It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly a decade since I stepped into the shoes of staff-master Kilik and sword-slinging Xianghua which leads me to two revelations. First that I deeply miss the Dreamcast and all of the glorious fighting games it delivered; and second that I am getting old. Now with the growing popularity of digital downloads we are able to re-live the experience of one of the greatest fighting games of all time. To this day few games match the greatness that was Namco’s finest offering for Sega’s ill-fated console and for good reasons. Soulcalibur displayed some of the finest visuals you had ever seen coupled with an intricate balance, pin-point controls and a colorful cast of characters that contained more than a few memorable heroes still etched in the hearts of many a gamer.
For the Xbox Live Arcade version of Namco’s weapon-based brawler not much has changed, but a few things have been sorely left out. For anyone who has never played this game let’s first break down the basics. This is a fighting game that focuses on weapon combat as opposed to fisticuffs. The weapons are just as important as the characters themselves as they define what kind of fighter each combatant is. For example Siegfried carries a giant sword that is great at long range while Voldo relies on his Wolverine-esque spiked claws and acrobatic contortionism to dominate foes in close.
Newcomers should not fear however, as most of Soulcalibur’s charm comes from the fact that much like Nintendo’s Smash Bros. series, the game is very accessible to everyone. In fact that was probably SC’s most endearing quality when it landed on the Dreamcast; anyone and everyone could pick up the game and enjoy it, while dedicated fans could dig under the surface to discover an intricate combat system that still holds up by today’s standards. This is probably one of the biggest reasons this game was held in such high regard when it released, and yet another reason why it is such a great candidate for release on Microsoft’s downloadable service.
The Xbox Live Arcade version of Soulcalibur runs smooth and looks even sharper than the Dreamcast original thanks to some minor graphical touch-ups. Unfortunately though the game retains the original 4:3 format and does not support widescreen display. Instead there are some truly hideous borders surrounding the action. The animation is still smooth as long as you are not expecting too much, and when compared to other titles on the service the game stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is amazing how some games age better than others and even after a decade Soulcalibur is still pretty to look at. The stages are lush and colorful even if they are a bit on the small side, and everything runs so smoothly thanks to the well-designed engine.
Now for the disappointing part: much of the original game has simply been stripped. While you will still find the traditional Vs. mode, story mode, time attack and survival; the meat and potatoes of the original game is criminally absent. The original Soulcalibur was made infinitely replayable thanks to the included mission mode. In this mode you would take on foes with specific restrictions such as victory through ringouts or being poisoned and working against the clock as your health ran down. This mode also brought with it a massive 300 unlockables that included new skins for your weapons, new outfits and the quintessential copious amounts of artwork. With the XBLA incarnation this mode has been completely stripped due to the size limitation of the service when development began. Thankfully all the items are included, but the joy of unlocking them yourself is sorely absent.
The second biggest qualm I have with the game is a lack of online play. I guess it comes from being spoiled by today’s standards, but we as gamers simply do not get together socially like we used to. Being able to rip someone’s ego down from across the state would have been greatly appreciated, especially since so many other fighting games on the service offer the same satisfaction such as UMK 3 and Street Fighter II. Sure there is local play, and believe me I appreciate it, but a lack of online certainly continues to whittle down my desire to keep playing this game for hours on end like I did the original.
Even with these immoral omissions Soulcalibur for Xbox Live Arcade is more than worth the price of admission. There are still gamers who troll forums proclaiming the dominance of this particular game as the greatest of its kind. While it is a bold statement you will find many who agree and you will find very few people who will argue just how good this game really is. At ten bucks it is hard to go wrong, even if it lacks online play, a mission mode and true widescreen support. Soulcalibur is one of those games that everyone needs to play at least once in their lives, and there has never been a better time to jump in.