Smoke stirs in the Hirose Entertainment Yard, barely lit by blue strips. A pair of bland back-to-backs sit ignored, as if they’re no big deal. They’re just generic cabs, with laminated cards adding the titles to the machinetops. But look at the panel: This is unmistakably it. Twin sticks! Virtual-On: A classic so distant it was unreal in the day, but that’s it, right there, ¥100 a play.
I remember a 90s PC mag reviewing an intimidatingly serious mech wargame with hard, hard mouse-and-keyboard controls. It was tough going, but nothing, said the reviewer, proving his knowledge of the scene, compared to an exotic Japanese arcade game – a game that was already legendary in the year of its release.
And the legend was this: twin sticks.
I’m sure plenty has been said about the manly symbolism of the joystick. When most videogames in history boil down to egocentric power fantasies, it’s a funny demonstration of omnipotence that we should play them with so servile a grip.
Plenty has been said about the manly symbolism of the joystick
But double! How are we to interpret this twofold puissance? Am I a twin-sticked being, sybaritically employing all available manual resources to my own ends, or is it rather that two single-sticked beings are present, commanding my attention? Either way, you’ve got your hands full. And as I succumb to this unknown daydream, handcuffed to the bed of extra-dimensional mech-on-mech fantasy, another player sits behind the screen, watching my moves through the two-way mirror of our back-to-back units in the Akihabara grunge.
It probably doesn’t bear analysis. (And let’s move on, lest discussion turn to Dekarisu.)
Virtual-On is a robot beat-em-up. There are two robots; one’s yours and the other needs to be destroyed. You fight in confined arenas more like boxing rings than battlefields. But unlike a typical beat-em-up, the player’s view is from behind their mech (a bit like Punch Out!!) and your movement is free, not defined relative to your opponent (a bit like Super Smash Bros.).
Model 3’s boxy multicolours are more suited to giant robots than writhing bodies
The behind-mech perspective means two players need two screens – hence the back-to-back versus cabinet. If you’re playing alone, the spare screen opposite allows for spectating. All this is rendered in mid-90s Model 3 polygons and they hold up pretty well. Those boxy multicolours are at least more suited to Virtual-On’s giant robots than they were to the writhing bodies of Virtua Fighter 3.
The controls do show some mercy: Jumping and dash-firing both spin you to face your opponent, which quickly resolved my frequent confusion. But the control scheme is the stuff of legend, so that should probably have a subheading of its own…
But hold on. In much the same way that any reasonable person sitting down at Street Fighter II for the first time is bound to enquire about the concerns and motivations of this gentleman “Ken” before wishing either to punch him or to kick him – whether that be weakly, strongly, or mediumly – and will dodge his presumably accidental flying uppercuts until it is established from a dependable source that a fighting tournament is under way and that all participants are in fact informed, consenting adults – we will, in Virtual-On, with equal attention to the propriety of our actions as a massive gun robot, not be activating either our left or our right weapon until – and unless – a proper reason to do so has been established. So why this belligerent atmosphere of jumbo-robo arena combat? Simple.
Well, not that simple: In the Virtual Century (bear with me), when megalomaniacal corporations have taken over every aspect of life on Earth (bear with me), one of them, DN Corp, found an ancient military installation underground on the moon (bear with me).
Players of Operation Moongate were actually controlling real robots in another dimension
DN Corp appropriated the alien technology from the underground moon base and made massive fighting robots to violently destroy their competition.1 That all went great except that the dormant fighting robots already inside the underground moon base woke up and got a bit crazy. Boo. Don’t worry: DN Corp were able to defeat them with their own big robots. All they needed were ace pilots, and they found them by installing Virtual-On: Operation Moongate machines (the first game in the series) in 1990s Japanese arcades in our reality. Players of that game were therefore in actuality remote-controlling real robots in another dimension. And by all accounts they did a jolly good job.2
Anyway, in this game, DN Corp has collapsed following the whole moon fiasco and broken out into its eight manufacturing plant subdivisions. The eighth plant and the fourth plant, as a result of some new administrative regulations, have inadvertently—
Fuck it let’s just shoot the robots.
The twin sticks became a point of comparison for any complex controls
Back to the controls. Those fabled twin sticks really did become a point of comparison – for mech controls, for any kind of complex or difficult controls, and most of all, for controls of Virtual-On’s ports to other platforms. The rule seems to be that if you’re a cool gaming kid then you’re not allowed to play any version of Virtual-On without bemoaning the absence of twin sticks. You are allowed to like those other versions, and you are allowed to invest days of your life into them and love them with all your heart, but only despite the absence of the original controller, which is all you are allowed to think about, even in your thousandth hour.
So necessary were the Twin Sticks that they became a capital-T-capital-S peripheral for Saturn in 1996 and for Dreamcast in 1999. The 2003 PS2 Virtual-On: Marz had no official peripheral, so fans modded Saturn sticks to fill the gap. When the XBLA game hit in 2009, the modders got back on the case, but customer demand eventually got an official pre-order-only stick for 360 and another for the PS3 port that hit in 2012. Those reportedly sold out in Japan at ¥30,000 a set – game not included – even while Americans grumped about the $15 software download. Gotta have the Twin Sticks.
For players who breathe air and have brains, this is excellent
Reviews have been unanimous: “Absolutely great. A classic. If only it had Twin Sticks.” / “The best experience possible in the universe (except it lacks Twin Sticks).” / “For players who breathe air and have brains, this is excellent, but personally I am crying because no Twin Sticks.”
And yet never have I seen anyone explain what’s so good about the bloody things.
I’d like to tell you I fulfilled the dreams that grew from images planted by PC Zone asides about this oriental legend – that I stacked my hundred-yens and perched on the height-adjustable stool until I was a magician with two wands. I didn’t do that. I’m still not sure I could really get the robot to move properly.
What I can tell you with absolute authority, though – if you need to play this game one day – is that striking cool-in-you-head poses with the joysticks, mashing the buttons determinedly and making robot noises with your mouth is enough to win a few rounds on a single credit. You might even entertain some spectators.3
Due to a questionable Japanese L/R transliteration decision, the robots are not called VirtuaL-oids as in virtual; instead they went with Virtua-Roids. As in piles.↩
This reminds me of the Philip K Dick novel Time Out Of Joint, in which the government transports a future man to a faked-up little 1950s USA suburb where he believes he lives a normal life and solves crossword puzzles for fun. In fact, those puzzles are the encrypted coordinates of planned Martian missile attacks on Earth and the man is unwittingly saving humanity in his suburban stupor. I’d like to think that if the government wanted to keep me calm and unquestioning while they tapped my brainpower, the imperfect nirvana they’d choose would be a dingy Akihabara arcade where somehow the 90s is now retro.↩
I have since read that the spectator mode for the cabinet’s opposite player was removed in v5.66. That guy must have been smirking at me for a different reason.↩