I don’t have insider information. I am not a world record holder. I have, though, played more games on more systems than almost anyone I’ve ever met. The games I write about here are The Greatest Games I Have Ever Played.
I wasn’t planning on going right back to the 6th generation of consoles for my next post. I really wasn’t. I had a plan that went in another direction. The truth is, though, I still play this game. All. The. Time. I mentioned in my last post that it was the greatest fighting game yet released on home consoles – I’m not sure it’s relinquished that throne in the ensuing years. Sounds crazy, right? Keep reading, and see why it isn’t.
I talked about the environment of the 6th gen in the previously linked Halo post, I won’t re-hash that here. Sega, though, was in a bit of a pickle. After the huge success of the Genesis, they had launched (and failed with) the Sega CD, the 32X, and the Saturn. The Dreamcast was it, Sega’s last gasp in the hardware game.
The system wouldn’t do enough to save Sega as a hardware player, but not for lack of content. The best (USA) launch title, and flagship game, was clearly Soul Calibur. Namco had played kingmaker before, with Ridge Racer and Tekken giving the Playstation huge sales boosts, and Sega was counting on them to do it again with Dreamcast. They gave it a hell of a go.
Originally released in the arcades, the Dreamcast port got enhanced graphics and more playable characters, including the final boss (Inferno), the boss from the last game (Cervantes), and a new character called Edge Master, who like Inferno changed weapons every round.
Yes, weapons. If you didn’t already know, Soul Calibur is a weapons-based versus fighting game. Street Fighter brought the genre into the mainstream, and the Marvel vs. series is the only other one that can hold a candle to Soul Calibur in the current market. The Vs. series, of course, still reps 2-D gameplay, while Soul Calibur is king of the 3-D fighting world. It was actually the first fighting game to offer full movement in the 3-D realm, instead of simple sidesteps and dodges.
Like most fighting games, the story doesn’t have a major impact on your enjoyment of the game. There is a magic sword, it is evil, it eats souls, we should (depending on which character) stop the wielder/destroy the sword/claim it for ourselves.
The beauty of the game lies in its control scheme. Simple in concept, yet complex in execution, it allows for literally hundreds of different moves for every character.
The button layout is fairly intuitive. There is a block button, a “horizontal attack” button, a “vertical attack” button, and a “kick” button. In the standard Dreamcast controller setup, these are (in order) A, X, Y, and B. That’s the simple part.
Now, try to imagine that every conceivable different way to press those buttons yields different moves.
No exaggeration – pressing X and letting it go versus pressing it and holding it versus tapping it repeatedly, all are different. Now add in that there are eight different directional inputs that can alter each of those button presses. On top of that, all of these possible permutations apply to combinations of buttons.
Let me illustrate using some specific examples. Using, say, the giant axe-wielding monster Astaroth, tapping X once results in a horizontal axe chop. Tapping it twice results in a chop in one direction, then back in the other. Tapping it once, then pressing and holding it leads to the second swing being an “unblockable” attack that does massive damage. All of that only applies with the directional stick at neutral, though; if you are inputting a direction, everything changes. Significantly.
Button combos can yield crazy results too. For example, using the samurai Mitsurugi, pressing the Y and B buttons simultaneously (with a neutral stick) causes a downward-striking stab-and-gore move (it’s pretty awesome). However, pressing either Y or B a split second before the other (with sticks neutral) results in two totally different moves. Again, directional input alters them.
Siegfried, the German with the enormous sword, has a particularly easy set of moves to figure out and differentiate. He has a series of slashing combos that can be executed with rapid taps of the X and Y buttons in various patterns (repeating the same one or intermingled), and also has a series of far-reaching sweeping sword strokes executed by pressing and holding the buttons instead of tapping them.
Furthermore, Soul Calibur introduced the dynamic of the “8-Way run” to the 3-D fighting game. Sometimes you walk, sometimes you run, and the move you perform is dependent on which one you are doing. Mitsurugi, for example, has a devastating rising, double uppercut sword combo that can only be executed during a forward run.
Most of the attacks are blockable. You do have to block high or low, depending on the attack, but as I mentioned above there are unblockable attacks. These are signified by a stroke of lighting and a trail of fire, and they are generally devastating. They do take longer to perform, though, and leave the attacker vulnerable both before and after.
Another way to deal with effective blockers is throw moves. Throws are a huge part of Soul Calibur. They are executed by pressing the A button in conjunction with either the X or Y buttons. They both work for every character, although they do different moves.
Got all that? Great, now add in that some characters have Street-Fighter style moves, with quarter-circle and half-circle inputs leading to additional craziness. For example, Cervantes the pirate will “charge” with a “reverse fireball” motion (down, quarter-circle backwards) and then do 4 different things depending on which button you press next.
As if that weren’t enough, the characters all have different stances. I already mentioned Siegfried, and he does work from many stances, particularly if you do a lot of pressing and holding. The character with the most varied stances, though, is probably Voldo, the S&M freak looking thing with blades on his hands.
Voldo will attack from a standing position, facing the enemy. And from a crouching position, facing the enemy. And a standing position, facing away from the enemy. And a crouching position, facing away from the enemy. And from a weird crab-walk position… and even more. All of the different stances (and everybody has them) change what your buttons do.
Ivy even has different weapon modes. She has a magic sword that turns into a segmented whip, and different moves do different things depending on which mode her sword is in. Fortunately, there is a move to simply change modes, so you won’t get too confused.
I told you there were hundreds of moves for every character… convinced yet?
Luckily, learning all the moves precisely isn’t necessary to fun or enjoyment. Once you start to figure out how the system works, you can get into a basic groove with a character. Sensing the “flow” of the match and understanding a character’s style is more important to overall success than learning what every possible permutation of button pressing does.
Smashing someone until all their life is gone isn’t the only way to win a round. Ring out is declared when someone is knocked over the edge – or in some embarrassing cases when they walk or jump off – and it can be pretty frustrating to think you’re dominating a round only to be rung out. Some people are competitive not because they are better stand-up fighters in the game, but because they are ring out specialists. They probably use Lizard Man a lot.
Soul Calibur offers a good variety of play modes as well. There is of course, the standard “arcade” mode, in which you fight through seven of the regular fighters (with the last dependent on who you were using, because of the story that nobody was paying attention to) before taking on Inferno. The computer keeps track of how long it took you to make it through – regardless of continues. If memory serves, my best time ever was 2 minutes, 7 seconds with Siegfried.
There is a regular versus mode, with players taking each other on until they got tired of it.
There is the pretty cool mission mode, which gives you a variety of challenges like beat 3 guys with one life bar, or beat 3 guys, but all by ring out, or beat 2 guys but only throws damage them, or you are poisoned and must win fast, and so on. The missions all give you fun but ultimately meaningless bits of extra story. They get progressively harder too, and serve to hone your skills.
Completing the missions is the best way to unlock all the extras, which include fan art, different looking weapons, liquid metal “skins” for characters, and demo videos of all the characters doing cool stuff with their weapons.
There is a training mode, which can give you objectives to advance your mastery or serve as a “free-play” type session where you just practiced moves.
Finally, there is the thing that keeps drawing me back in – there is team battle mode.
In team battle, you could play versus the computer or a human opponent (obviously the better choice). Each side could select up to 8 characters for their battle. During the fighting, whoever dies first is forced to their next character, and the survivor regains a small amount of health. The first person to lose all their characters loses the match. The game then tells you how many ring outs there were and how much physical damage the players did in comparison to each other.
Team battle in Soul Calibur is the greatest thing that any fighting game has ever done. In Soul Calibur 2 they reduced it to uselessness (only 3 characters), and haven’t included it in any version since. General competence with every character is rewarded. Excellence with particular characters is rewarded. This is the mode that keeps me coming back, to this day, to play this game. Sometimes I pick “random,” and sometimes I pick a squad, but 8v8 combat is a fix I can’t give up.
In the various sequels to Soul Calibur, my feeling is that they have generally made the game less enjoyable in every mode by trying for a better balance. This was always a mistake – the strength of the game is that every character is dominant in the right hands, and that every character has bad matchups. There was no need to re-balance gameplay that was already nearly perfectly balanced.
Soul Calibur 5 is the first version that, in my view, actually improved on the game mechanics over the Dreamcast edition. Unfortunately, the lack of a team battle mode means I play it a few times with buddies before we go back to the old school for 8v8 action.
Sega did indeed collapse as a hardware company during the 6th generation – the Dreamcast was it for them. Namco, though, delivered on its end of the bargain, by giving Sega a still unparalleled 3-D fighting game experience.
The Verdict: Seriously, there was nothing close to this game when it came out. It redefined fighting game excellence. The widespread problems with the Dreamcast memory couldn’t ruin the amazing playing experience. RETRO RATING: 10/10
Replaying this game is a regular experience for me. There was no special replay for a blog post, I am handing out beatdowns in Soul Calibur on the regular. The magic of Xbox Live Arcade means I have a faithful port of the game without having to worry about the unreliable Dreamcast hardware, and the notoriously unreliable Dreamcast VMUs (visual memory units). It doesn’t have all the modes (notably mission mode), but still has all the player vs player fun that hooked me in the first place. This game is quite literally one of the reasons I started this series. REPLAY RATING: 10/10
Think you can take me in this game? (Protip – you can’t) Have suggestions for the future games in this series? Let me know in the comments. If you want more video game conversation, come over to my facebook group.