Soul Calibur Legacy & Review (Sega Dreamcast)by@stefanopavone

Soul Calibur Legacy & Review (Sega Dreamcast)

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The ***Soul*** series of fighting games began in 1995 with the release of ***Soul Edge*** (known in the West as ***Soul Blade***) It was one of the first fighting games to include full Z-axis movement, giving the player complete 3D control of their character. This is the first game in the series to introduce a “Destined Battle”**, in which the player character will encounter their story-centric counterpart at the beginning of the penultimate (second to last) level and fight them.

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History

The Soul series of fighting games began in 1995 with the release of Soul Edge (known in the West as Soul Blade due to the antics of an infamous trademark troll, which caused Namco to retitle all future games as part of the Soulcalibur franchise), an arcade game developed and released by Namco with an emphasis on close-range armed combat and technique instead of the button-mashing that was becoming prevalent at the time, combining together the fast-paced action of Namco’s sister series, Tekken, with the precision and technical mastery of rival franchise Virtua Fighter from Sega. It was one of the first fighting games to include full Z-axis movement, giving the player complete 3D control of their character. Also, unlike its contemporaries, Soul Edge/Soul Blade was a period piece, taking place in the early days of the Renaissance.


This article will focus on its overlooked first sequel, Soulcalibur, originally released in the arcades in 1998 and ported exclusively to the Sega Dreamcast a year later in 1999. It was the first console to include native support for the Internet (some games had online servers, which was unheard of for a console at the turn of the millennium). This article is divided into two halves:


  • Legacy: why is it still so popular after all these years?
  • Review: how do I feel about it?


I have very vague memories of playing this game, but I was familiar with its PS1 predecessor and immediate successors on the PS2, so I knew what to expect in both gameplay and lore. The overall premise of this series involves the search for a legendary sword which is believed by some to grant its user unlimited power, while it is in actuality the physical incarnation of evil, and each game focuses on an eclectic cast of characters in search of the sword for various reasons known only to themselves.

Soul Calibur’s Legacy

Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.

Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.

Soulcalibur’s popularity can be attributed to its fluent gameplay and its smooth and responsive controls. It’s also one of the few fighting games (and, by extension, gaming franchises) to emphasise armed combat instead of the more conventional hand-to-hand fighting seen in games of this type. While not the first fighting game to integrate this mechanic (that honour goes to Tamsoft’s PS1 brawler Battle Arena Toshinden from 1995), it was the first game to actually show that fighting games could expand and diversify beyond the predictable and tried-and-tested (or tired-and-tested if you like) fighting tournament premises.


There was no combat championship to speak of, instead focusing on the story of each character and the overall lore, making it one of the few fighting games with an actual plot and mythology instead of a sequence of recycled tournaments, all-too-often-seen (particularly in Japanese media) clichés and repeated situations. It built upon the foundations laid by its predecessor and expanded the mythology of Soul Edge, the much-sought-after cursed sword, as well as extending the story and evolving the overall lore of the Soul universe with the addition of a counterpart sword which gives the game its title.


One proud warrior against another, both seeking Soul Edge for their own reasons.

One proud warrior against another, both seeking Soul Edge for their own reasons.

In terms of narrative and plot, this is the first game in the series to introduce a “Destined Battle”, in which the player character will encounter their story-centric counterpart (either an ally or adversary) at the beginning of the penultimate (second to last) level of the game’s arcade mode and fight them. This was such an improvement over Soul Edge/Soul Blade’s arcade mode that this mechanic has been integrated into all future games in the series, up to and including SoulCalibur 5 on the PlayStation 3. This game has a lot to unlock, and I think that is another reason for its continuing success, which gives it some much-needed replay value in this day and age of DLC (Downloadable Content), where unlocking new content such as hidden characters, levels or even additional modes of play seems to be a lost art form along with expansion packs.


Perfect indeed, my dear Yoshimitsu.

Perfect indeed, my dear Yoshimitsu.

Soulcalibur’s unconventional control scheme also attributed to its longevity and the survival of the franchise. The controls consist of three (3) attacks: a horizontal attack (known in-universe as the “A” attack), a vertical strike (known as attack type “B”) and a kick. Blocking or guarding is accomplished by pressing a dedicated button, which can cause some muscle memory amongst players more familiar with Tekken, such as myself, where blocking is performed automatically by backing away from the opponent. Pressing either the horizontal or vertical attack buttons in conjunction with the block/guard button performs a throw, while pressing all three attack buttons together allows the player to perform a deadly combination of moves if the correct button and directional combination is inputted - this is what the series calls a “Critical Edge” attack, and properly executed, this combo is unstoppable.


Yoshimitsu prepares to unleash his Critical Edge onto an all-too-overconfident Inferno.

Yoshimitsu prepares to unleash his Critical Edge onto an all-too-overconfident Inferno.

This simplicity is another factor to the game’s success and legacy, instead of relying on attack subtypes for a certain type of blow like in its contemporaries such as a high/low punch or a left/right kick. Four buttons, one for each type of blow, and a button to block. It couldn’t be simpler, and I think the simplicity of the controls and the accessibility of the gameplay is another reason as to why this game still holds up today, nearly a quarter of a century since its initial release. Its rarity also adds to its value, being exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast (a PlayStation 2 port was planned, apparently, but it never came to light). Thankfully, Dreamcast emulation is fairly easy, unlike its predecessor, the Sega Saturn. All these factors combined together have helped shape this game’s success and enduring popularity, and now that I have covered the series’ history and Soulcalibur’s legacy, it’s time for the review and my opinions on the game as a whole.

Soul Calibur Review

 Welcome back to the stage of history.

Welcome back to the stage of history.

When the game boots up, an introductory movie will play (skippable). On the main menu, you have a choice of options:


  • Arcade Mode - this is the arcade version of the game divided into eight (8) stages.
  • Versus Mode - this is a two-player one-on-one mode, standard fare for games of this type.
  • Team Battle Mode - this mode allows one or two players to fight each other in a mini-tournament, with the option to choose up to eight characters for their respective team.
  • Time Attack Mode - this is similar to the arcade version but the changes made to the gameplay in the options menu do not apply here, instead using the standard fighting game criteria (medium difficulty, best 2 out of 3 rounds, and a finite time limit).
  • Survival Mode - this mode is a test of the player’s longevity in which they fight an infinite amount of opponents with just one life.
  • Extra Survival Mode - same as above but with the addition of a “Sudden Death” mechanic (both characters have a single hit point each and the first player to take damage loses).
  • Museum - here, players can view unlocked content such as character artwork, early concept art, cutscenes and movies and can even reorder the opening intro to their liking, as it is done with the game’s engine instead of FMV (Full Motion Video).
  • Practice - practice with a character of your choice).
  • Options - change game settings, save and load game data to and from a controller’s VMU (Visual Memory Unit), configure controls and choose between the arcade soundtrack or the Dreamcast version.
  • Mission Battle Mode - here, the player takes on a series of challenges against other characters in order to unlock extras such as new costumes, new characters and new stages.


Since the gameplay in all modes is virtually identical and I have unlocked everything, I will only cover my playthrough of the Arcade Mode using my preferred conditions for fighting games: easiest difficulty, infinite time and a single round for each fight, as I have never understood why some people want to replicate the arcade conditions at home when they might as well play the arcade version.


The sword awakens, forcing the brave warriors to fight its physical manifestation in a final battle at the edge of the universe.

The sword awakens, forcing the brave warriors to fight its physical manifestation in a final battle at the edge of the universe.

Each fight takes place in a ring-like arena within a random level, and I must admit, the scenery and backdrops for these locations are stunning even 20+ years later. A player can win a fight in several ways:


  • By defeating their opponent the usual way (draining their health completely).

  • By surviving with the most health until the timer runs out.

  • By knocking their opponent out of the ring.


Nice legs, Taki... for kicking, I mean.

Nice legs, Taki... for kicking, I mean.

The student versus the master, an all-too-common scene.

The student versus the master, an all-too-common scene.

It is also possible, albeit unintentional, for the player to accidentally eject themselves from the ring - however, if their opponent has already been knocked out of the arena, then they will not be penalised. The concept of fighting in a ring was downplayed in the sequels, which rely on a combination of closed (ring/arena) and open (seemingly boundless) levels.


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This gang lives on in Tekken as the Manji Clan, unintentionally connecting the two franchises together.

This gang lives on in Tekken as the Manji Clan, unintentionally connecting the two franchises together.

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The ending sequences for each character are seemingly ported over from the arcade version unlike its predecessor, and are composed of a sequence of possibly hand-drawn still images drawn in a sepia tone. If the player manages to beat the game fast enough, then they will get to enter their initials in a rather creative fashion, where the character of their choice will attack the respective letters or symbols depending on which button is pushed on the controller (they can also be moved around briefly as the screen fades to black).


Talk about shattering, never mind breaking, the fourth wall.

Talk about shattering, never mind breaking, the fourth wall.

Presentation

This is one of the most well put-together games I have ever played on any machine, never mind a console. The game lures in the player with a peculiar intro and from that point on, it's nonstop action all the way. I don’t recall the arcade version all that much, but if it is anywhere near as good as this port, then I can’t ask for anything more. This game is chock-full of content which will keep even the most committed of players occupied for a very long time, especially the mission battles, which seems to be made with completists and perfectionists in mind.

Graphics (Detail, Colour)

Visually, this is a stunning game - the environments are beautiful and detailed, I could almost swear they look like a real-world location, and the dynamic lighting employed within some of the more cavernous arenas such as a money pit and an underground river give the game a little extra atmosphere and a much-needed sense of vitality, especially when compared to its PS1-only predecessor, whose levels and backdrops looked more like a theatrical production, while in this game, the scenery looks much more cinematic and epic, befitting the franchise.

Sound (SFX, Music)

The sound effects are a combination of the new and the familiar - some have been ported over from Soul Edge/Soul Blade, while others have been made specially for this game, and they are, to be honest, inconsistent with their impact. Some have the right effect and can give a sense of pain or urgency, while others fall a little bit flat. The music also has a similar issue - some compositions (all new for this game) accentuate the atmosphere, while others seem to suck the life out of the action. The sound design here is a mixed bag but mostly good.

Controls

The controls in this game are smooth and responsive, surpassing the mechanics of its predecessor thanks to the more powerful hardware of the Sega Dreamcast. Gone are the choppy movements and unfair advantages players can have over their downed opponents (the recovery time when knocked down has also been reduced) - here, learning to master all three dimensions is essential to success as is timing your attacks, although one needs to be careful when too close to the edge of the ring.

Gameplay

This time, the computer doesn’t let you push it around, particularly in the later levels - the gameplay is balanced, especially on the harder difficulties, and there is little room for error or for spamming the same moves in order to get a quick and easy victory, although it does feel slightly slower-paced compared to its successors. The game encourages the player to change up their moves and combos because it will catch on to their inputs fairly quickly and react accordingly to deter potential button-mashers.

Overall

Soulcalibur is not only a classic Dreamcast game, it’s a gem in a treasure chest - this is one of the best fighting games I have ever played with its balance of gameplay, atmosphere and story at a time when the lore in videogames was considered secondary to the main action. This is a must-own if you have a Dreamcast console (although I recommend having two players present for double the fun and twice the humiliation). Unusually, this is the only game in the series where the voice acting is in Japanese only. regardless of the game’s region - there is no option to switch the voices over to English unlike its successors (its predecessor featured a combination of the two, using English voices for Western characters and Japanese ones for Eastern characters, regardless of whether or not the character in question actually came from Japan - at least it gives me an excuse to practice the Japanese I’ve been studying for several years). While the series has flourished thanks to the sequels, this chapter in the saga, along with its predecessor, has somehow been overlooked by all but the most dedicated fans of the fighting game genre - definitely worth checking out and highly recommended at any price.


The legend will never die...

The legend will never die...

Final Score: 4 1/2 out of 5.

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