Scott Francis

Two Sticks of Fury

The upcoming re-release of Cyber Troopers: Virtual On Oratorio Tangram(lovingly abbreviated as 'VOOT') has begun a revitalizing of a long-dormant community. However, the unique control system for Oratorio Tangram(or OraTan for the short-short abbreviation) may not be ported over and I wanted to explain exactly how two digital sticks are the very heart and soul of Virtual On. A growing number of forum-goers have been asking why dedicated fans are concerned about how Sega will adapt the control system. More precisely: why we clamor for Twin Sticks. Some people are convinced that the twin analog sticks on a 360 controller would suffice to duplicate Twin Sticks, or that a controller is "faster".

Adding to the problem is most Westerners' cultural identification of the twin-stick control system. Almost every gamer has unconscious memories of Battlezone or Tank. Both of these games used a pair of stick controls, and were extremely limited in their movement options: rotate left or right, move forwards, and move back. Most players logically assume that Virtual On is just as limited, and chalk it up as a mech-game with a novelty tank-layout control system. And this frequently leaves them minus a credit after the AI opponent has done some simple dashes and wiped the floor with them.

The Virtual On series are not really 3D combat games. They are effectively a 3D fighting game based around fixed-length vectors. Trying to play it like a typical FPS will only cause confusion and defeat. Insert Credit's PN.03 review identified a similar theme: your motions are arbitrarily constrained to give purpose to the game. If you could run willy-nilly throughout the level and shoot at your opponent, you've just re-invented Quake(or Shogo, I suppose). Both PN.03 and Virtual On are defined by their control limitations as much as they are restricted by them. And thus trying to remap the underlying control input will not result in happy players.

To see what makes VO so different, let's start at the basic maneuvers, and work our way to the top.

Starting Out

The core of VO is the dash. Dashing is as simple as pressing one stick in a direction and pressing the Turbo button. Your Virtuaroid will move rapidly in the pressed direction until the dash time runs out, at which point it will enter a few animation frames of it recovering its balance, or dash freeze, During this time you cannot initiate any other maneuvers, so you are effectively a sitting duck. And since dashes are fixed length, you will probably be eating a beam shot or bazooka shell fairly shortly if your opponent is any good.1 Fortunately, dashes may be canceled(incurring minimal freeze): return the stick to dead-center and press the Turbo button again.

One thing to keep in mind is VO's lock-on system. As long as your opponent is within your field of vision, you will have a lock-on and your weapons will track the target automatically. However, if you lose sight of them, your lock on will be lost and your weapons will simply fire straight ahead. So if your opponent dashes to your side, or even past you, you will lose your lock and need to reacquire him. At this point, most FPS players are frantically pounding the sticks2, trying to get their machine to turn faster.

Jumping is the first hint of 3D movement. Pulling both sticks out to your sides will initiate a jump and automatically recenter your view on your opponent. If you were to pull one or both of your triggers, the VR will also use an aerial weapon. But pressing both sticks back towards each other without firing drops your VR back down to the ground immediately after reorientation. This is known as the jump-cancel, and is one of two major ways to quickly regain your bearing on your opponent. The faster you can open and close the sticks, the lower(and quicker) your jump cancel will be. Needless to say, beginners will be doing this a lot.

The other major way to reorient towards the enemy is to use a dash-attack. Any weapon may be fired during a dash, and your VR will reorient to face the enemy while firing. However, there is a physical limitation: your rotation rate and firing are not synchronized. If you're facing opposite to your opponent, you'll probably empty most of your magazines into thin air before you complete the rotation, and you'll be stuck in dash-freeze to boot. Sometimes this is an acceptable trade-off in a desperate situation, but blindly dash-attacking is far from a winning technique.

The FPS-oriented minds among you already have made up their mind: get to mid-range, side-dash, and circle-strafe him to death! But you've got another problem with dashing attacks: your weapon changes forms and attack power based on your dash direction. Dashing forward results in a stronger variant, capable of knocking a VR down. Dashing to the sides results in a spread of standard shots, that will usually just bounce off your opponent's armor at long range(or miss entirely if you haven't judged the angle between you and him correctly). Finally, dashing backwards will result in even weaker attacks meant to dissuade an enemy from chasing you.

In a nutshell, the core of VO's higher tactical game is to force your opponent to overextend himself via dash-freezing or loss of sight, while still maintaining your own lock-on to land a killing blow. This was originally referred to as Dash-vectoring when the original Virtual On was released, and is now considered to be an expression of the fighting game concept yomi. Predicting your opponent's next tactical move is just as satisfying as it is in Virtua Fighter.

"But you don't need sticks for any of that! I could do the same with pads!" Yup, you can. Up to this point, it doesn't sound like the sticks add much to the game as long as you have dedicated inputs for dashing, crouching3, and jumping. However, jumps aren't the only thing you can use the sticks for.

Beginning in VOOT, you may change the direction of your dash as many times as you wish by returning a stick to dead-center and pressing it in a direction up to 90' from your dash vector. E.g. while dashing forwards, you can change it to go either left or right. Once you are moving right, you can then change it to forwards or backwards. This is known as the Watari dash(or "Vertical Turn" in the official literature), and is another basic technique in VOOT: an experienced player can start moving sideways to clear an obstacle or opponent's line-of-fire, then Watari-dash forwards and trigger a weapon to get the more powerful attack. Even better, you can also air-dash: before reaching the apex of a jump, you may dash in the same manner as on the ground. And both air-dashes and regular dashes may be "curved" by using rotation.

Things also change once you move into close-combat(or 'CC'). Once you are within a certain range of the opponent, your HUD will "double" lock-on, and certain weapon bars will begin glowing yellow. This means that the corresponding trigger will now use a physical melee attack rather than a ranged weapon. CC hits can do a frightful amount of damage in a hit, and multiple CC attacks may be linked together much like a Street Fighter title. Couple this with a basic guard/cancel/reversal system, and close-combat becomes a most extremely intimidating situation for a novice. Masters, though, find it one of the most exhilarating scenarios in VOOT.

In addition to CC weapons in double-lock-on range, your VR may now also perform a Quick-Step. By a similar method as dashing(hold your turbo button first, then press your stick in a direction), you can rotate or tumble in fixed arcs around your opponent. And if a CC weapon is available at that range, you can perform a Quick-Step CC attack: your VR will pull out the weapon as they slide around, hopefully catching the enemy with the edge of your blade or fist. Additionally, you can jump and attack instead of Quick-Stepping, which will result in a powerful aerial attack.

Bear in mind that CC weapons have varying abilities of homing or closing to the opponent, and an opponent may guard against them as well. Fortunately, you may cancel your CC attack in several manners similar to other fighting games: by using a different weapon, by jumping, or by another Quick-Step. Quick-Step CC attacks may also be canceled even into another Quick-Step or a regular attack, but jumping attacks may not be. Canceling is a major part of high-level CC play, leading to extensive mind-games. A match between CC specialists has an aura of beauty and hair-trigger deadliness to it that can resemble a Chinese wuxia film.

To sum up the major techniques I've discussed, here's a Chinese video illustrating them in motion, up to CC and Quick-Step canceling(once the interviews start, you can turn it off).

Putting it Together

I've been gradually escalating you through the complexity in the Virtual On gameplay, but I still haven't justified the use of dual sticks. To explain the last piece of complexity, I'll return to an almost invisible pillar of the game. To illustrate, here are two tricks that have nothing to do with dashing. The basic of these is the "machinegun": several VRs have a gun-type weapon with a relatively long animation for a single shot. By wiggling a single stick while pressing the trigger, the VOOT animation system cancels the remaining animation frames, leading to more shots being fired. Another trick in the animation system for other VRs is to "row" holding one stick in the direction you want to go and wiggling the other in the same direction will greatly speed up your VR.

The reason for these tricks, and the main reason that two sticks are vital, is a little known rule that has been around since the original Virtual On: both sticks' input are always sampled. One stick is enough to move, for example, but two sticks in the same direction will move your VR slightly faster. "Rowing" works because one stick initiates movement, and the wiggling-motion of the other stick tricks the animation system from playing your VR's recovery frames during walking.

For a more consistent example, take the dashing close-combat attack(referred to as a "Swallow's Tail" after Sasaki Kojiro's signature technique. Dashing CC attacks may be used at any time during a dash by pushing a stick opposite to your movement and pressing the trigger: your VR will dramatically sweep its weapon and stop its dash at the same time.

While this is a neat maneuver, it doesn't seem like it's terribly useful unless your opponent is foolish enough to stand still long enough for you to set them up. However, most beginners assume they need to use the same stick for both initiating the dash and triggering the attack. Instead, you can use one stick to dash forward, and pull back on the other one. This can result in dash-CC attacks executed at almost point-blank range by a skilled player. The seeming redundancy in the control input leads into easier ways to enter complicated chords that are much harder to execute in a physical sense. Much like how a real arcade joystick can spread the physical work over your arm and wrist compared to your thumb, using the second stick to chord your next maneuver is a big advantage to having a second directional input.

Hopefully the more observant of you have also been noticing a repeating requirement: a minuscule dead-zone for your input. For most vectoring methods you must return the input to a neutral state before pressing a different direction, and since the dash or jump only lasts for a few seconds, you want as little lag-time as possible. Already we've hit a limitation if we replace the digital stick with an analog stick: the extra second it takes to precisely return it to neutral and press it in a different direction has cost us a good chunk of the dash. Worse, as VOOT allows dashes in the eight cardinal directions, you may not be exact in the direction you tap the analog stick in. Instead of dashing just to the left of the building in your way, you've accidentally pressed up against it for the remainder of the dash. Whoops.

The use of digital sticks comes out of a brilliant piece of engineering on the part of the original VO team. While the Twin Sticks have nice clicky microswitches, the extra length and a sturdy base also provide excellent leverage for quick tapping. At higher levels of VOOT play, going from a jump to a jump-cancel, and them immediately dashing left into a forward Watari-dash attack is just a matter of flicking your wrists. Try rapidly moving a pair of analog sticks to their extents and back, independently and precisely in all eight directions, and see how long before your hands cramp up. Keep in mind that in the highest-level play, you'll need to be keeping up with this level of speed.

Closing thoughts

Bear in mind, it wouldn't be impossible to design a new Virtual On game meant for a controller or single joystick. Senko no Ronde has shown that the same dash-vectoring gameplay can work in a 2D arena with shmup-based controls, while the obscure Dreamcast game Frame Gride had an appreciably similar close-combat system using a standard controller. But we're not playing a new Virtual On game, we're about to be playing an exquisitely tweaked and balanced game designed from the ground up around twin sticks.

It's possible to play the game with a controller mapping, but it locks off higher levels of control. It's like replacing an F1 racer's steering wheel with a keyboard. Or like playing Quake without mouselook. Or like a PC FPS fan playing Halo, but I repeat myself. We love Twin Sticks because we love the game, and we want to play it how it was designed to be played.

At the time of this writing, a blog post from the Japanese developers indicates their awareness of the Twin Stick demand, but they cannot guarantee anything. Homebrew sticks are already in progress from the most dedicated.

At the end of the show, people can change, but we don't want to leave our sticks behind.

At least, not yet.

Update 2009

I'm flattered that this article has been showing up in a few blogs and forums. Interestingly, it's being used as an insight for newbies into VO:OT's movement schema, and in one case an entertaining dismissal of the non-explanatory bits as "hardcore religious twinstick nonsense" :D I'm still planning on adapting my Saturn sticks, as an opportunity to improve my hardware-hacking skills by building a Universal PCB adapter. Progress and pics on this to follow as things are developed. As can be seen in the sidebar, I've acquired both an Xbox 360 and a Live account, and have been well pleased by the VO:OT 5.66 port. While using the 360 pad has crippled my quick-step reflexes(for now), it's forced me to use more long-range characters that I haven't made a habit of playing. This in turn has exposed some longstanding bad habits in my play style: repeated side-to-forward Watari dashing and constant rushdown attempts. It helps that there's a lot of good Japanese players hanging around, and willing to school you without trash-talking or ragequitting. So in spite of my noting of VOOT's design dependency on sticks, don't let that stop you from joining in! If you've ever played any Virtual On game and come away pleased, or if you're looking for a grueling-yet-rewarding learning curve, this is an excellent time to start. The VO community is breathing again and it's always a good day to SELECT YOUR VIRTUAROID and GET READY.

Update 2018 - 8 years after


1 This, by the way, is one of the major reasons why the latter entries in the series were so poorly received. Both Force and Marz had minimal dash-freeze coupled with slow dash speeds, leading to nobody being able to land hits in a consistent manner. VO had effectively transmogrified into a clunkier Rocket Arena, and the serious fanbase shunned it.

2 If you have the chance to use actual Twin Sticks, please don't ever do this. Twin Sticks aren't incredibly fragile, but treating them roughly will wear them out faster, or even break one of the microswitches. Many a VO machine sits alone in an arcade because a frustrated kid did his best to break it, and the maintenance staff has no idea how to repair it. For everyone who was a one-time VOOT player at Seattle Gameworks: I'm talking to you.

3 You can also press the sticks towards each other for guarding against melee strikes or to initiate a Crouching attack. However, your VR won't animate a crouch or a guard on its own: either a weapon-trigger(for a Crouch attack) or being within close-combat range(indicated on your HUD) is required.