Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown was originally released in Japanese Arcades in 2010, then later ported to the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles, two years later, in 2012. Over this nine year period, there has been some movement in the Tier Lists according to Japanese standards, and more recently, there has been some renewed discussion on Twitter on what the list currently looks like. Notably, Homestay Akira has contributed his latest version, so this is probably a good time to review the evolution of the Tier Lists to date, and take a deep dive into what determines a character's ranking in a game like Virtua Fighter, and why, ultimately, it doesn't really matter.
Tier Lists and Balance - A Contradiction?
Many have touted Virtua Fighter as the most balanced fighting game out there, but, how can such a claim be even remotely true in the presence of a Tier List? Doesn't the existence of such a list imply that some characters are inherently better, stronger, or have an advantage over others? If so, then how does this represent balance?
Character Ranking Factors
Firstly, before we start looking at Tier Lists, let's discuss a few factors that determine a character's overall ranking in such a list.
The list of factors above are by no means exhaustive, but serve as a good starting point when comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the characters in VF5FS. Of course, there are other variables that, when considered, can either boost or lessen a particular factor. For example, a slow, unrewarding low attack can prove devastating should it connect when the opponent is near a wall.
- Risk versus reward: this is a fairly obvious point in that characters with higher rewards and lower risk tend to gravitate toward the top of the Tier List. Case in point: Jacky's Smash Upper is a safe (-6f), fast (15f) mid attack that, on Counter Hit leads to a combo close to half life of damage against pretty much the entire cast. Akira's Yakuho Chouchuu is in a similar category, doing slightly less damage on average, but being entirely safe on guard (-5f) (i.e. fuzzy guardable).
- Ease of use: generally speaking character's that are generally easier to use will trend upward on the tier list compared to those that aren't. This is one of the contributing factors to Lei Fei's low tier standing since he is so stance dependent. Additionally, this factor can apply to the input requirements for important attacks. For example, single direction inputs are more consistently applied in tight situations where you don't have a lot of time to react. Conversely, inputs with more complex motions tend to be less practical.
- Damage (inflicted and received): another fairly obvious point relating to potential or average damage output. For example, if two characters have a 16f Normal Hit launcher, but one does higher damage on average, then that character will be biased higher in the tier list. Additionally, characters that tend to receive less damage (due to their weight class for example), also trend upward. Conversely, most of the light weight characters in HSA's list are in the bottom ranks since they receive more damage on average.
- Range of attacks: this factor pertains to a character's ability to posses a threat at varying ranges, which includes heated toe-to-toe exchanges, as well as meaningful (whiff) punishes from range.
- Punishment Options (guaranteed, whiff): somewhat related to the previous point but also considers a character's general ability to punish with good return (damage) across a number of frame disadvantages, against both crouching and standing opponents. Additionally, being able to easily punish a whiffed high attack after crouching under it is an important factor too.
- Ability to Defeat Guard: in VF5FS, the Guarding Throw Escape (GTE) is a particularly powerful defensive technique in that the defender can protect against one (out of three) throws while simultaneously guarding against any mid attack. Simplistically speaking, different characters have alternative means of "defeating" a standing guard, ranging from (obviously) low attacks to guard breaking techniques.
- Strong Nitaku (two choice): when you have enough advantage to force a true nitaku (or two-choice) situation, having the option of a strong, fast mid coupled with good throws. Even better if your fast mids can lead into damaging combos and you have strong throws in more than one direction.
Now, let's review the VF5FS Tier Lists published by credible sources, along with the original commentary that accompanied them at the time.
VF5FS Tier List: Arcadia "Fighting Game Magazine", March 2014
Arcadia was a monthly Japanese arcade game magazine which had the latest news and information on arcade games that were currently being played in Japanese arcades. Fighting games were periodically covered in every issue, with articles written by famous players sharing the latest strategies, techniques and combos. Occasionally, Arcadia would release a supplementary magazine with a particular focus, and in March 2014 they released the "Fighting Game Magazine" which included the following Tier List written by top player, Yanaga.
One of Akira's main points is his jumping ascending . It whiffs lows, starts combos and defeats sabaki, and can be input in such a way to make it defeat an evade, effectively making it a full-circular, even though it's a linear attack! It is particularly powerful during Side Turned with +6 where it is guaranteed against the opponent attempting to Evade Crouch Dash (ECD) as a defensive technique, and at +9 on Side Turned is guaranteed against an Evade.
The reason a linear, jumping kick can be considered a pseudo full-circular is related to the idea of "blank time" in the command input entered as as opposed to simply . This is described in more detail in Neko Dojo's 2AFC blog post Attack Levels part 3, under the section of "Jumping Attacks". This forces the opponent to perform a failed Evade first, due of the wasted jumping frames from the initial , making them unable to Dash or Crouch Dash cancel fast enough to guard.
For the characters in A rank compared to S rank there is not a large difference in their fighting abilities, but it is their basic abilities that warrants attention. Among these is Taka, who was getting a lot of interest at the recent BT cup (in March, 2014). While Taka can rely on throws and against most characters, the opponent must concentrate on specific combos and untechable situations, focusing on the system side to fight Taka, so it is very difficult to have tactics against him. For people unfamiliar with Taka, he is more threatening than Akira.
In the A ranking, Jacky stands out. The reason that he has fallen in rank is that his options to overcome a guarding opponent are limited. His returns on throws are not that high, and when his high damage throws (and ) are escaped it leaves him Side Turned. Choosing the right move to throw out is quite difficult, so while he may look like a simple character to play, the value in really dedicating yourself to him is difficult. Of course, against an opponent who lacks defensive skills he is S rank.
Among the lower ranks, Blaze and Sarah are well suited to tournaments, each with their unique and fast attacking options from stances, and so even against opponents adept at defence it can be tough. These characters are rarely used, so they may be even more threatening than higher ranked characters if the opponent lacks match-up experience. The other character who has ranked up is Jeffry. His weight is high so damage inflicted is relatively low, and his and one-command moves are powerful.
VF5FS Tier List: Homestay Akira, November 2016
Two years after the Arcadia Tier List was published, Homestay Akira kindly offered up his own list in response to a request from VFDC. His list at the time was as follows:
The only notes Homestay Akira provided at the time were:
My observation on the Taka being ranked slightly lower than previously is that the collective knowledge on the Taka match-up has continued to grow over time to the point where his strengths and weaknesses were better understood. As originally noted in the Arcadia Tier List, a different approach was required when fighting against Taka -- standard combos did not work, and many attacks had different effects (e.g. some knockdown attacks would not knock Taka down) which, in turn, required a different strategy. I suppose many were still unfamiliar with the match-up which resulted in his elevated ranking at the time, and the same would hold true today - if you don't know how to fight against a competent Taka, then the match will be very difficult and frustrating.
- Lion and Goh have the potential to be S rank, provided the player is really good with them.
- Taka, previously considered S rank, has now dropped to A+ because while he is really strong against some characters, he still has notable weaknesses against others.
Another minor observation is the inclusion of three A ranks (A+, A, A-). This simply means that the differences among them are much smaller than, say, the other ranks.
VF5FS Tier List: Homestay Akira, August 2019
Fast forward to the present, and in response to some recent Twitter discussions, Homestay Akira's wife @Tetsuko_Yamada tweeted the latest Tier List according to HSA:
While Akira and Jacky remain at S rank, there's been a consolidation of the A rank characters. However, Jean, Kage, Lau and Shun drop out of A rank and into B rank, with the exception of Lau, who now sits at C rank according to HSA. One of the main reasons for Lau's additional drop in rank is his nitaku (two-choice) game is rather deficient, because he lacks fast, threatening mid attacks and his throws aren't particularly strong.
However, a major, notable change between HSA's two lists is that the two heavy weights, Jeffry and Wolf, who were previously considered "bottom tier" are now firmly mid-tier status sitting at the B rank. The reasons for this aren't immediately apparent, but if recent footage is anything to go by, we're seeing both Wolf and Jeffry players really maximizing their character strengths in more pronounced ways. For example, Jeffry's Toe Kick Splash Mountain which is a guaranteed combination on Counter Hit, yields effectively half life damage! Jeffry players are increasingly utilizing Jeffry's Toe Kick, a safe attack which has it's own, delayable attack follow-ups, in regular play yielding positive results. Sometimes, just the threat of the Toe Kick Splash Mountain is enough to send players on tilt!
So, Do Tiers Matter?
Let's take a look at some opinions from notable, famous players.
During an interview with Fuudo at WCG 2009, he was asked for this thoughts on game balance, and the differences between SF and VF.
In the VF5FS Pre-Launch Party Interview with Chibita and Fuudo, posted on May, 27, 2012, they were asked what their opinion was on Tiers in Final Showdown, and whether every character stood a chance at winning?
In the original Arcadia Tier List thread on Nov 24, 2016 Kamaage Akira wrote:
There seems to be a common consensus among top players that VF is the kind of game where the outcome is ultimately determined by the player's skill, and not at the character select screen. Further evidence of this can be found watching any tournament in Japan and counting the number of times you see top players change their character during a tournament to avoid a "bad match-up" (hint: the answer is never).
No Really, Do Tiers Actually Matter?
Still not convinced? Perhaps people are hiding an ugly truth about VF's lack of balance in how the tiers actually do matter and simply can't be ignored because they have a direct correlation on tournament outcomes? Well, let's check out the results of the Mikado Virtua Fighter Grand Prix (VFGP) series, shall we?
The VFGP is a weekly, singles tournament held at Ikebukuro Mikado Game Centre with arguably Japan's (and the world's) best VF players competing. I've looked at the results of every VFGP tournament held this calendar year (2019) up to the current day, a total of 30 tournaments. Both the winner and runner-up were recorded and charted below.
Alongside each character you'll find their current ranking as per HSA's latest Tier List. While seeing S-ranked Jacky appearing in pole position (ha ha), the other S-ranked character, Akira, is found towards the lower end of the finalists' standings. But what is particularly interesting to see in the upper half of the finalists is two D ranked characters (Lei Fei and Eileen), a C ranked character (El Blaze), while the majority dominated by B ranked characters. What happened to the A ranks? They're all in the bottom half! Furthermore, seeing Aoi, Brad, Jeffry, Pai and Sarah without a finals appearance also doesn't mean that these characters are "bad". Character popularity also plays a role. To make an obvious point: if no Brad players are entering the tournament, then no Brad players will ever make the finals, despite how high they might appear in the Tier List!
Of course, results such as these don't necessarily mean that the Tier Lists are wrong, but it is more of an indication of how little Tier Lists actually matter in VF5FS.
The chart above was obtained from Mikado Game Centre Twitter account where the results of each VFGP event would be tweeted, along with a link to the YouTube VOD if you're interested in seeing how a particular tournament was won!
[S0R01, 32 players] Winner: Kubinashi Rider (Lei Fei), Runner-up: Rascal (El Blaze)
[S0R02, 34 players] Winner: Kubinashi Rider (Lei Fei), Runner-up: Demae (Wolf)
[S0R03, 23 players] Winner: Wekashi (Lei Fei), Runner-up: Masatsu (Kage)
[S0R04, 37 players] Winner: SHU (Shun), Runner-up: Hoshi no hikaru (Jacky)
[S0R05, 26 players] Winner: Homestay Akira (Akira), Runner-up: VIPism Inaniwa meshi (El Blaze)
[S0R06, 29 players] Winner: Aki (Lion), Runner-up: Demae (Wolf)
[S0R07, 24 players] Winner: Kanshu (Kage), Runner-up: Nameneko (Wolf)
[S0R08, 16 players] Winner: Barugo no Jean (Jean), Runner-up: Chabōzu (Lei Fei)
[S0R09, 26 players] Winner: Shishamo (Eileen), Runner-up: Jinzou Ningen (Lau)
[S0R10, 26 players] Winner: Tonkatsu (Jacky), Runner-up: Sancha Akira (Jacky)
[S1R01, 25 players] Winner: Jin (Kage), Runner-up: Masao (Kage)
[S1R02, 21 players] Winner: Kubinashi Rider (Lei Fei), Runner-up: Tamo3 (Goh)
[S1R03, 26 players] Winner: SHU (Shun), Runner-up: Jishaku (Taka)
[S1R04, 25 players] Winner: Tonkatsu (Jacky), Runner-up: Shark Vanessa (Vanessa)
[S1R07, 24 players] Winner: Shishamo (Eileen), Runner-up: Hoshi no hikaru (Jacky)
[S1R08, 35 players] Winner: Hoshi no hikaru (Jacky), Runner-up: Demae (Wolf)
[S1R09, 38 players] Winner: Hoshi no hikaru (Jacky), Runner-up: Zettoman (Lei Fei)
[S1R10, 37 players] Winner: Densetsu S.P. (Jean), Runner-up: Mukky Akira (Akira)
[S2R01, 33 players] Winner: Sancha Jacky (Jacky), Runner-up: Jishaku (Taka)
[S2R02, 26 players] Winner: Masao (Kage), Runner-up: Shironuko (Jacky)
[S2R03, 43 players] Winner: Tonkatsu (Jacky), Runner-up: Barugo no Jean (Jean)
[S2R04, 43 players] Winner: Kubinashi Rider (Lei Fei), Runner-up: Barugo no Jean (Jean)
[S2R05, 28 players] Winner: SHU (Shun), Runner-up: Banzai K (Eileen)
[S2R06, 30 players] Winner: Tonkatsu (Jacky), Runner-up: Masatsu (Kage)
[S2R07, 28 players] Winner: Kubinashi Rider (Lei Fei), Runner-up: VIPism Inaniwa meshi (El Blaze)
[S2R08, 35 players] Winner: Masao (Kage), Runner-up: Densetsu S.P. (Jean)
[S2R09, 50 players] Winner: VIPism Inaniwa meshi (El Blaze), Runner-up: Tokyo Jacky (Jacky)
[S2R10, 38 players] Winner: Chibita (Lion), Runner-up: Shark Vanessa (Vanessa)
[S3R01, 31 players] Winner: Wasakon (Lau), Runner-up: VIPism Inaniwa meshi (El Blaze)
[S3R02, 48 players] Winner: Reorau (Goh), Runner-up: Densetsu S.P. (Jean)
So If Tiers Don't Matter, Then Why Bother?
If we agree that tiers don't really matter in a practical sense, or aren't reflected in tournament results in any meaningful way, then why do we even both creating or discussing Tier Lists in VF5FS? Because examination of character strengths and weaknesses can be informative and educational. It's a convenient way of establishing, presenting and communicating these findings for a character in relation to the others.
For players learning a character, it can help them focus on areas for development they may have overlooked previously. For example, reinforcing a strength, or minimizing a weakness. On the flip side, it can help players improve their match-up knowledge by examining what makes a particular character strong or weak, and explore ways to reduce or exploit these traits, respectively.
At the end of the day, there's no harm whatsoever in discussing or even coming up with your own Tier List. However, when compiling your own, you should try to be cognisant of your own limitations in character and match-up knowledge, and be aware that the list you come up with may be less indicative of the actual tiers, and more reflective of the current leader-board within your local scene. So, when putting your own tier list forward, be prepared to explain to others why it appears that way, be open to feedback and use the opportunity to educate either yourself and/or others!
Finally, you should never, ever be discouraged at seeing your character of choice appear "low" in a Tier List, thinking that they may not be viable competitively. There is a wealth of evidence debunking this misconception, as shown above in the latest results coming out of Japan, and the fact that many scenes outside of Japan are dominated by the so-called mid/low tiers. So, if you're a new player starting out, or even an existing player still trying to assert themselves within their scene or community, there is always plenty of room for improvement, and lots of opportunity for success, no matter which character you choose.