In honor of Thanksgiving (real Thanksgiving, not the Canadian knockoff) it seems appropriate to indulge in a bit of gluttony. There’s no turkey on the menu, however; today I’ll be barbecuing a sacred cow in the course of making a larger point. Specifically, I’m going to tell you why, frankly, Soul Calibur 2 isn’t a very good game in some key respects while suggesting a few ways to analyze games and refine your strategies in the process.
Veterans, all I ask is that you keep an open mind. New people, let an old man rant a bit—there’s probably something useful in here for you too, so hang in there.
We’ve all seen the myriad posts by assorted members of the community, including those by some notable, well-respected players, effusively heaping praise on SC2 while mourning the notion that neither Calibur 3 nor Calibur 4 lived up to its greatness, all with a tone and energy that seem more natural to a Tea Party rally than the discussion of a video game. Truthfully, it’s difficult to disagree. SC2 was fun. It’s the game that initially drew me into our twisted little world and it was certainly good enough to hold my interest for years. Over time, as I’ve grown as a player and developed both a more nuanced and more concrete sense of what makes a good competitive game, I’ve been able to look straight into the slimy guts of the game, past all the fun I had, and confront the hard truth that SC2 doesn’t deserve the unqualified heaps of praise it so regularly receives.
The best part about pictures with words built in is it means I can just say whatever I want here.
Qualities of Good Competitive Games
As I already admitted, SC2 can be a lot of fun- I won’t disingenuously try to tell you otherwise. Fun, however, can’t be the sole criterion by which a game is evaluated. What’s that? Games are just games? They’re supposed to be fun above all, right? This is true- to a point, but for those of us who participate in tournaments and care about competition, the vague concept of fun cannot be the ultimate arbiter of whether a game is worth one’s time. A good game (or at least a good competitive game) provides a play experience that is both enjoyable and suitably deep, encouraging deep engagement and intelligent play through its mechanics while producing consistent results. Taken in more depth:
Mechanics & Consistency
There’s an implicit rhetoric, of sorts, embedded within the rules of any given game. In other words, in addition to the overt tale of souls, swords, and the gender-confused heroes with which we’re all familiar, the rules themselves are telling a story, too. By governing which play-styles are most successful, a game’s mechanics in effect dole out punishment and reward, encourage rushing or turtling, thinking or mashing, and so on. Good competitive games obviously encourage deeper strategy by creating more opportunities for a skilled player to distance himself from a less skilled opponent; poor competitive games provide fewer of these opportunities.
Another function of a competitive game’s mechanics is its ability to produce consistent results. Fighters are games of skill, not of chance, allowing for the match to play out based almost solely on player decisions. These solid, consistent designs will produce solid, consistent tournament results, with victories most frequently going to the better player. That’s the theory, anyway.
Some games take the opposite approach and reward you for sucking, and punish you for being good.
In practice, certain game elements can inject radical amounts of chance into a game. While things like haphazardly spawning power-ups, randomized effects/damage/chance to hit, and other simulated coin flips and dice rolls are the most egregious offenders, fighting games more often suffer from their subtler counterparts such as inconsistent hitboxes, occasional glitches, and dubious balance issues. Games with such elements may be fun, but they’re far less competitively satisfying, and therefore a good competitive game needs to minimize randomness. Think of it this way: which is more significant, winning a game of chess or winning a game of Chutes & Ladders?
They Say You Can’t Polish a Turd: Heretical Views on Soul Calibur 2
As I said at the outset, I want to suggest that many, many folks can’t help but look back at SC2 through the distorted lens of nostalgia, and as a result end up disappointed when other games fail to live up to a standard of excellence that never really existed. Having tossed out some criteria for what makes a good competitive game, I believe I’m ready to tangle with the issue. Here’s a handful of ways in which it seems that the game’s mechanics encourage very limited modes of play.
Many of the best moves in the game are safe.
Staple launchers like Nightmare’s 3(B)~2G, amazing utility moves like Talim’s 33A (tech-crouching, tech-jumping horizontal mid that knocks down!) or Taki and Maxi’s respective laser light shows, and of course “holy-Jesus-wtf-just-happened-where-is-my-life-I-don’t-even” combo starters like Voldo’s 66K fall into this category, as do a number of characters’ useful, frame-advantaged lows.
There are too damn many useful, frame-advantaged lows.
A good low with advantage is the holy grail of 3D fighters, and they’re incredibly tricky to balance properly. Nightmare’s low kick, for example, was +5 on normal hit and essentially safe, which allowed for traps into other fast, safe moves, and other characters possessed similar shenanigans.
SC2’s version of step guard was far more problematic than in any of its sequels. Done properly, all sidesteps were basically invulnerable to high and mid attacks. Combined with the game’s very fast movement speed (a feature which, in itself, was a good thing), it was possible—preferable, even—to create a solid defense with passive movement and step~g as opposed to making active defensive commitments.
Lack of reward for placing your opponent in nonstandard states.
One complaint I’ve heard from SC2 veterans is that in the newer games they feel as though they can’t get off of the ground or wall easily. This is absolutely the case[- and I think that’s how things ought to be. SC2 had no wall combos. In fact, the reward for wall-splatting an opponent was often seeing him block your follow-up attack because the wall canceled his recovery. Similarly—and even more importantly, due to its sheer frequency—being knocked down was more of an animation change than an actual state change. A grounded opponent could rise, attack, or roll almost immediately, thus minimizing reward for the player who managed to ground his opponent.
This is you, right now.
The above aren’t exhaustive, but they help outline the larger issue at hand. Points one and two together mean that mounting a vicious offense involves relatively little risk. Points three and four imply a similar lack of consequence for guessing incorrectly on defense. A player who isn’t risking anything isn’t being forced to use his brain, so while SC2 was certainly fun and proved itself to deliver relatively consistent results over its competitive lifespan, its underlying mechanics tacitly encouraged a playstyle wherein much decision-making was of low consequence. This caused the overall competitive style of SC2 to spiral down into the toilet of roachy five-move mediocrity.
Homework: Putting It All Together
The purpose of this column wasn’t just to bag on a game that’s almost a decade old, but rather to get you guys to think about two important concepts: what qualities make something a good competitive game, and the relationship between the implied rhetoric of a game’s mechanics and optimal strategies.
This week’s homework is to think about what you feel are the qualities which make an ideal competitive game, and to consider the mechanics in all of the games you’ve previously played. How well does a particular game’s reward scheduling line up with your skills/interests? Is there a way you can adapt your style of play to better take advantage of what the system tacitly encourages you to do?
Oh, and cut the false nostalgia crap. The last thing you want to do is blow your “things used to be so much better” wad too early. That sort of thing is what retirement’s for.