1995’s Soul Blade spoke to me in ways that games before hadn’t.
Let’s get this nomenclature nonsense out of the way first: Soul Blade is the Sony PlayStation version of Soul Edge, a weapons-based fighting game by Namco much in the tradition of Tekken, which made waves in the 3D fighting game scene a year earlier.
After the game’s critical and financial success, the sequel Soul Calibur launched in the arcades in 1998 and became one of the must-own games in the newborn Sega Dreamcast’s library in 1999. The series has gone by the name Soul Calibur ever since, so those calling it the “Soul” series is really just fan service for those with a longer memory.
Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were my wheelhouse back in the 90s, when I was in grade school and had little idea of what made a character cool other than “He’s a ninja, but green.”
Soul Blade cut through my preconceptions of what a fighting game was, in so, so many ways. For the gameplay wonks, it wasn’t like 2D fighters. My cousin introduced me to the game with a now-quaint pitch: If you press the same button twice, it doesn’t just spam out the same punch twice: your dude swings his sword from one motion to the next, like a real human being. (Basic attack strings were revolutionary to my mind.)
The thing is, there was so much more to Soul Blade than just its 3D fighting engine. More than any game I had played before, it gave a sense of world building I hadn’t seen anywhere outside of a Japanese Role-Playing Game – and this time, it was up close, free of number crunching, zoomed in, and complete with colour commentary.
To get a sense of why Soul Blade blew me away, you really need to watch the game’s intro. Just, do it now. It’s required viewing to get any sense of what’s going on.
See that? See how incredible that is? My god.
The camp. The perfectly timed music with the visuals. The way it gives equal weight to every character in its ensemble cast. The way it tells you more than enough about everyone for you to make up your mind who you want to play as right away (with the exception of Sophitia, whose pitch was essentially “look, she’s naked”).
And the direction! It’s basically a melodramatic Asian soap opera mixed in with a mid-90s U.S. opening sequence the likes of Hercules or Xena: Warrior Princess. Check out the two warriors clashing swords with their teeth clenched. The young pretty girl doing her hair. Action shots (a motherfucking castle tower falling to the ground) mixed with nonsense profile shots (Taki taking off her mask, which I don’t think she does with her primary costume in the entirety of the game).
It’s goddamn perfect. And it encapsulated anime in the 90s before it became swallowed by its own tropes in the years that followed it.
The presentation put more than just the fighters on the scene. The titles of the music displayed in bright green before a match. And they practically yelled out character. FUTURE DANCIN’. BRAVELY FOLK SONG. THE WIND AND CLOUDS. The music in Street Fighter II was and is still iconic, but they were extensions of the characters they represented. The soundtrack in Soul Blade began to break free from that, and the scores of subsequent Soul Calibur games became a marquee feature in and of themselves.
The characters were a mix of tropes and new ideas, crossing European imagery with Asian in ways that you’d only find in Neo Geo games if you had thousands of dollars, before arcade ROMs made Samurai Showdown and The King of Fighters more widely accessible.
It hit the right balance between what was familiar and what was weird and new to me at the time. Mitsurugi, the powerful samurai and Siegfried, the clean-cut knight with the gigantic sword made sense. Hwang, the Korean “rival” and Sophitia, the Xena stand-in were different from what you’d expect from a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. But then you also had Cervantes, a zombie pirate with a gun in his sword? And, of course, whatever the hell Voldo was, other than my first exposure to BDSM imagery.
There was also the idea of representation and identity, though it seems almost quaint today. There were European characters, Asian characters, and supernatural characters. And thanks to its wonderful story mode and ensemble cast approach, anyone could feel like their character was the *main* character. It’s a quality that later Soul Calibur games left behind with their focus on Siegfried and Sophitia’s expanded lore, to the detriment of the rest of the cast.
My cousin latched onto Li Long because of his nunchuks and unapologetic Bruce Lee homage. I gravitated to Hwang’s status as stern rival and his strained relationship to Seung Mi Na, who in my Grade 5 mind reminded me of someone I crushed hard on.
You can chalk the feelings I had about Soul Blade up to some of the frankly amazing technological advances we saw in gaming in the 90s. The PlayStation’s CD-quality sound, the massive jump in memory and file size limits made things possible that we could only imagine in the 16-bit era.
But more than that, and I realize this sounds hackneyed, I felt like it had soul. It managed to tell a story with its diverse cast in seconds-long cutscenes better than the bloated scripts of many of today’s games. And for that, it’s one of the fighting games that I judge every newcomer against.