Welcome to a new regular feature entitled Best in Series. Expect analysis and reasoning behind my personal favourite entries across entertainment medium franchises. This first edition revisits a truly classic sports simulation celebrating its 20th anniversary of release both in the arcade scene and at home.
Wimbledon is so quintessentially English. With the worlds most distinguished Tennis gland slam tournament returning following its pandemic-induced cancellation in 2020, tennis fever is gripping the British isles once again. For two weeks of every English summer, come rain or shine, everyone becomes a tennis fan. Throw in the nation’s fondness for queuing, along with strawberries and cream, and you have the complete Wimbledon experience. There’s the matter of some actual tennis in there somewhere too. And be on the lookout for Cliff Richard if rain disrupts the occasion. You’ll thank me later. Probably not.
The Queue, as it is officially known for Wimbledon, is often half a mile long or more, full of potential punters trying their luck for entry tickets. Why wait three hours or more in the current searing SW19 heat, with no guarantee of any entertainment? Why indeed, when the greatest video game tennis experience has been in the palms of our hands for the best part of 20 years.
Sega’s Virtua Tennis series laid the marker for tennis simulations in both the arcades and at home for the majority of the 2000’s. I won’t bore anyone with yet another Sega Dreamcast history lesson, but the console’s significance and popularity was largely due to arcade-perfect home conversions such as Virtua Tennis and in particular its sequel, Virtua Tennis 2. The Dreamcast delivered what the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation simply could not; arcade-level visuals and gaming in the home. For the home console market the Dreamcast served as the biggest corner turn for arcade-quality entertainment, and the industry has never looked back. And Sega’s now-absorbed Hitmaker development team were one-time masters of it.
The clue is of course in the name. Hitmaker did just that: make hits. Hits that easily still stand up today. Despite two sequels coming in the years and gaming generations after, nothing has touched the tennis scene better than the first sequel in the series. Released in 2001, Virtua Tennis 2 was quickly ported to Dreamcast on the back of the original’s success. It is arcade-perfect both aesthetically and mechanically in every way, a concept none-too-common at the turn of the century. Hitmaker added bucket loads of content, particularly for the single player, to an already coin-grabbing classic.
In today’s sports simulations, a.i-reliant single player modes sometimes prove to be a drab, soulless affair (I am literally staring at my copy of FIFA 21 right now). No sign of that here, particularly in career mode where you create your own tennis pro. The matches are in a calibre of their own, with increasingly-challenging CPU opponents thrown in. But it’s the developmental mini games that really serve up the aces. One such mini game sees you practice serves across court into bowling pins to reach a target score. It’s simple, it’s challenging, and most importantly, a lot of fun. In FIFA, the would-be cute mini-games and training set pieces offer little more than a meaningless preamble for the most part. Virtua Tennis 2 began using such training regimen to better your player before it was cool. Today realism may be the demand, but often at the expense of the concept of fun; you know, that feeling a game is supposed to bring to our fingertips and brains.
Mastering the career training paths, multiple match wins and rank-climbing culminates at Wimbledon, or the “English Championship” as it is referred to here. Sega may not have acquired the licensing for the Grand Slam occasions, but they certainly made up for that with its roster. Anyone with a historical knowledge of tennis past would recognise such names as Tim Henman and Pat Rafter, names synonymous with my own tennis-crazed years. Rafter, the Australian heavy hitter was a personal favourite of mine, such a joy to watch. Now-legend Serena Williams, sister Venus and Monica Seles, all Wimbledon finalists, form part of the female roster, a new addition to the series.
This game is almost twenty years old and still remains the greatest nod to the world’s greatest tennis championships. It’s better than its sequels and predecessor largely due to its more balanced roster, but mostly because as a tennis sports sim package it is perfect in style, content and the most importantly, the tennis. The female roster added a new dynamic to the tennis video game at the time; mixed doubles matches, more base line play, less serve and volley, more ground-strokes and decisive rallies. The male and female attributed differences also means two different dimensions to career mode. You’ll engage in hours of entertainment regardless, and is also perfect to dip in and out of between matches and mini games.
In today’s world of online sports gaming, sports simulations are frequented by players hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. There is no such option here, as Virtua Tennis 2 is from a different era. People, actual people, need to attend somewhere physically for the multiplayer experience. Imagine that. Actual banter in your face. Or someone else’s. Plus you don’t look like a tit like many a Wii Sports player often does, as if the more wildly the arm is swung the better the shot will be. It won’t, mate. Have a lie down.
Fans of queuing, strawberries and/or cream will of course be disappointed with the lack of digital equivalent. Don’t judge us Brits, we’re weird like that. We queue, then we die. If it were possible, the English would probably queue to die. But there is a solution. Only got 2 controllers between your friends? Why not make those waiting their turn queue at the door? Maybe while stuffing their faces with – you guessed it – strawberries and cream. Problem solved.
You see, any sports fan, maybe even players of the sport, needs to realise that Virtua Tennis 2 is as pure a sports gaming experience as they come. As far as the real thing goes I have sparsely watched a single rally of tennis since the 2012 Olympics in truth, but just 30 minutes of Virtua Tennis 2 pulled me right back in. I might even dust off my old racket and have a rally myself. Who says video games aren’t good for you?
Virtua Tennis 2 serves as a perfect reminder of a time when sports games were more immediate. No installation times. Miniscule loading times. Huge fun. And best of all, no queuing required. Sure, you won’t see centre court for real. But for a third of the queuing time you could have a blast with the best tennis players of yesteryear. And, most importantly, you won’t have to keep an eye on the weather in case Cliff Richard shows up.