Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.
Look, I’m at that point in my early 30’s where I start looking up what came out during my life in half decade increments. It’s mostly to marvel at the fact how old some of my favorite media has become: whether it’s the two decade old League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie that somehow found its way into existence or the fifteen year old Soul Eater anime that I still want a manga faithful reboot for. As it turns out though, there is another entry in a franchise of souls and swords (and other armaments) that recently turned twenty which is continually baffling to me.
But come with me on this journey recollecting the weird early 2000’s time capsule of a game that is SOUL CALIBUR II.
Soul Calibur II holds the distinction of being my first ever true fighting game that I ever played. I, of course, played Super Smash Bros on the N64 and Melee on the GameCube, but the platform fighter franchise operates on a slightly different rule set than the conventional fighting game genre. Multiple competitors on the stage, a percentage-based damage bar, a primary goal of knocking characters off the stage, we could go on, but you get the idea. Soul Calibur II was my first game with health bars, stock arena stages, complicated joystick inputs, the whole kit and kaboodle. And I got this game not because I was a fan of the franchise that started when I was about four years old, but I wanted this game because the Hyrulian Hero himself, Link, was on the cover. And as any youth whose primary console was from the Nintendo, I loved the Legend of Zelda franchise dearly.
Soul Calibur II released during the peak of the XBox, PlayStation 2, GameCube console wars, an era wrought with a variety of version exclusives and none quite as noticeable as the different unique fighters. To further cement the early 2000’s energy of this title, note that Todd McFarlane also had a hand in the franchise, lending Spawn as the XBox exclusive fighter and creating the character of Necrid, who admittedly has never seen the light of day in the franchise since. However, Necrid was still there and very much emblematic of McFarlane’s visual aesthetic to a staggering degree. I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely sure why Microsoft opted to adopt the anti-hero, but he definitely looked cool on the cover and in that illustration style.
PlayStation definitely lost out as they ultimately ended up getting Heihachi from the Tekken series instead of the planned Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, although if we’re being honest, GameCube owners were very much the winners of this particular skirmish.
I remember playing with my younger brother and friends for hours in the versus mode of the game. While Link was my favorite, I also had a penchant for Talim’s rapid mutli-hit tonfa-esque blades (and perhaps subconsciously recognized my affinity for the fellow Filipinos), Cervantes’s long sword and pistol, and Cassandra’s curt sword and shield combo. I was fascinated by Ivy’s weird chain-sword and never learned how to use it, perplexed by the constant stance changes of Voldo, and constantly frustrated by the button mashing nunchucks of Maxi wailing on my character if I made a mistake. I also very much enjoyed the visual design of Charade, this entry’s echo fighter. I remember the slow axe hits from Astaroth and learning how to pronounce Zweihander (although never quite learning how to spell the giant sword’s name) noting the iconic blade of Nightmare. Each character felt like they had their own unique approach to dueling, and even the characters that did have similar movesets have enough special signatures to differentiate them.
The gameplay mechanics were fairly accessible even to a newcomer to the genre as a whole, and the different fighters with unique weapon sets led to a lot of quirky variety and fun match ups. My personal favorite thing to do would be to wring out fighters with Link’s obvious strong throws, but there was a good interplay of clashes and distances for any given matchup. Nothing quite as satisfying as being on the ropes the entire match before securing a vital ring out at a pivotal moment.
The stage variety with destructible environments was fun, the Destined arcade mode gave me just enough lore about the world to seed an interest with the franchise for the many years to come. This was the first game set in the 1590AD era of the franchise, the year which the next two games would cover before Soul Calibur V picked up in 1607. And while I only played those games from borrowed copies, I definitely found myself reading the wikis to keep up to date with the various shenanigans of the ensemble cast.
The part I remember most fondly from Soul Calibur II though was the weapon customization options. Each character featured twelve different weapons, including a joke weapon. My personal favorites included Link’s Megaton Hammer and Great Fairy Sword, as well as Talim’s ultimate Soul Calibur Elbow Blades, although the coolest version had to be the Soul Edge variants with the giant creepy eye in the most unsettling of places. It gave just a hint of an RPG element to the game that combined with the different costuming lent itself to just the right level of personalization.
The Soul Edge/Soul Calibur franchise remains one near and dear to my heart. The iconic narration of “A TALE OF SWORDS AND SOULS” remains just as memorable as Mortal Kombat’s “FINISH THEM.” in my ears and my heart. And I owe a lot of that to the GameCube version of the game. So, Soul Calibur II enjoy this slightly belated birthday ode for your twentieth year of existence. You were a modern reincarnation of a classic franchise, and your willingness to cross collaborate across the board opened your doors to many new fans, myself very much included.