The Player

by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Virtua Fighter 5 Rated Teen; PlayStation 3 & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince the age of 4, I've wanted to have a videogame arcade at home -- in my bedroom if possible. For a kid awakening during the digital dawn, the arcade was the original lifeline. Escape from school and home was available amid the darkness of electronic sounds and the illumination of colored lights.

Even after the Nintendo Entertainment System invaded U.S. living rooms, the arcade retained its status because no home videogame system could produce the colors and animation of a hard-wired machine. The speed and responsiveness of arcade games made the close confines of the television feel inadequate.

Among the graphically distinguished arcade games that could never be recreated at home was the Virtua Fighter series. In this one- or two-player unarmed combat game, hyper-shaded burly men and petite women martial-artsify each other in fluid, all-motions-captured combat. The controls are limited to punches, kicks and blocks. Pressed in combinations with the joystick's eight different directions, however, those three buttons make the fighters in Virtua Fighter move like digital demons.

Though it's the fifth full game in the series, Virtua Fighter 5 has not deviated from the formula that made the original so enchanting. The current version has the graphical prowess of the PlayStation 3, and aside from an occasional missing split-second of animation, it's arcade-machine smooth.

The game's hefty roster of fighters has been enlarged by one young girl and one short, solid Mexican wrestler. Powerhouse fighters now tower appropriately over the others, and the girls move like lightning but can be slammed into walls like featherweight dolls. Emphasis is still on combat, not cleavage.

The pinched range of sounds (whack! boring whack! hollow swoosh!) is preserved from the arcade, where sound was never the series' priority. And the familiar three buttons have migrated onto the PS3's SIXAXIS controller, bringing Virtua Fighter 5 as close to home as the arcade has ever come.

THE GOOD: Despite being an offline, two-player-at-best game (as the arcade was), it's possible to play through Virtua Fighter 5's entire quest -- battling through virtual arcades, collecting costumes and fashion accessories -- using only one of the game's 19 characters. Each fighter has such a unique range of moves that it takes hours to perfect even the mildly advanced techniques of each one. This not only makes for a substantial fighting game, but it makes battles among the fighters more dynamic. Instead of being copies, the fighters are distinct down to the colors of their eyes and the way they rotate their fists as they punch each others' faces.

THE BAD: Costumes and accessories such as sunglasses become available after major fights on the PS3 version of Virtua Fighter 5. But the Xbox 360's version of the same game is bound to reward me further with the satisfying ping of Gamer Score points when the opportunity to battle on Microsoft's machine comes around in a few months.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Virtua Fighter 5 kicks ass, then slams the back of the head with an elbow, blocks a punch to the jaw, does a Shaolin roundhouse followed by a backbreaking drop over the knee and ends with another challenger lying limp on the ground.

5 /5 Stars