Fighting games are ideally full of violent fun: controlling a tough guy, or (usually) tougher girl, and beating the hell out of another character. Of course the ultimate aim is to KO the opponent and unlock new characters and stages to expand the gameplay. But that's far too limited a goal for some of the best titles in the genre, which have taken improbable martial arts moves and physics-free cleavage to unimaginable levels of innovation. But occasionally, a fighting game will come along that's fun on a deeper level: rewarding players who spend the hours necessary to learn to tap controller buttons in complicated combinations, and investing the virtual characters with a degree of personality.
If any game deserves to hold the new standard for excellence in ass-kicking, it's Sega's Virtua Fighter 4 for the Playstation 2. The graphics are nowhere near the fluid excellence of some of the fighting games available for the X-Box and the GameCube, and they're even mediocre compared to some of the titles from the aging Dreamcast. But in the realm of gameplay, Virtua Fighter 4 achieves a level of sophistication that hasn't been available to fighting gamers before.
There are only three different basic command buttons here -- punch, kick and block. Used in combination with the four directional buttons, they don't add up to much. But the simplicity of the control scheme allows casual players to smash randomly on the buttons to satisfactory effect. More serious players will appreciate the challenge of realizing their strategic goals within the variety of combinations available.
The old-school elegance of the game's controls -- harkening back to the arcade more than the any home video game system -- is paired brilliantly with a massive menu of playing options that only a home console could provide. There's the standard player-versus-player mode, but some devastatingly sharp artificial intelligence programming will make battling the Playstation 2 a sufficient challenge for quite a while. There is also a training mode so complete that players can master every move in a way that suits their particular learning style. Add customizable characters and programmable artificial intelligence, and you have a game that can easily smack down any console competition currently available.