Short Version: Virtua Fighter is significantly more difficult to learn and involves hours of study and practice to learn and become skilled. Tekken, and most of the major fighting games, can be played at an entry level by mashing buttons. It's two very different worlds.
Long Version: It's interesting how VF became so popular in Japan while never reaching more than minor cult status in the West, and even then only with Virtua Fighter 2 on Saturn and VF4 on Playstation 2. It just never found a critical mass of fans who embraced it. But I've always felt that was because most players were never properly taught how it plays, combined with the overall casual-oriented nature of the genre. Most kids want fighting or wrestling games to be simple button-mashing affairs where you just crash on a couch and have fun with friends. They're not looking for a martial arts simulation that plays like algebra mashed with speed chess and rock-paper-scissors.
I say this, of course, as a diehard VF fan. But I freely admit that the series is unique in the genre and too complex for most players' tastes. At least in the mid 1990s, there were older gamers who enjoyed Karate Champ and International Karate, which were the spiritual ancestors to VF and focused on martial arts tactics. Today, I can't imagine that anybody under 35 has ever heard of KC or IK/IK+, aside from maybe super-diehard Amiga freaks.
In any case, Virtua Fighter involves many elements to study and master in order to become good. You can't just mash the punch button or find some secret move to use over and over and over. For example, here's a quick list of the skills you need to learn:
- Your fighter's move list.
- Your opponent's move list.
- The rock-paper-scissors structure of attacks, blocks and throws.
- The difference between minor and major counters.
- The difference between an attack's execution time and recovery time.
- Understanding of frame rate data and the difference between "punch counterable" and "throw counterable."
- The concept of throw escapes and an understanding of positioning (where you end up afterwards).
- Foot stance and the difference between "closed" and "open" stance.
- The difference between "canned" and "rolled" (or custom) combos.
- The use of guard-cancel to cease a canned combo.
- The uses of crouch dashing to save frames and set up attacks.
- Understanding different weight classes and how that affects floating.
- If you're playing VF 1-3, learning NOT to jump! Don't use those damned floaty jumps!
Let's compare this to Tekken 3 as an example. Here's how to play:
- Choose Eddy Gordo.
- Mash the kick buttons to perform his spectacular 10-hit breakdancing routine.
- Rinse and repeat.
See the difference?
Virtua Fighter just involves so much more, and the learning curve at the start is far higher than just about any major fighting videogame series. That depth and complexity is celebrated by fans because it really does reward practice, but this also has the downside of alienating rookies, who will always get their butts handed to them by more experienced players. It can be very discouraging and frustrating and Sega never really found a way to balance beginners and experts, even with the later installments of the series that added a lot of easy canned combos to the game.
For most gamers, fighting games are a casual affair, something that is just played for quick fun and not taken too seriously. They just want to mash buttons and have something cool happen. They don't want to spend an hour in a college course about a dozen different things they have to think about all at once while playing. They just want to play.
I never understood why Sega of America never bothered to teach gamers how to play VF the way it's meant to be played. They never released any strategy guides (the books that were published here only listed the moves and made no mention of any of my bullet points, especially the frame data, which is probably the most crucial element of gameplay). They never released any videotapes or DVDs showing competitions or tournaments or cool custom combos. They never built up a professional tournament scene like in Japan. They should have brought over the Tatsujin guys like Bun Bun Maru and Ikebukuro Sarah (they also should have released Anarchy in the Nippon, Zero Divide and DOA on Saturn, but that's another rant) to show the kids how it's done.
Unfortunately, for most casual gamers back in the day, VF was seen as nothing more than "punch-punch-kick" and an interesting curiosity, but lacking the polish and flash and simple joy of Tekken 3. Have I mentioned Eddy Gordo lately? That dude was literally the only thing pulling University of Minnesota boys away from Goldeneye, and lemmie tell you, that was a near-impossible feat. I'll bet half those guys still have their Nintendo 64's plugged into the television set to play Bond, that is, if their wives allow them to do so.