tim: Note: This review is written assuming you have a stick. When anything pertaining to control is mentioned, the writer is writing from the perspective of a man who owns a good, solid stick. If you do not own a stick, this review may appear to be messing with you. This is not the reviewer's fault. It is yours.
tim: how's that?
eric: it's mean.
tim: well, that's the point
tim: in the review, i plan to explain how soul calibur ii makes me ANGRY
tim: how i like it ANGRILY
eric: button mashingly angry?
tim: shit, dude, just today
tim: i threatened to EAT nightmare's BLOND-HAIRED GERMAN DEMON-CHILDREN
tim: and when i beat him
tim: i had kilik do the spin-around and smash-in-the-face-with-the-rod move on the dead body
tim: and i screamed:
tim: "I'LL FEED YOU THIS ROD!"
tim: i mean, that's pretty damned sick
I take my sessions of Soul Calibur II very seriously. While clicking my stick furiously and pulling off combos that would probably give your grandmother a heart attack, God rest her soul, I am known to say things that would probably give your little sister an aneurysm. Now, I'm not one to swear. In fact, I never swear (out loud, damn it). So in times of fiery passion, where other people would drop an F-bomb, I threaten to eat a giant monster-knight's blond-haired German demon-children.
When I'm playing as Kilik, I make many loud references to my "rod," and how it shall be the death of whatever armor-clad collection of butter-smooth polygons happens to be cowering in front of me. I ask if they want to taste it, or feel it, and then I make them do both. In surround sound.
It's a curious thing, my talking to videogames. When half-dead in Japan back in 2001, I stayed sane by talking to the hero of Dragon Warrior VII for about six hours a night instead of sleeping.
"You can do it, Billy."
"Billy, we believe in you!"
"Billy, you rock!"
There, half-dead, in a room the size of a large cardboard box, I discovered the healing powers of talking to "My man, Billy."
When three-quarters dead in Japan in 2003, I discovered I can also speak to videogames in a less-than-friendly manner. This had honestly never happened before. I had never once screamed at a game until I played Soul Calibur II for PlayStation2 at a kiosk outside the fabled videogame-and-toy-gun-filled-store/fortress AsoBitCity in Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan.
I stepped out of my coffin-sized room in Shitamachi for the afternoon, and took the Keisei Express down to Ueno. There, I scoped a few cherry blossoms at Shinobazu Pond, ate this really good pancake-thing, took pictures of kids in a park (long story behind that one) and almost bought a hat that would have made me look, then and there, like JoJo from volume two of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. I didn't buy it. I had four hours to burn before heading to Setagaya to meet a punk-rocking friend, and then my current translator. I walked to Akihabara, and bought a big cup of Sprite at McDonald's. It was the biggest cup I've ever seen in a Japanese fast food place. I was overjoyed, and the weather was warm. I headed down toward AsoBitCity.
It was March 27th. That was the release date of Soul Calibur II for Xbox, PlayStation2, and Gamecube.
This made it a very good day to choose to walk to AsoBitCity.
All five-trillion-something booths outside AsoBitCity were equipped with the game in its PS2 and Gamecube incarnations. They were also equipped with Hori Brand Official Soul Calibur II Fighting Joysticks.
I stepped up and grabbed a 'stick in front of the PS2 version -- the only version of the game that was not currently in use. Everyone else was playing as Link on the GC version. I resumed an arcade match involving Heihachi Mishima, of Tekken infame, getting his diapered ass handed to him by the Sophitia sister/clone Cassandra. I tried, really, to use Heihachi. I just couldn't feel the flow with him. His blocking sword-slashes with his bare (and flaming) hands just seemed rude to me. It was really an auspicious way to begin playing a game -- with a character I couldn't stand, from a series that makes me yawn all the way up until its carnival-ride final bosses and scoff at its minigames and sidequests with neck-spasming sarcasm: "They ought to make a full game based on Tekken Force mode!"
When I got to Voldo, that was the last straw. I've always disliked Voldo. I hate the sick noises he makes -- except when he makes that Tusken Raider sound when you smash him in the groin with Seung Mina's rod-lift move. I don't like the way his body undulates. I hate his crawl-around-on-his-back moves.
He put poor Batman-haired Heihachi down again and again with this overhead claw-sweep. I gritted my teeth.
"I'm gonna break your sick head off, you stupid clown!"
I have no idea where that came from. I died, and someone stepped away from a Gamecube version. They had left it on the character select screen. I grabbed Link, put on his little red outfit, and went for a whirl.
I was not disappointed. For the most part. Well, once I beat the game and selected Talim, I came to be less not disappointed.
It was about an hour later when I found the Xbox version of the game on demo inside -- and encased in a green-Plexiglas semi-soundproof Dolby 5.1-equipped booth. Before the small black seat-thing was a table, and on that table were two Hori 'sticks, untouched. I sat down, pressed start, and was surrounded by the sound of lots of weapons clashing and lots of fighters screaming. I beat the game as Spawn once, and had just selected Kilik for some arcade mode when some kid sat next to me and asked, politely, if he could play me a round.
Now, in all my time in Japan, I've never actually played a versus fighting game with a complete stranger. I take it it's just something the Japanese don't usually do. This accounts for most Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution machines being one-player. It does not, however, account for the ashtray by each joystick. That has something to do with something else.
I was honored that this kid thought to challenge me. He was dressed entirely in denim, and he was sniffing like either high on glue or coming down with SARS. I told him to go ahead and have himself a sit-down. He made a snicker and hit start. When the highly-reflective plasma TV display went black and just before the character select screen came up, I saw two of his friends leaning against the walls of the booth with grins on their face.
Displaying a little residue from the Japan-loves-Korean pop-culture phase that bloomed a little while ago, this kid selected Korean fencer and Hwang replacement Yunsung's player-one outfit with a confident rolling strike of the vertical, then horizontal slash buttons.
He parried my first, angry thrust, and slashed. I sidestepped. I was behind his back. I launched forward with Kilik's new throw -- the one where he steps on the opponent's back, bounces up, and throws the rod downward at the space between the opponent's shoulder blades. The rod proceeds to bounce up like something out of a kung fu movie. Kilik landed, rod in hand, and proceeded to, at my command, perform one long combo that ended the match.
The kid opened his mouth and breathed. One of the kids in the audience groaned like an audience member in Street Fighter II Turbo Hyperfighting:
Second round went exactly as the first.
Everyone browsing Gameboy Advance games could hear the battles raging, those speakers echoing the fighters' angry screams. Metal clashed against metal, and some guy and his girlfriend took interest and watched during a quiet conversation.
I tore up all three of those kids. And the guy's girlfriend. And a salaryman who stopped by to watch.
As if the beautiful screen resolution and 5.1 surround wasn't enough of a draw, the screaming might have done something. At the end of round one, when Nightmare or Spawn or Talim or Xianghua fell in the middle of a sickeningly extended combo, I screamed, in quite fluent English: "Get up, punk! Come on! You ain't done yet!"
Note: No one was afraid. Here I could say I was either "sure to be cartoonish in my screaming" or that "people just don't fear me." Take your pick.
All told, I must have taken down two dozen teenagers in school uniforms -- including two girls -- and at least five salarymen, before some guy who might have been eighteen or forty sat down in a sweatsuit and handed me Kilik's ass twice. I stood up, tightened my punk-rock driving gloves, checked my watch, and realized I only had an hour and a half to get where I needed to be.
I headed to the Ginza Line at Suehirocho Station, and it hardly dawned on me: that was the first time I played videogames in more than two months.
It had felt pretty good. It had also made me hungry for spaghetti.
I found myself back at AsoBitCity on April 3rd, four hours before I had to be at the airport. I played a round as Mitsurugi before tearing myself away from the game. For some crazy, swirly-headed reason I couldn't explain -- it might have been "love," or the fact that my friend had informed me Soul Calibur II doesn't hit American stores until August -- I grabbed up a Hori 'stick, two new Hori Super Nintendo-styled pads for Gamecube, and a copy of the game, and put them all on my credit card. Like magic, while running down the streets of Ueno, I found a guy selling rolling duffel bags for 1000 yen. I bought it then and there, and unzipped it. It accordioned open. It was bigger than my suitcase. I threw all my stuff in there, went!
home, managed to fit my laptop case into the rolling duffel, got my landlord to drive me to the station, took the train to Narita Airport, and took a plane the hell out of Japan.
Before getting on the plane, I fished my Gamecube copy of Soul Calibur II and one of those aforementioned Hori pads out of the AsoBitCity bag. I put them into my soccer-bag-carryon, and wrote some email at a kiosk. I grabbed the newest Shonen Jump at a bookstore, and read it cover-to-cover for the first two hours of the flight. After I finished a few bread rolls and accepted less-than-insincere apologies for the absence of a vegetarian meal selection, the lights dimmed. I was sitting in a place where no reading light shone. I felt stupid for leaving my reading light in my suitcase. I booted up the little television display fixed to the arm of my chair, and yawned through the first half of an edited-for-general-audiences version of Die Another Day as I drank two Sprites.
I then got up to go to the bathroom.
When I came back, I sat down and tried to sleep. Sleep didn't come. I opened my carryon bag, and found that Hori Gameboy Player Digital Controller pad. I opened the box. With the Super-Nintendo-inspired controller in my hands, I quietly recalled Ken's four-hit Flaming Dragon Punch combo from Super Street Fighter II. The big, green A button's presence in the middle of the right half of the controller was something it took me a minute to get used to.
Back in the day I played Super Street Fighter II, I didn't have a 'stick. I had played with the Super Nintendo pad, and I had, for the most part, liked it. Sometimes I busted out the Capcom Soldier Pad I had found for six dollars at a Kay-Bee toy store, though nine times out of ten, it was the good old Ascii Pad.
Years later, on a plane bound from Tokyo to San Jose, California, I held a similar pad with a different button layout. My love for that pad is as different from my love for my Ascii Pad as my love for Soul Calibur II is different from my love for Street Fighter II Turbo Hyperfighting.
I went on Dragon-Punching in my sleep. At some point, those Dragon Punches turned into Seung Mina kick combos.
And then I awoke with a start. The cabin was dark. The shutters were down. Everyone was asleep. I was holding a brand new Gamecube controller while the television screen in front of me indicated we were now six hours away from San Jose.
I looked at the controller in my lap, and that's when I first wondered: what was with the screaming?
Why had I been screaming at Soul Calibur II?
To ask more specifically, why had I been screaming while playing Soul Calibur II against people I didn't know?
Was I angry? Or had the game pulled some kind of secret hidden power out of the me that had trash-talklessly ended all comers' worlds at Street Fighter in all its incarnations back in the 1990s?
The quickest answer is: . . . I don't know.
The longer answer requires me to review the game first.
So come with me now, and listen to a story. Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold, about to be retold again.
This is my review of Soul Calibur II for Nintendo Gamecube, Sony PlayStation2, and Microsoft Xbox.
[Next: the review will never die]