When SoulCalibur 2 made its console debut back in 2003, I already had the hardware trinity of the day in my possession: Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube. When a multi-format game came along, I tended to buy it on PS2, so I had a higher chance of swapping it with a friend. But when SoulCalibur 2 appeared, the decision to buy it on the GameCube was a complete no-brainer.
This was due to a certain Hylian hero. Rather than limiting players to the established Calibur cast, Namco distinguished each version of the game with a unique character: the PlayStation 2 version gained Heihachi Mishima from Tekken, the Xbox version received Spawn from the Todd McFarlane comics and the GameCube version got the hero of time himself, Link. And we're not talking the cartoon Link that had appeared in The Wind Waker a few months before, we're talking an adult Link with the Master Sword and Hylian shield, looking like he'd jumped straight out of the Space World 2000 demo.
Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, SoulCalibur 2 HD Online doesn't bring all three characters together. It's something that Calibur fans have been wishing for ever since the exclusive characters first came to light - but even though Link's bow and bombs are off the menu, we still get to see the balding head of the Mishima Zaibatsu go toe-to-toe with a comic-book creation that once beat God and the Devil singlehandedly. That sounds like a mismatched fight, but this isn't the first time that Heihachi has found himself trading blows with a living demon.
In addition to the two formerly platform-exclusive characters, HD Online features most of the series favourites. Mitsurgui owns the mid-range game with his katana-themed stances, Kilik pokes from a distance with his versatile bo-staff and Xianghua trounces most of the competition thanks to her safe pressure and decent combos. SoulCalibur 2 also saw the debut of Cassandra, Raphael, Talim and Yun-seong - respectively the younger sister of Sophitia, a cocky fencer, an underage wind priestess and the guy who sometimes stands in for Hwang. But considering the game has been superseded by three numbered sequels, just how well do the old systems hold up today?
The good news is that SoulCalibur 2 was and remains one of the most satisfying 3D fighters ever made. More recent innovations like the super moves and character creation mode are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we return to a time when each strike felt suitably weighted and you had to rely on outmanoeuvring your opponent, as opposed to burning bar to extend your combos. That's not to say SoulCalibur 2 offers a more accomplished fighting system than its subsequent sequels, but it does feel much less derivative. It handles like a weapon-based fighting game that plays by its own rules.
In terms of character balancing, Namco has chosen to keep the roster unmolested. Only Necrid - the fourth console-exclusive character, designed by McFarlane for all three formats - is in need of a tune-up. But unless you really want to play as this emaciated Hulk with a chest-plate, it's easy just to forget that he's there. In all other respects, HD Online is a faithful upscaling of one of the most well-rounded fighting games ever devised. The tempo feels like it's synced with the original game and the occasional frame drop does little to tarnish the experience.
Another thing that doesn't stop HD Online from hitting the high notes is a lack of new modes. Even though this game is over a decade old, it still puts many a modern fighting game to shame in terms of single-player content. Staples like Arcade, Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle and Practice all make an appearance, but the real jewel is Weapon Master. This mode tells a text-based story across 16 chapters, and each chapter is packed full of missions that range from beating an opponent who can only be damaged while airborne to clearing a labyrinth that has multiple rooms.
No disrespect to CyberConnect2, but I'd take the story mode in SoulCalibur 2 over SoulCalibur 5 any day of the week. It's less bogged down with a forgettable storyline and focuses more on an engaging and dynamic set of challenges that take more than a short afternoon to finish. The fact that you earn experience points and gold to unlock a wide range of weapons and features just makes the whole experience even more compelling. It also makes us wonder why Namco went for the linear story mode in SoulCalibur 5. In the here and now, it just feels like a step backwards.
A few missteps and one notable absence can't derail what is otherwise a timeless fighting game in high definition
The same can't be said for the online side of HD Online, because unlike the Dreamcast port of SoulCalibur that surfaced on Xbox Live back in 2008, this game offers Ranked and Player Matches. The netcode doesn't push any benchmarks in terms of stability but it just about holds steady when playing against national competition. And while it can be a little frustrating when your parry comes out a fraction of a second late and you end up eating an otherwise predictable strike - especially given the strict nature of the old Guard Impact system - there's nothing quite like locking horns with a similarly skilled opponent for a long set.
In many ways, SoulCalibur 2 is as much a classic of the 3D fighter genre as Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo is for the 2D fraternity. It's less flexible than the current contenders, but that's less of a weakness and more of a welcome difference. Perhaps this is why Namco didn't push the boat out further with additional chapters in Weapon Master mode, and it doesn't explain why it decided to port the PAL version as opposed to the much more refined NTSC version. But a few missteps and one notable absence can't derail what is otherwise a timeless fighting game in high definition.
Besides, when you actually played him, Link was a pretty rubbish character anyway.