Version tested: Xbox 360
When I saw that Soulcalibur was due to appear on Live Arcade, I thought a terrible thing. It was one of those instinctive ejaculations from the id, a thought of unvarnished honesty that had already bubbled up and gone by the time my waking, professional games-writing brain had noticed how wrong it was.
"Finally, another proper game on Live Arcade!"
Isn't that awful? Deep down, where the gnarled prehistoric chromosomes still snap and rage at each other, I apparently still harboured an assumption that while these downloadable games are sometimes fun or clever, they're not the same as proper games. The weird and frankly terrifying thing is, I fundamentally disagree with myself on this issue (that's because you're an arse) (shut up you). I honestly believe great gameplay is where you find it, and the cost, file-size and method of delivery are marginal concerns when judging how well a game works as a piece of entertainment. Or at least I think I do. Or did. Or...bloody hell.
Admittedly, Live Arcade doesn't do much to defend its corner in this imaginary and increasingly painful argument, with the truly great stuff generally being ported from elsewhere and the best of the rest being mostly pleasant but nothing to inspire true passion. Of course, in a grim twist, Soulcalibur actually arrives as half of a proper game, thus managing to prove both sides of my warring consciousness correct and wrong at the same time. My brain just gone broken.
Soulcalibur, then. It's a fighting game. A really fantastic fighting game, originally an arcade machine then ported to the Dreamcast with phenomenal success because the two machines shared much the same wiry guts. You get a generous nineteen fighters, who battle each other with swords, axes, daggers and poles with stabby bits. Some are predictable martial arts clichs. Others are giant lizard-men. Or minotaurs. Or Voldo, the Marilyn Manson of the SEGA scene. Even acknowledging that the 360 pad is not a good fit for fighting games, control is simple and elegant while the resulting moves are impressive and weighty. That's always a good balance - do something simple, make something awesome happen. That way lies accessibility and gratification.
And Soulcalibur is a very accessible game. The fighting genre has pretty much vanished up its own overly-technical arse these days, but I'm pleased to report that a little button-mashing can grant you decent headway into Soulcalibur's arcade mode. Wait, what? Button-mashing? Good? Well, yes, because that's how newcomers instinctively play games like this. By rewarding your amateur experimentations (or at least not penalising them too harshly) the game gently leads you down the path of self-improvement. The first time you win a bout, it'll probably be an accident. The second time, you've started to realise which buttons do which attacks, and which are most effective. The third, fourth, fifth times, you've discovered a few combos. Before you know it, you're actually getting good at the game. It leads with the carrot rather than the stick, and is all the more fun because of it. You'll lose as many matches as you win, if not more, but there's none of that hateful n00b punishment that the more elitist fighters use to close ranks against all but the hardcore.
Graphically, it's okay. Kind of funny to think we were once stunned by these rather puppet-like 3D figures, but they do their job and they do it well. Given the subsequent decision to race Dead or Alive down to the bottom of the "Ooh Boobies!" gaming barrel of despair it's certainly worth noting that the ladybumps here are surprisingly conservative in dimension, reassuringly rigid and often fully-clothed. The HD makeover is hardly revolutionary, however, and the 4:3 presentation does leave those big old bars down the side of the screen. Personally, I'm happy to play the game in its original aspect ratio, but with no option to expand the game to fill your lovely telly, it's certainly something that could annoy potential purchasers. Real Soulcalibur purists will be pleased to learn that Voldo's horned codpiece is still in the game, though, so at least we're not being palmed off with the censored US version.
There are omissions though, and fairly glaring ones at that. There's no online play, for instance. There are 60 specialised leaderboards, by way of small compensation. I didn't find this too much of a problem, especially given that I've never really liked - or entirely trusted - the idea of online fighting games. I like my opponent next to me, the old-fashioned way. I suspect it'd also be something of a nightmare to implement, but that's a poor excuse for anyone who was looking forward to retro slash-slash-clang internet excitement. So, a small frown for that.
At least online was never a feature of the original game. Mission Battle was, however, and now it's gone, sacrificed to squeeze into Microsoft's old file-size limit. I'm torn as to how much this negatively impacts the game. On the one hand, this series of conditional globe-trotting challenges was an integral way of unlocking new outfits and weapons. Those are now all available from the start, which leaves this version feeling a little like it's had the training wheels left on.
On the other hand, the majority of players will be more interested in normal one-on-one fighting, and may well be thankful that they don't have to slog through a series of quite tricky battles to see all the game offers. I won't pretend to know enough about the ins and outs of Dreamcast code and the Live Arcade process to know what was actually feasible, but I'd gladly have ditched the survival game mode, the museum, the exhibition videos and other nice-but-inessential side dishes in order to have Mission Battle reinstated.
So is this a slimmed down version of a "proper game", suitable for all players and offering instant arcade-perfect enjoyment? Or a crudely chopped-up borked port of an absolute classic, tantamount to cutting the Mona Lisa in half and mounting the tattered remains on a traffic roundabout like one of those rain-smeared "BARBARA IS 40" banners? I'm going to have to go with the first option, simply because Soulcalibur is too much of an awesome game to allow this annoying act of butchery to dull its shine. Could it have been even better, had they waited and used more space to include absolutely everything? Undoubtedly, but a big chunk of Soulcalibur for 800 Microsoft Points is still one hell of a treat.
8 / 10