Why Java Tea? Why would anyone think to associate Sega’s big-headed and incredibly cute Saturn/ST-V fighting game Virtua Fighter Kids with a particular brand of soft drink?
Well, why not?
Games have a long and varied history of willingly collaborating with commercial consumables, from Chester Cheetah’s 16-bit outings to the supposed Sonic-beating “interstellar cosmic dweller” Zool‘s love for Chupa-Chups and the most natural of Final Fantasy VII tie-ins, packets of pasta. Food-related cross promotions like these are always a safe bet for everyone involved: no matter how good the ad campaign or bonus items there’s still no guarantee someone playing a game will have an interest in visiting a theme park but they’ll definitely need to eat and drink on a daily basis – and if they’re going to spend money on that they may as well quench their thirst with the unmistakable taste of a long cool sip of Jav-
Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.
There’s one thing I want to make perfectly clear before we start going down this Virtua Fighteang (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself) rabbit hole: The “Java Tea Original” version of Virtua Fighter Kids is a playable demo of the game that automatically ends after three matches no matter how well you do. For emphasis’ sake: This is not a Fighting Vipers/Pepsi[man] scenario where localised in-game advertising present in the final Japanese release of a title was scrubbed clean for a later international audience – Virtua Fighter Kids had its own standard official Japanese release (just) before the rest of the world, and it was completely tea-free.
As far as I can tell this special Java’d version of the game was distributed as some sort of mail-in prize or giveaway, although the exact details of how this was done appear to have been lost to time. I can at least say for sure this was definitely never directly sold when it was new as the packaging has “Not for sale” printed on the box, and the spine card, and the disc, and the manual in two languages – that’s the sort of unsubtle hint even I can pick up on. When is almost as much of a mystery as how – the internet just seems to shrug and give a collective “I dunno” when I ask for further information – but if I put my finest deerstalker on my head and perform a quick bit of (very) low-level detective work we discover the “Date modified” information on all the Java edition files fall between the 20th and the 27th of May 1996, while the final (Japanese) release files were all last modified between the 25th and 27th of Jun 1996 – about a month later (and the official Japanese launch was about a month after that, on the 26th July 1996).
This month’s difference is most easily seen in the opening FMV: By and large the Java Tea FMV intro uses the same character motions as the final (although as you can hopefully see in the images above Shun’s dance segment bears little resemblance to its final form and rather than avoid Virtua Fighter 2 Kage’s kick with a ninja-y puff of smoke poor Kids Kage is forcibly introduced to his larger version’s shoe leather) but omits the backgrounds entirely – presumably they just weren’t ready by the time this demo needed to enter production (the date on the finished file is a month and a few days later than its Java equivalent). Other less obvious embellishments include additional special effects (such as the spotlight flares during Wolf’s segment or mini-Jacky’s lightning as he kicks) and greatly improved lighting – the orange glow of the released Akira’s warm sunlight is nothing more than plain white shading in the Java edition. None of these later improvements are drastically different but it’s still interesting (for some of us) to be able to compare the two and see exactly where the extra polish went into the finished piece, especially as officially released material drawing such a clear line from basic blocking to final release is still relatively uncommon.
So between the timestamps on the files and the almost-finished state of the FMV it’s probably safe to assume this giveaway was a pre-release promotion intended to drum up hype (and preorders) rather than something organised after the fact, which also handily explains why all the menu graphics beyond the 1P and versus mode icons are shown as unselectable “Secret” tiles rather than crossed or greyed out game modes – they really would have been a secret before release, a tantalising tease of all the possible fun AM2 were preparing for those who purchased the full game.
For all that’s unfinished or deliberately blocked off there’s still plenty of Kids content in this branded demo: Every character, their alternative costumes, and their stages are present and correct – and if that’s not enough you can even use the cheat codes from the final game to play as Dural in both her standard and gold forms. As far as I can tell no other codes work – either the button combos hadn’t been implemented yet, aren’t the same as the released game, or the content simply wasn’t quite ready – which means we sadly can’t play Java Tea Kids as goldfish Dural, one of the greatest fighting game costumes of all time (shown below in all her retail release Virtua Fighter Kids glory) – but we do get to battle it out as everyone and everywhere in a demo that’s got more quality content than certain finished games.
Considering its status as a cross-brand promotional item and Java Tea’s name coming first in the title you’d expect this disc to be an unpleasant blast of in-your-face nineties advertising, chock-full of attention-demanding logos and irritatingly catchy slogans. In practise the advertising in here actually feels… underwhelming? With the exception of Shun’s drinking gourd being replaced by a refreshing can of Java Tea and the “Try next stage” image showing a cartoon Jacky about to take a drink there’s very little actual advertising in here, to the point where even as the end user – someone parting with money for a disc that was once given away for free – I feel I’m being under-sold to. There’s a small sign added to the top of one building in the background of Jacky/Sarah’s special stage and according to the manual Jacky has a taunt showing him holding a can of tea but I honestly haven’t seen that in action, and I even went to the trouble of trying to deliberately trigger it for the sake of taking a screenshot. Even the high score table, the one place you’re least likely to mind to seeing slathered with something like –
– remains unsullied by corporate branding. The manual’s not much different: Other than having “Java Tea Original” written next to “Virtua Fighter Kids” in a few places it’s all pretty much business as usual, even if it’s not an exact copy of the booklet included with the full version of the game. The two back pages are given over to some “Let’s have Java Tea!” imagery, showing Jacky and Shun with a can, and opposite that is a picture of Jacky holding a can alongside small photos of Java Tea in bottle and can form (the only time you see a realistic image of the items this is supposed to be encouraging you to buy), but that’s it.
The deliberate limitations of this release give it an odd sort of charm: It reminds me of the times you’d pick up an expensive magazine with a bonus disc containing a few playable teasers taped to the front (goodness me how long ago was that?) and there’d be one demo on there you’d come back to so often it ended up getting played more than some of the full paid-for games sitting next to it on the shelf. Today this disc is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, pointless – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just play regular Virtua Fighter Kids, a common and cheap to buy (yep, old games like that still exist) Saturn title with an international release – but it’s pointless in the most pleasantly nostalgic way possible, and for all that’s missing it still perfectly demonstrates the speed and expressiveness that made Virtua Fighter Kids such a joy to play in the first place.