Here's a brief rundown of my fighting arts career (in games, of course!). My early 'education' began in the late 80s with games like Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and Final Fight. In the early 90s, I graduated from the school of Street Fighter. I then went on to achieve my Masters from the school of Tekken some years later. Now, as the century comes to a close, I was hoping to end it with a bang of by completing my doctorate in Soul Calibur. Already widely praised by critics and fans alike as the main reason to own a Sega Dreamcast system, I was extremely looking forward to continuing my 'education' with the home translation of the two-player competitive arcade fighter. But much like the first day at any new school, I didn't get off to such a good start. I had some serious reservations and what appeared promising at first was starting to look an 'incomplete' grade.

What got of me off to such a rocky start on Soul Calibur was how easily I blew through the one-player mode on a Normal difficulty setting on my first attempt (with a couple of continues) by employing somewhat unrestrained button-mashing (not to mention it only took me about ten minutes to do so). The level of ease at which I completed the game (with one character) and executed moves without even knowing what I was doing made the game feel weightless especially compared to the likes of Tekken 2. Not only did Tekken have a more intuitively ingenious control scheme with the four main buttons representing the arm and leg attacks (left and right respectively), but it also required that I develop advanced skills before I could convincingly beat any human or computer opponent. I felt unmotivated to bone-up on the literally hundreds of complex techniques involving combos, counters, parries, charges, 8-way run attacks, and grappling moves that Soul Calibur offered when it didn't seem necessary to do so to be successful (at least initially in the default one-player arcade mode).

I would eventually change my mind after prolonged play against higher difficulty computer levels and far more importantly, Dale's cursedly lethal Mitsuguri. I found the two-player competitive battles against Dale to be incredibly intense and satisfying because the difference between victory and defeat in Soul Calibur's weapon-based combat was often just a few deadly blows. This meant a lot of come-from-behind victories and many never-know-what-to-expect outcomes. It's really the two-player versus matches against Dale that drove me to eventually wade though the hundreds of techniques and tactics in order to find and perfect a few more effective killer attacks that would give my character of choice, Kilik, the edge over Dale (unfortunately, this has yet to happen).

Aside from the default one-player 'Arcade' and 'Two-player Versus' modes, there were also more home-exclusive ones that held my interest like the 'Mission Battle' mode. This is a mode that has players hopping around in a board game-like interface and completing missions that almost always involve fighting some character, but with slight additional twists like environmental dangers (extreme blowing winds, sinking sand, deadly mice) or specific objectives (ring-out required, first to hit the floor loses). Completed missions reward you with 'points' that can be spent of unlocking various pictures in the art gallery that range from conceptual designs to promotional illustrations. Unlocking the pictures (which can get to be a pretty addictive quest in and of itself) in turn will open up more bonus features like additional stages, costumes for certain characters, and a 'Exhibition' mode where characters will automatically demonstrate a martial arts form. Beating the 'Arcade' modes with different characters, much like in Tekken 2, can also reveal secret selectable characters. There's also the other, more standard issue modes: 'Time Attack' (completing the game for fastest time), 'Survival' (defeat as many opponents as possible with one life bar), 'Team Battle' (King Of Fighters-style group fights) and 'Training'.

Of course I have yet to mention Soul Calibur's most publicly talked about feature, the graphics. I'm inclined to agree with popular sentiment that the graphics are staggeringly beautiful and currently unmatched in its genre. The environments are fully decked out with either lively natural landscapes for the outdoor stages or with meticulously detailed architecture for the indoor ones. The characters in Soul Calibur may not be as dysfunctionally interesting when compared to the morally depraved Tekken bunch and they may start to look a little facially stilted compared to the bawdy Ready 2 Rumble crew, but they are still technically impressive and boast smooth life-like animation (especially noteworthy due to the authentic motion-captured martial arts techniques), some incredibly intricate costumes, and wonderfully distinct personalities with designs worthy of Namco's grand reputation. Topping off the overall presentation is the background music consisting of wonderfully lavished musical scores that have an epic, orchestra-like ambience, which matches the 'worldly' nature of Soul Calibur.

So much like my first day of class in a new school, I had some initial fears when first playing Soul Calibur. It wasn't what I had originally hoped for (like realizing college isn't just one long party) and I was like a new freshman longing for his yesteryears as a lower-school senior (back when I could muster up one combo chain after another in Tekken 2, resulting in some serious cans of whup-ass). Sadly, those techniques have faded in my memory and I was left to deal with the reality of now being a student of Soul Calibur. But fear not, because after finding new motivation (like punking Dale until he cries like a girl) and studying up on the techniques, I'm beginning to pick up the ropes and see the light that is Soul Calibur. It's only a matter of time now that, as my skills develop, my experience grows and pretty soon I'll achieve my PhD in Soul Calibur. Then people will have to start calling me Dr. Kilik instead of Mr. Fishcake. Rating: 9 out of 10

Chi Kong Lui
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