frog pop out of a bucket. These animations don’t do anything as such, they’re included just to give the player something to fiddle with while the images and music roll past. Even so, these flourishes have been well thought out and within the limitations of the ‘game’ make for a cute little diversion.

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The minigames come and go almost as swiftly as the other scenes, so it’s important to read the instructions given in the manual ahead of time to avoid failing before you even realise you’ve begun. These four minigames cover all sorts of life-and-death scenarios such as licking an ice cream or pedalling on a bike, and succeeding at these vital tasks will slightly alter the image shown immediately after, which is as traditionally game-y as GG Portrait gets.

GG Portrait may not be worth the £60 (on a good day) it’s currently selling for, but when taken in the spirit it was originally created in it’s an amusing and unique little cart, a rare glimpse into Virtua Fighter’s less serious side, and probably the last time we’ll get to see new Virtua Fighter Kids content.