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.