Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series continues today with SoulCalibur, the perfect 3D fighting game.
When arcade machines are inactive on the title screen for an extended period, they enter attract mode, a preprogrammed video of gameplay demos aimed to lure passersby into spending money on the game. For the most part, attract-mode footage followed similar tropes: a cinematic intro, sterile in-game examples, and a scrolling leaderboard. They’re meant to appeal to consumer impulses, not to any serious, prolonged train of thought. But I’ll never forget the moment I was first moved by the realism of a video game. I was a kid in an arcade just down the street from my uncle’s bakery, gawking at SoulCalibur’s attract mode, which was unlike any I’d seen before. It was a solid minute of minimalistic beauty: Kilik, a character in the game, stands in the middle of an empty ring with a long bo staff, practicing his kata. There is no ambient sound or score other than his grunts of exertion and the whirring of his weapon, its force of movement generating visible fields of energy. Kata (Japanese for “form”) refers to the chain of maneuvers executed by a martial artist in succession, transitioning into and out of internalized techniques as seamlessly as possible. Kilik completes his dance back at the center of the ring, standing militantly straight, with his staff held high as though it were a beacon. And then everything fades to white. My transfixion was jarred by a player inserting two tokens.
SoulCalibur made its arcade debut 20 years ago Monday; its port to the Sega Dreamcast one year later is arguably the greatest game in the console’s short history. It remains the platonic ideal of a true 3D fighting game, taking full advantage of available motion-capture technologies to create a game that played as fluidly as it looked and a gameplay layout that could be enjoyed in both casual and competitive settings. But when I think about the game and its legacy, I’ll always come back to the kata on display: A character using every inch of their environment to demonstrate their full repertoire of weapon techniques is the clearest distillation of the game’s innovations to the genre. SoulCalibur remains, more than anything, a mastery of form.
The late ’90s were the golden age of fighting games. As developers became more and more attuned to the power at their fingertips with the next-gen consoles of the time, they found new ways to parlay the joys of the two-dimensional fighting experience into more ambitious three-dimensional veneers. The Virtua Fighter series had the disarming realism of a David Attenborough documentary. Tekken 3, arguably just as iconic as SoulCalibur, implemented a sidestep maneuver for its characters, taking advantage of the third axis of movement that 3D fighters allowed for. Rival Schools: United by Fate was a compelling high school soap opera told through an onslaught of aerial attack combos (and the name inspiration for a hardcore band and its debut album title). Bloody Roar would’ve been another derivative 3D fighter with a heavy emphasis on special combos if it weren’t for, you know, the fact that each character could transform into an anthropomorphic alter ego (my favorite: a roided-out, literal mole person). Even 2D fighters of the era raised the stakes on both ends of playability: Marvel vs. Capcom and Guilty Gear were pixelated cocaine; Street Fighter III’s parry system was a paean to technical precision—to this day, SFIII is my favorite game to watch in competitive play.
SoulCalibur nonetheless stood out. It was the sequel to 1995’s Soul Edge, the first video game to make use of passive optical motion capture. That technology allowed for a higher level of physical charisma to the game’s characters, born from the actual weapons-based fighting styles of martial artists in motion-capture suits. SoulCalibur carried with it that DNA of fluid battle motions, but revamped just about everything else. It was without a doubt the most beautiful fighting game of its era; SC was one of the launch titles for Dreamcast’s North American release in 1999, which had superior processing power to every other console on the market at that time.
Set in the late-16th century, the old-world backdrops established a sense of total immersion that wasn’t quite there for past 3D fighting releases. Part of that was a function of a landmark feature of the genre at large: SoulCalibur introduced a spatial quirk known as eight-way run, which allows characters to move in any of the ordinal directions while still locked on to the opponent’s place in the ring. This allowed for new angles of entry on attacks and new levels of randomness to enter the equation. It meant that, finally, 3D fighters weren’t played solely on the vertical and horizontal planes (other titles may have given the illusion of gameplay being on more than just a 2D plane, but it’s largely the work of camera angles).
SoulCalibur established a legitimately new depth of field, forcing players to interact with the environment and the world they’ve been transported to; it had to be acknowledged, because it effectively became a third party. Being able to reorient a character’s ordinal position means players are always aware of the space with which they have to operate. Ring-outs weren’t unique to the series even at the time, but they played a much larger role in strategy than in other 3D fighters. Yes, the object of the game was still to beat the utter shit out of the opponent, but having so much agency over a character’s movement gave players new ways to win. Being able to knock your opponent off the ring into a presumably gruesome plummet was just one of the new variables to consider. SoulCalibur at its core had the soul of a classic, tried-and-true fighter, but from a different vantage it was also a gladiatorial sumo match. It proudly flaunted its multitudes.
The “fighting” genre of video games over the past two-plus decades has rendered its many worlds at 60 frames per second. Each frame is an isolated, individual snapshot of a moment in time that eventually registers as a perceptible action, a direct result of the call-and-response that occurs between a player’s input on a controller and the avatar on the screen. A frame becomes a unit of measurement (one-sixtieth of a second) within the grander scheme of time, and those who can navigate through the time between time are usually the very best in the world at fighting games; call it the other sweet science. That’s a cosmological way of looking at a recreation that commonly involves punching, kicking, and hurling wondrous fireballs at an opponent. I wonder if Carl Sagan could’ve found God in a few rounds of Street Fighter II.
In those two-plus decades, through my favorite fighting games, I’ve found comfort in a mental exercise that projects most of my acknowledged weaknesses—a lack of discipline, foresight, reflexes, and emotional wherewithal—back at me. (Actually, maybe I’m the one who’s found God.)
All this to say: I love fighting games precisely because of how bad I am at them. A quick reaction time is vital in reading the patterns of your opponent, which will typically be another human being as unpredictable and irrational as you are. Human Benchmark is a website that tests cognitive ability through simple exercises like click-based games to determine reaction time. Of the 68 million clicks it’s logged in its history, the median reaction speed has been 273 milliseconds; my average reaction time clocks in closer to 318 milliseconds. Timing is important in most video games, but particularly so in the fighting genre, where hit combinations often require precise sequential input. Knowing may be half the battle, but I handicap myself in the more important half by ignorantly, unrepentantly button-mashing.
That’s always been the thing about SoulCalibur, though: In adding revolutionary gameplay mechanics, it also leveled the playing field. Arguably the most important feature of the game is what has commonly been referred to as “forgiving buffering,” which allows players to string together button combinations without being beholden to the precise timing of input. It lessened the tension for experienced gamers, but, maybe more crucially, gave casual button-mashers the feeling of control in spite of themselves. Random rules in the SoulCalibur universe, and the game offered two ways to enjoy the ride: either strive to command it, or flow along with the entropy of it all. It’s rare to see both sides of the divide rewarded equally.
SoulCalibur felt like an inflection point in the genre. As the first fighter released on a sixth-gen video game console, it explored the boundaries of the available technology and reimagined how a fighting game could operate. There is a cinematic quality to SoulCalibur that is inextricable from the flowing gameplay; it breathes like an interactive art installation rather than the tactile math equation that many fighting games can boil down to. Ultimately, it’s fun to play across all skill and interest levels, a rarity in a landscape that hasn’t made any substantive innovations in the past two generations beyond requisite graphic improvements.
The best fighting game in recent years that, to me, most accurately captures the original SoulCalibur’s ethos, is Dragon Ball FighterZ. Released earlier this year, its play style couldn’t be further removed from the SoulCalibur engine, but it’s a game that similarly goes through great lengths to establish the immersiveness of its environment rather than focus on the granularity of controls. It plays like a modern Marvel vs. Capcom 2, but with the pick-up-and-go accessibility of Super Smash Bros. And in an industry that hasn’t quite figured out what to do with a fractured and waning genre, it feels like the future of the fighting game.
The future of SoulCalibur will soon be upon us, too. In October, SoulCalibur VI will be released just months after the 20-year anniversary of the original. After the disappointing, turgid play of SoulCalibur V, the developers are looking to “get back to the essence of the series,” as game producer Motohiro Okubo told VG247 earlier in July. As a brand name entering its second decade of life, perhaps there was nowhere better to turn for inspiration than the past.
Okubo described the series’ unique appeal: “It’s a weapon-driven fighting game, and so you want to have that satisfaction of swinging around these massive weapons,” he said. It really is that simple. Like all good art, a good fighting game can ask a lot of you or it can ask nothing of you. And after all these years, there still aren’t many titles better at transforming virtual, mindless battery into moving art than SoulCalibur.