HALFTIME ANALYSIS is my heading to examine games that I’m in the midst of playing (as opposed to those I’m previewing or have played to completion).
To kick off this series, I’ll be looking at SOUL CALIBUR 4, available for both the Xbox 360 and the PS3.
As someone that has wanted a proper Star Wars fighting game ever since the ill-fated MASTERS OF TERAS KASI, the announcement that SOUL CALIBUR 4 would feature both Darth Vader and Yoda made me giggle with anticipation.
Upon learning that each character was exclusive to one system (Vader to PS3, Yoda to Xbox 360), I had a difficult choice to make. As most of my peers tend to own the 360, that’s traditionally where I purchase my multi-platform games. But then I quickly weighed the following factors: (1) Almost none of my friends play fighting games, unless they’re forced to play at my apartment; (2) Yoda’s small height fundamentally breaks the game, similar to Gon in TEKKEN 3; and (3) Darth Vader is an intrinsically cooler character than Yoda. So PS3 version it was. (Plus, I’m about 99% certain that both characters will eventually end up on both systems through the magic of downloadable content.)
Playing as Vader is a sublime experience for any Star Wars fan. The character model looks fantastic, much like the other characters in SOUL CALIBUR 4. While it’s not quite on the level of UNCHARTED or GEARS OF WAR, SOUL CALIBUR 4 is definitely a visual powerhouse. As an in-game character, Vader falls into the strong class of characters – high power, but slower movement – similar to Mitsurugi.
(Image from 1up.)
What ultimately makes Vader so fun to play is his moveset. The programmers clearly had a lot of fun putting him together. His default pose is reminiscent of the samurai-esque stance he took when fighting Obi-Wan in Episode 4. Even better, during his default grapple, Vader lifts his opponent into the air with both hands, turns 180 degrees and then slams them to the floor. If you’re standing with the back to the edge of the stage, you can use this move to throw your opponent into the abyss below, as though they were the Emperor at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI.
(Image from MikeBaker.com.)
Appropriately, his alternate grapple will allow Vader to Force Choke his opponent. Rapidly spamming the attack buttons serves to enhance the power of the choke. While this mechanic is extremely entertaining in gameplay, it becomes even more satisfying when Vader uses it during his ending cinema. During my first playthrough, I went through Arcade mode, which climaxes with a frustrating battle against Algol, the very cheap final boss. During my next playthrough, I went through Story mode, which offers a slightly lower level of difficulty. After soundly defeating Algol, I watched the ending cinema with glee as Vader gave him the Admiral Motti treatment.
The only misstep, I think, is that Vader doesn’t assume the now-classic “Nooooooooo!” pose when he loses. Although I’m probably the only person that wants to see this, it would be the perfect way to motivate your average Star Wars fan to avoid defeat.
Even aside from the Star Wars related tomfoolery, however, SOUL CALIBUR 4 offers one of the most robust “Create A Character” modes seen in a fighting game to date. Rather than just giving you a handful of body types, SOUL CALIBUR 4 throws a cornucopia of options at the user, creating an experience that is similar to the character creation modes in ROCK BAND. Much like the developers at Harmonix, the fine folk at Bandai Namco have realized that playing “Barbie Dress-Up” can often be the most engaging part of the gaming experience.
The weaponry and move set for your created character is determined by choosing one of the game’s existing characters. Choosing Hilde, for example, will give your creation access to a pike and short sword, as well as all the moves that accompany those weapons. New weapons are obtained in various single player modes and are usually linked to the character you’re using. This system perfectly complements the character creation mode, since I would naturally want to base my created characters on my most familiar characters.
(As a side note, Hilde is probably my favorite of the new characters introduced in this edition of SOUL CALIBUR. There are also five characters designed by renowned manga-ka (Japanese comic book artists), but their movesets are all based on existing SOUL CALIBUR characters.)
(Image from 1up.)
As in any character creation mode, the clothes make the man (or woman). Here, SOUL CALIBUR 4 offers an array of options that range from historical to manga-esque. Each item of clothing gives your character points in eight different categories. In turn, some of these points can be assigned to gain special abilities. Redeeming 80 “Boost” points, for example, will give me the ability to counter attempts to throw me out of the stage (known as a “ring out”). These points are not fixed and can be redistributed each time you edit your character.
With this robust character creation system, gamers around the world have been inspired to make their own versions of characters from popular culture. From M. Bison (Street Fighter II) and Master Chief (Halo), to Lion-O (Thundercats) and Ronald McDonald (McDonalds “restaurants” and my nightmares).
(Image from 1up.)
In some cases, some particularly ambitious creators have attempted to use movesets that properly complement their creations. In a recent PC World article, Darren Gladstone created his own versions of Barack Obama and John McCain. In designing his characters, he attempted to match each fighter’s style to his personality:
Barack always struck me as a Jeet Kun Do master: nimble, deadly with his words–and with a pair of nunchucks. McCain? This guy’s tough as nails. I don’t know if I could’ve made it through half the stuff he did, so, of course, I have to equip him with the biggest mallet available.
(Image from PC World.)
In a way, SOUL CALIBUR 4 has inadvertently become a 3-D version of M.U.G.E.N., a 2-D game engine that allows people to create a fighting game featuring their favorite pop culture characters. Often, these homebrew characters are created by placing new sprites on an existing character model, or by combining the moves of several characters to create the perfect simulacrum of, say, Archie Andrews’ fighting style. In the world of M.U.G.E.N., a match between Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson is not out of the question. And it allows us to see something as ridiculously sublime as Ronald McDonald taking on Osama Bin Laden:
Having dabbled with M.U.G.E.N., I was eager to SOUL CALIBUR 4′s simplified character creator. During one evening, I attempted to create a replica of one of wrestling’s legendary Road Warriors (also known as the Legion of Doom). It could have been Hawk or Animal – I wasn’t feeling very picky. But ultimately, the allure of creation took the back seat to my desire to maximize my playtime. These endeavors, of course, are intended for gamers with more time and patience than me.
But as I contemplated the various abilities I could assign to my character, I began to wonder whether this emergent gameplay could give us a view of the future of gaming. In most other media, creators are able to assign meaning and symbolism through character traits and narrative action. For example, the act of giving red shoes to a young woman midway through a story suggests that she has now entered the realm of womanhood. Thereafter, we can read the extraordinary adventures of this young woman as an metaphor for mental and physical explorations that occur to millions of young women when they start to go through puberty.
In gaming, however, few individuals attempt to create a subtext to their narrative. Indeed, most of our most treasured narratives in games – BIOSHOCK and the like – depend entirely on their overt text to provide meaning. The surface level story given to the reader and any underlying themes are one and the same. We discuss the philosophy of Ayn Rand by having our protagonist explore a Randian society. But why not make the discussion of Rand something that lies separate from the actual narrative itself?
Let’s return to the Obama and McCain fighters for a moment and assume that we were building a fighting game from the ground up. I, as lead designer, want to put some kind of subtext to my fighting game that expresses my view of the current presidential race. Why couldn’t the play mechanics themselves offer the underlying narrative? For example, by equipping the Obama fighter with an anti-ring out ability, we can offer a commentary about inability of McCain (and other political opponents) to sink Obama using traditional smear campaigns. Additionally, if the “anti-ring-out” ability is not 100% infallible, it could offer a warning that this “special ability” will eventually be overcome unless Obama takes the offensive.
Even something as small as giving McCain the ability to change fighting styles on the fly, rather than sticking with one particular school, would suggest that McCain is driven by expediency rather than principle. Additionally, by giving him this trait, we can further develop the subtext for our audience (i.e. gamers) by referencing the history of fighting games. The main antagonist of the MORTAL KOMBAT series, Shang Tsung, is an ageless wizard who has a similar ability to shift fighting styles at any moment. By creating this association between McCain and an explicitly evil character, we are able to provide certain readers “in the know” with another subtextual critique of McCain.
In order for this subtext to work, however, we need some kind of narrative element to act as a signpost for alert readers. Perhaps the Obama analogue a dreamer that yearns to break free from the confines of the fighting tournament. Maybe he’s the first member of a particular Shaolin order to actually enter the tournament. The key, however, is to offer subtle hints that stop far, far away from naming the characters “Tarack Tobama” and “Jack McTain.”
The Obama and McCain example is obviously too time-specific to allow for the development cycle of video games. But certainly developers have had ample opportunity to discuss the Iraq War through these methods. As much as I loved METAL GEAR SOLID 4 (the topic of a future essay), it has the subtlety of a brick through a window. Which certainly has its place in the public discourse, but isn’t there something to be said about weaving in a discussion about the military industrial complex into STREET FIGHTER 4?