Best in Series #1 – Relive Past Wimbledon Glory With Virtua Tennis 2

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.

What, no strawberries left?!

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.

Sega Mega Drive Mini – Top 5 Games

In a world before the Covid-19 pandemic (yep, I barely remember either) there was something of a retro videogame revival taking place. We’ve had the NES mini, and the SNES mini, cataloguing some of the most beloved releases to grace either platform. The Sega Mega-Drive Mini (Genesis mini in the US), released in 2019, aimed to do the same. Forty-Two titles came included, 13 of which were exclusive to the west. Sega division M2 handled the conversions, and the console itself, arriving at 55% the size of the original home classic, certainly looks the part. But what about the games?

Thankfully the choices are not as generic as expected heralding quite a few tasty surprises. Castlevania: Bloodlines, Mega Man: The Wily Wars and Contra: Hard Corps are among the rarer and desirable classics on offer, as well as a very welcome return of Road Rash II. Who knew Sega and EA even still talked?

On the downside, many of the titles are a case of same old, same old. Sega have been releasing various Genesis/Mega Drive collections since the PS2 era, with the latest edition only being made available on Switch last December. No less than 24 titles (57% no less) make a reappearance on the Mega Drive Mini. But no one can argue that regardless of how many times they are released, many of these titles were key to the Mega Drive being a success. From Alex Kidd to World of Illusion, The Mega Drive Mini certainly is worthy of our money and time. And so, in no particular order, here are my top five picks.

Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994)
The inclusion of Castlevania: Bloodlines is certainly one of the best inclusions for many reasons. Firstly, it is the only Castlevania game for Sega’s platform, and was also exclusive at the time. Thankfully, the version included matches that of the recently released Castlevania: Anniversary Collection for PS4/Xbox One/Nintendo Switch in that it is uncensored; its original 1994 release felt the wrath of the censors, much like Mortal Kombat did for the SNES. The end result is a traditional Castlevania adventure that is also among the most violent in the series.

Eternal Champions (1993)
Not an obvious choice for many I’m sure, but a pleasing one for me nonetheless. Sega’s answer to Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat was better than neither of them, but could easily be considered the cultists choice. Sega developed Eternal Champions for the Mega Drive, and not an arcade port like its more successful counterpart giants of the genre.

Its unique characters from different time zones, including caveman Slash, futuristic Muay Thai fighter R.A.X. Coswell and 1920’s mobster Larcen Tyler, are unlike any other fighting franchise. They certainly could not have had names that were any less memorable if they tried. Weapon-wielding, an Art of Fighting-style special move meter, even its own take on fatalities make Eternal Champions a unique, if a little clunky, fighting experience.

Street Fighter II: Special Championship Edition (1993)
On the back of Capcom developing Street Fighter II: Turbo for the SNES, Sega made the wise choice of delaying their own version of Street Fighter II to improve its content. Originally intended as a port of the namesake arcade, this newly dubbed “Special” edition includes both ‘Champion’ and ‘Turbo’ modes, the former of which the SNES version never had. In addition, this was the first console port of the famous arcade fighting introduction sequence, which is noticeably absent from all SNES versions of Street Fighter II.

It’s incredible to think that a decision to originally stick with Nintendo as its home console base, then to come full circle and over-compensate for a rival console, would result in such a console-defining moment. Special Champion Edition became a revolutionary move for the Mega Drive, paving the way for production of the 6-button controller that would resolve the initial issue of toggling between punches and kicks with the 3-button pad start button. This inevitable shift is a decision that transformed a title that was originally unworkable to arguably having better control than its SNES counterpart. Depending on your taste in controllers of course.

Although it trumps the SNES Turbo title on feature inclusion alone, what of the action itself? Everything is intact, plus the additions of tournament modes and both ‘Champion’ and ‘Turbo’ modes give the Street Fighter II Turbo a run for its money. As ever though, the Mega Drive just isn’t up there when it comes to the sound quality. The slightly muffled tunes and voices let the side down just a tad. Nevertheless, this is the best fighter the Mega Drive ever had to offer until the arrival of its sequel, Super Street Fighter II.

Road Rash II (1993)
Although boasting an incredibly baron Wikipedia page, Road Rash II is easily one of the greatest racing games on the Mega Drive. The core elements of racing with dirty fighting tactics to take out your rivals makes for challenging-yet-brilliant entertainment. Use chains, clubs or even punch/kick your way through multiple obstacle-riddled tracks at breakneck speeds. Road Rash II is simply an insane amount of fun.

Childhood memories of Road Rash include unlocking several of the nitro bikes, such as the black nitro addition. It would often be too fast for any race with any collision catapulting your rider through the air, hilariously defying gravity, and still have enough time to gather your bike and win the race. Ah memories. Road Rash II also introduced the split screen 2 player mode, whether against CPU opponents or head to head, which is presumably what gave it the nod over the original’s inclusion.

Road Rash II is simply a riot of a racing game, and a very welcome surprise to the Mega Drive Mini.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars (1994)
A unique inclusion given it is its first ever rerelease, Mega Man: The Wily Wars is unique to me in that I’ve never had the pleasure. All the more reason for looking forward to it then, in this 16-bit take (a la Super Mario All Stars on SNES) of the first three NES Mega Man games.

Unlike Nintendo’s Mario compilation however, there is a story behind this Capcom collection; Dr Wily seeks to change the future by going back in time, to the first three adventures, to eliminate Mega Man. Once you’ve conquered the graphically-enhanced adventures, it’s on to an original stage, Wily Tower, for a final showdown.

Given its sporadic release back in 1995, particularly in the US, it’s no surprise that Wily Wars at one time sat at the £200+ mark on eBay and other gaming markets. Which in turn makes it all the more pleasing that it is included here.

How about you? Did you buy the Mega Drive Mini? What are you favourites?

My 52 Game Challenge of 2014

2014 was a great year for gaming. Particularly for me, as I decided to undertake the ultimate lonely gamer task: complete 52 games in a calendar year. That works out at just shy of 4.5 games a month. Ouch.

Now I’m typically a gamer who starts many games, but takes forever to finish them. Save points are often my weak point in that I often to decide to call it quits once I reach one. Note to RPG makers: NO MORE SAVE POINTS, autosave all the way please.

Anyway, although late one, I completed the challenge. A simple feat for a lonely gamer such as myself, if I’d not started it in June! Yes, that’s 52 games completed in 6 months. And here they are:-

Xbox Live Arcade:-

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Streets of Rage 2

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade

Streets of Rage 3

TMNT: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled

Street Fighter III Third Strike

Final Fight

X-Men

Sonic Adventure 2

The Walking Dead Season 2

King of Fighters ’98

 

Xbox 360:-

Lego Batman 2

PES 2015 (Champions League)

 

PSN – Duck Tales Remastered

 

3DS:-

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Sega 3D Classics: Sonic The Hedgehog

Sega 3D Classics: Shinobi III

Kirby Triple Deluxe

Fantasy Life

Super Mario 3D Land

 

Wii U:-

Super Mario 3D World

Mario Kart 8 (Special Cup)

Bayonetta 2

 

Wii – Kirby’s Epic Yarn

 

Gamecube – Capcom Vs. SNK 2

 

Nintendo 64 – Lylat Wars

 

Gameboy:-

TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan

Kirby’s Dream Land

Super Mario Land

Super Mario Bros Deluxe

Donkey Kong Land

 

SNES:-

TMNT: Turtles in Time

Mickey’s Magical Quest

Final Fight 2

Excitebike: Bun Bun Mario Battle Stadium

The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mick and Minnie Mouse

Aladdin

Super Castlevania IV

Street Fighter Alpha 2

Castlevania: Dracula X

Starwing

Donkey Kong Country

 

Mega Drive/Genesis – TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist

 

Master System – Sonic The Hedgehog

 

NES:-

TMNT 3: The Manhattan Project

Castlevania

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

Where’s Waldo?

Super Mario Bros 2

Duck Tales 2

 

Turbografix – Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

 

Arcade – Sunset Riders

 

Particular highlights from this list have been many, but the standouts are Kirby’s Epic Yarn, A Link Between Worlds, 3D World, Fantasy Life and Bayonetta 2. LOVE THAT GAME. Not many particularly lengthy titles I know, with Fantasy Life probably the longest, but there were some tough cookies, the standout being Castlevania’s III and Dracula X. But that was the beauty of the challenge; it drove me on to finish even those difficult titles, in order to move onto the next one.

I shall once again be undertaking the challenge in 2015, in fact, if I get to 52 in 6 months again, I may well go for ANOTHER 52! I shall keep you all updated on here, plus I shall Instagram and Tweet each game as I finish them.

How about you, are you up for the challenge?