Given Soul Calibur's
popularity and name recognition compared to its predecessor, it's easy to see why. Soul Edge
was ultimately a successful game, but Soul Calibur
briefly pushed the franchise even beyond Tekken
in overall popularity with mainstream gamers. In Japan, at least, Tekken
continues to dominate the arcades, but in the U.S. it's far easier to get someone who doesn't like fighting games to jump into Soul Calibur. Soul Calibur's
popularity owes a lot to Namco's incredible Dreamcast port, which basically rendered the term "arcade perfect" obsolete. It was filled to the brim with Dreamcast-exclusive unlockables via its extensive mission mode, and it looked better than the original too. It was arguably the death knell for the traditional arcade scene in the U.S., which had already been in steep decline until that point. Even in Japan, Soul Calibur
is barely seen in the arcades.
Fighting games too had fallen on hard times. Genre staples like Street Fighter still had their fans, but they become so complicated as to alienate mainstream fans. You couldn't just pick up Street Fighter III
at a party, because the entire vocabulary was alien to newcomers. Even basic inputs like the familiar quarter-circle+punch can be tough to pull off without some practice.
By comparison, Soul Calibur
was easy to understand thanks to its familiar archetypes like "knight" and "samurai," and the weapons continued to be intuitive and easy to use. A new players who struggled with the concept of a shoryuken could execute a sweep attack in relatively short order, and stumble upon more advanced techniques simply by mashing the buttons. Along with its lavishly detailed graphics, Soul Calibur's
accessibility made it a huge crowd pleaser at parties.
You could argue that Soul Calibur II
is when the franchise began to lose its way a bit. While still excellent in its own right, it also began to succumb to commercial gimmicks. Characters like Link were instrumental in getting Nintendo fans to buy into the series; but if you'll pardon the expression, the series lost a bit of its soul in the process.
Take the aforementioned Link, for example. As neat as it is to see him in a Soul Calibur
game, his character design clashes wildly with the rest of the cast and his abilities are a poor fit for the existing engine. Depending on who you ask, his bombs and arrows are completely useless within the context of Soul Calibur
, or they're completely broken. Soul Calibur II
also served as the introduction for the Todd McFarlane-designed Necrid, who was reviled both for his ugly design and -- again depending on who you ask -- either being absurdly powerful or absurdly useless.
The gimmicks continued in Soul Calibur III
, but this time they affected the very core of the gameplay -- the weapons. To this point, Namco had remained fairly conservative in its weapon selection. Soul Calibur II's
Raphael was a fencer, for example, while Talim wielded tiny daggers. Soul Calibur III
, meanwhile, gave us the bladed hula hoop, which apart from looking silly was neither intuitive nor all that useful.
As the first version to be released without the benefit of a dry run in the arcades, Soul Calibur III
is also rather well-known for its balance issues. Up until Soul Calibur III
, the series had enjoyed a strong reputation with the competitive fighting community due to the technical depth afforded by mechanics like the guard impact as well as the highly balanced roster. Sophitia was a particular sticking point for high-level players, as her quarter-circle+b attack was nearly unstoppable in the original PS2 version.
Much of the luster had come off the once highly-regarded series by the time Soul Calibur IV
arrived, which was only exacerbated by the bizarre non-sequitur that was the inclusion of Darth Vader, Yoda, and the Apprentice. Reaching for a Star Wars
crossover only served to highlight how tired the series had become over the course of a decade. It only made it seem as if Namco didn't believe that the series could stand on its own without some kind of gimmick.
So here we are at Soulcalibur V
, which is a reboot of sorts for the 15 year old franchise. It's telling that Odashima wanted to call it Soul Edge 2
, not the least because it borrows some long-forgotten mechanics from the original game like the Critical Edge super attacks. Much of the roster has been turned over; but as they are the children of many of main characters from the original game, they still have familiar weapons and movesets. Ezio is there too, but his appearance makes a great deal more sense within the context of Soul Calibur's
setting than, say, Link or Yoda.
If it has any advantage over its competition, it's that it's still the most accessible of the bunch. Tekken has long since degenerated into a niche defined by impossibly large rosters and movesets, while the Street Fighter and BlazBlue communities are both fearsome and insular. To reclaim some of its past glory, Odashima and company will have to manage the difficult task of bringing back mainstream fans without alienating the fighting game establishment, which has been an issue over the past couple games.
But lest Namco Bandai forget, Soul Calibur
will always enjoy a unique advantage over its competition. Fighting game fan or not, anyone can understand a katana to the face.