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Soulcalibur Legends

(Namco Bandai; US: 20 Nov 2007)

Morally Ambiguous, Ambiguously Dull

Is the Wii a video game machine or a video sports machine? Games like Soulcalibur Legends make me ponder this question.


Admittedly, this isn’t the first time that I have wondered about this question. The first time that a friend of mine brought over a Wii with a copy of Wii Sports, this line of thought led to my first observations on the system as more a simulation of sports games than “game” games. I couldn’t recall developing tennis elbow playing a sports video game before.


Soulcalibur Legends, however, has provided this video gamer with at least 25 years of gameplay experience under his belt with a notable first-time occurrence. I have never, ever injured my crotch with a game controller until I spent a few hours with Soulcalibur Legends. For those wondering how on earth an idiot like myself could injure himself in such a way, suffice it to say that I tend to hold the Wiimote at about waist height when playing a game; however, occasionally I drop my hands to my sides when they get tired—a quick reflexive response to an onscreen enemy in this position followed by a quick flick of the controller and, well, ouch!


The Wii seems well cut out (insert rimshot) for games involving swordplay, as the ability to flick the Wiimote horizontally for slashes, vertically for overhand swings, and forward for thrusts seems a natural fit to games involving heroes wielding pointy objects. Thus, it seems that a game that revolves not only in terms of its gameplay elements but even in the focus of its plot around wielding swords like the Soulcalibur series does seems a game ideal for the system.


That being said, I return to my initial observation concerning the nature of the Wii as a video game(?)/sports(?) system, namely that the notion of mapping physical action to gameplay in Wii games is both the system’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.


Ooooooh…fireworks….

Ooooooh…fireworks….


Though it is certainly a somewhat novel approach to video game systems (haven’t the last remnants of coin-op arcade games largely been grounded on a more physically and less mentally interactive experience in the last few years with light gun games and dance machines being the last hurrah of the coin-op?), the very physical and reflexive nature of the Wii’s design lends itself more to games of a physical sort. This in my mind is equitable to sports, which, while certainly a form of game, seem to differ from other types of games in their physical requirements and interactivity.


While reflex, held up in the ‘80s as the poster boy for the positive qualities of video games for kids, is certainly an aspect of video games, video games have evolved past the purely reflexive and reactive style of most Atari and coin-op games towards more sophisticated games that involve not only reflexive challenges but more involved narratives, mentally challenging puzzling, and strategizing. Soulcalibur Legends and other Wii games of its ilk seem regressive in a sense, since, while they have really fancy visuals and even a modicum of plot, the games themselves tend toward what have often been simply termed “button mashers” rather than more contemporary forms of gaming experiences that are more fully rounded intellectually.


That is to say that while Soulcalibur Legends obstensibly intends to take a fighting game series and reconfigure it in another genre for the sake of fleshing out the stories behind the series, it becomes instead a rather depthless exercise, not in “button mashing” but instead in “Wiimote flicking”.


Where's Simon Belmont when you need him?

Where’s Simon Belmont when you need him?


Indeed, one of the driving thrusts of Legends is to take a fighting game series—a genre not often known for its meaty, substantial narratives—and provide a bit of background and mythos for a series that lacks substantial narrative depth. The plot, which follows the story of the origins of Siegfried’s quest for two swords, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur, also gives insight into the relationship between various characters in the Soulcalibur universe and also suggests an “alternate earth” history in which the characters and these two mythic swords exist alongside historical personages like Leonardo da Vinci and historical empires like those of Rome and Egypt. 


The script suggests an interesting moral dilemma present in all of these characters, who players have only seen up to now in the arcade and console forms of Soulcalibur the fighting game.  They all seem driven by a thirst for power (especially the otherwise most knightly-looking Siegfried) that each sword represents, allowing the player to better understand their morally ambiguous roles as duelists in the series.


Like other fighting games, some of these characters seem to represent good and evil archetypes through their appearances, and, yet, these characters never seem to mind slicing up one another in a duel whether or not their foe matches their own evil or good philosophies.  The story, which explores he nature of pride and the selfishness that drives these various characters does provide some clarity to the seemingly morally ambiguous nature of the fighting game genre.


However, none of this changes the fact that the gameplay consists of basically substanceless hacking and slashing through swarms of enemies for level after level as accompaniment to the seeming sophisticated critique of the basic fighting game genre formula.  Frankly, the Soulcalibur games preceding Legends contain more substantive strategy and tactics in approaching the way that an opponent can be taken down than this more mindless brawler.  In that sense, they are more clearly “games” than this more physically driven approach to the series. The sophistication of the narrative approach belies the simplicity and regressive nature of the execution of the game itself.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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