Soulcalibur was the game that got me into fighting games. Sure, I’d played a hell of a lot of Street Fighter 2, and a frankly embarrassing amount of Killer Instinct, but it was the ‘calibur that showed me why they’re the ultimate competitive game - just you and another player using learned skills to best one another. No other multiplayer game gives me the same thrill as a closely fought scrap, with both players trying to avoid that last sliver of health. Pure concentration, yet running on instinct. Leaning forwards, holding breath. Victory, or defeat, and knowing that you were better. We’ve all seen that fucking Diago video, but for fans of the genre like myself, we’ve all had our Diago moments.
I never used to be that bothered with fighting games. Street Fighter 2 took over a lot of my time, but once I learned how to do all the special moves, I felt like I’d seen it all and moved on. This got worse with the release of Mortal Kombat. Never really bothered playing it against anyone, or even learn special moves. I just learned enough to win a fight, and once I’d seen every fatality I was done. Even in early Tekken games, unlocking every character, seeing all the ending sequences and performing their (at the time) spectacularly animated throws, I’d ‘finished’ it. Time to move on. I didn’t really see the appeal in multiplayer, and especially not in the hours of practice mode needed to be one of the best.
Soulcalibur changed this. For starters, it is one of the all-time greatest beat ‘em ups ever made. It looked better than the arcade, had additional modes actually worth playing and, above all, managed to do the things a truly great fighting game must achieve. First of all, ensuring that the various different fighting styles available are different enough to have their own pros and cons, but also maintain a balance. One character being able to trounce all of the others with little skill is the death of a fighting game. Secondly, it has to be easy to pick up and have fun with, so you can see some instant success and, more importantly, start getting a ‘feel’ for which character you like to play as.
BORING TECHNICAL FACT - Soulcalibur was easier to get into than some of the other, more ‘hardcore’ fighting games, like Virtua Fighter 3TB and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike, because the window to input the next move in a combo was significantly more forgiving. This makes Soulcalibur’s brilliant balance even more impressive, as many others have tried to make fighting games far more accessible and in doing so, made for weak-ass fighting games. What this meant for me is I was seeing the potential in characters I enjoyed playing as within a few matches, and it spurred me on to learn moves and improve my overall skills.
So, as my friends and I got better at the game, the balance of power shifted between us with regularity. The 'Great Reign of Siegfried’ is still talked about between that particular group of friends, where one of them suddenly became the best player on Earth with that character. Unbeatable, and it all forced us to step our game up to become even slightly competitive. Those leatherings I took in that period were definitely what made me see the appeal in competitive beat ‘em up gaming. I love sitting in practice mode, waiting for that breakthrough moment, then taking on the world. I also love eventually receiving that utter humbling, and playing that person again and again, learning from every loss and slowly figuring out what your character can do to win that matchup.
Even the single player was great. Fighting games never have good single player modes, but Soulcalibur’s ‘Mission Mode’ is still right up at the top. You were given fights to win under certain conditions, which varied from your health draining as the fight went on, to sinking into the stage whenever you’re not moving and loads of others. As you won, you unlocked points that could be spent on weapons, characters and alternative costumes. A lot more interesting that grinding through the arcade mode to see all the endings. Something I used to do a lot of.
Did anyone else play the secret minigame? If you hit block and pushed in a direction at the same time as an attack landed, you’d parry the attack and push the opponent away. In training mode, you could set the dummy up to parry away every attack you threw at it and counter with a strike. Now, what you could do is parry that, and attack yourself, causing a cycle of parries and counter-attacks. Brilliantly, as you successfully parried, a counter kept track of how many you did consecutively! I remember being absolutely convinced that something would unlock if I did 100 in a row. Nowt. It wasn’t a secret minigame. Hours wasted?
Fight me on Soulcalibur. To this day, I will parry the shit out of you. The soul still burns.