Reviews

Soulcalibur Legends

G. Christopher Williams

The notion of mapping physical action to gameplay in Wii games is both the system's greatest strength and its greatest weakness.


Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genres: Action, Fighting
Price: $49.99
Multimedia: Soulcalibur Legends
Platforms: Wii
Number of players: 1-2
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Namco Bandai
US release date: 2007-11-20
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Developer website

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....

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?

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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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