The Soul Still Burns
I was never fortunate enough to own Sega’s Dreamcast when it was initially released in 1999. I did, however, frequent the arcades just before that time. One of the most anticipated arcade games of that time was the newest release of Namco’s "Soul" series, Soul Calibur. Preceded by Soul Edge in the mid 90's, Soul Calibur was blowing up the arcade scene. Many waited impatiently as their place in line neared the control panel for the opportunity to experience this lush and vibrant game. At the time, it was the best looking game anyone had ever seen. Usually when these older 3D titles are re-released in digital download format, they seem very dated and can be hard to play. I don't think that was a problem here, though.
What Really Matters
Being an avid fighting game player, the most important part of any title in the genre is gameplay. Of course, the object of any fighting game is to damage your opponent with an assortment of attacks and special movesuntil they are knocked out. The cool part about SC is that all of the playable cast has their own melee weapon. This is one of the biggest things that sets SC apart from most other fighters. Controlling your character ranges anywhere form weapon attacks, kicks and of course your standard defensive option of blocking. There's also a tech system that allows you to parry away an opponent’s attack to allow you the advantage of a clean counter attack. Several fighting games have bugs or glitch tactics in them that can be exploited by players. That factor alone can make or break one's playtime experience. SC is good at keeping these things in check. There are tactics to abuse, but they don't ruin the fun and can be countered. When you get down to it, it's a well rounded and balanced game, but not too balanced. And that's a good thing! Perfectly balanced one on one titles lose replay value very quickly. Who would want to pick the exact same character as their opponent and do the exact same things to each other over and over? That medium seemed to peak at Rockem Sockem Robots. SC's wide variety of characters makes it hard to walk away from the stick (that's right, I have an arcade stick for my 360 and it makes kicking everyone's ass that much better!).
The gameplay mechanics are balanced in their own right. SC can be technical, but it doesn't have to be. A beginner can jump in and start playing, and a vet can master more and more techniques all the time. Many games suffer from being too much of one or the other. Casual gamers don't want to master the "EX reversal super cancels" and those of the hardcore variety don't want to sit and mash the "hit" button over and over. That leads me to my next point. I always hear certain critics claim this game is a "button masher," meaning players can easily hit any buttons randomly and jiggle the joystick to victory. That garbage may work on SC's AI on easy mode, but that's not going to fly when you play someone who knows a thing or two about the fight mechanics. This title was well thought out by the developers and they left no sort of real vulnerability of that kind to any characters. Could a button masher really be this successful of a title?
No one believes me when I tell them the arcade version was originally released in 1998! I realize the graphics may be slightly updated on the 360, but it doesn't look much different. It doesn't need to; Namco's weapon based fighter has aged beautifully! There are many games being released today on current generation systems that don't hold a candle to this title as far as aesthetics go. It's kind of sad, but I guess that speaks more for SC than it does the lack-luster modern games. It really is gorgeous, even by current standards. One thing to notice is attract mode. Different characters come on the screen and their animations are demonstrated like they're "solo training" with their respective weapons. Those demo animations alone surpass many post-90's titles. It's almost like Namco had a programming time machine and stole some good code some future point in time. They're really interesting to watch and speaks for how ahead of it's time this title was.
Namco dropped the ball on one aspect. I realize the port to 360 was probably a low budget venture just to put SC in 360's library, but come on! Where's the online play?! I'm sure if you asked an official Namco rep, the response would be, "online matchmaking was just outside the scope of this project." All publishers know what gamers want in their fighting titles and that of course is challenging others around the world. Without it, it makes you wonder why you'd purchase this title if you already have it. It is missing battle mode from the Dreamcast port and lacks wide-screen support, but that honestly doesn't bother me, much. With that said, I can probably think of a few reasons for you to go ahead and download this title. The main one being that you probably don't have a Dreamcast anymore and not to mention this game looks beautiful on my HD setup even without a wide-screen option. With Soul Calibur 4 around the corner, you may still question shelling out the more than reasonable 800 microsoft points on this one. I've spent some time with SC2 and 3, while they're great games, I honestly would still rather play the original over any of those titles. In fact, I have a feeling SC4 will be no different.