Whether in an arcade, in Japan, or at home in Indiana, I can't help screaming when playing Namco's Soul Calibur II. Sometimes, I'm not conscious of all the things I'm saying when I play the game. A friend who somehow ended up at my house today witnessed my playing furor while hunting down the last insanely-hard-to-get weapons in Weapon Master mode, and it wasn't until I looked at his Livejournal and saw him quoting me that I realized how truly gruesome were the things I was saying. To wit:
"I will eat all of your children!!!!"
"I will knock over your dog!!!!!"
"I will punch your mom in the throat!!!!"
"Raphael: cool and rude, party dude, wields a sai -- prepare to die!"
"I told you not to mess! Why are you messin!?!?!?!"
"I'm going to kick you in the mule!!!"
"I will tear your rear off!!!"
Now, what, if anything, do these screamings mean?
I'm willing to say that they're as full of meaning as hardcore samurai Mitsurugi's shouting of "Kyaa!" when I press the slash button during the VS. screen before a battle. No matter what Mitsurugi I pick -- bearded in traditional samurai armor, bearded with angry ronin robe and stick-uppy hair, clean-shaven in a gauzy kimono and chomping some wheat stem -- his mouth opens the same way, and he lets out the same scream: "Kyaa!"
I can even make Talim furrow her cute little brow and ask her opponent, all concernedly, "Daijoubu?" That, however, is not important. We're talking about taunt-screaming -- like when I press block, and my fur-collared Kilik shouts "Doudai?!"
These are the sounds of warriors confident in battle. They'll tell you in martial arts classes to let sounds naturally come out of your body as you spar with your fellow students.
Never before has a fighting game brought such sounds out of me. I'm told King of Fighters gets some people pretty excited. Well, good for them. It doesn't do this to me. Not even Street Fighter II Turbo Hyperfighting did it to me. Neither did Soul Calibur. Hell, tae kwon do classes hardly did it to me.
The man who taught my tae kwon do classes (I hesitate to call him a "master") told us that shouting was natural. Try not to think of shouting during forms as a judges' requirement -- think of it as a natural expression of your chi energy. Once you realize that the martial art is something performed by your body, tapping potential energy that exists, at most times, within you, making motions that your body is built with the ability to make: you accept the martial art as part of you, and your performance of that martial art becomes something you do naturally.
Or to use a simpler analogy: figure-skaters can supposedly feel as comfortable on skates as you and I feel in regular shoes.
No, no -- that doesn't work. Forget I said that.
A martial art becomes a natural part of your body. It enters your chi. Right? Well, much thinking and much launching of Seung Mina at Soul Calibur II's Extra Survival Mode (97 wins, yo) has brought me to the conclusion that Soul Calibur has entered my chi. This is both a good thing for picking up all the cool extra weapons and costumes in record time, and a not-so-perfect thing for Soul Calibur II's merit as a game.
Allow me to attempt to explain this logically. I'll use my screaming habit as a springboard:
I scream because I take my Soul Calibur seriously, as the karate monk takes his kata seriously in front of his master.
I take it seriously because I know it well. I jumped into Kilik on an arcade machine a long while back and started rattling off combos that hours of dorm-room sessions of Soul Calibur had drilled into my thumbprints.
I played Soul Calibur with my dorm-mates the way I played baseball with my friends in elementary school. It was fresh, and new, and fun. We were silly about it. We had extended practice sessions where players took turns bashing each other with combos.
I approached Soul Calibur II like that one seasoned veteran in a movie about baseball who happens to have a Dose of Nostalgia While Winning the World Series. I start up arcade mode, and I enjoy cracking the game open as Mitsurugi; yet, when Inferno is dead for the first time, my mind is on starting over as the next character on the first row. When I continue to beat the game again and again, I'm enjoying myself, even when it means I get to make fun of Voldo for being dumb. Yet, silently, behind this enjoyment, without my being aware, I'm beating the game one character at a time, row-by-row. I'm playing the game like performing a kata.
Here I could say something about gaming being "part of" my "life." I won't say this, because I'd feel both like a generalizer and a little wrong. I'm not on track to becoming a professional Soul Calibur player. However, I'm playing the game like that's my goal.
My friend: "Let's play some versus mode."
Me: "I want to get some more weapons."
(Two minutes later)
Me (To Lizardman): "FEEL IT, REPTILE-PUNKER!"
Announcer: "You WIN!"
Me (To the ceiling): "Uuuuryaaa!"
I get the game over to my friends' house, and after they're done telling me how glad they are to see me back from Japan, we have a tournament. In the beginning, I lay out the rules:
"The stage is always random. Replays and stage intros are to always be skipped. To ensure this happens, both players are to repeatedly press start during any and all cinematics. Life meters stay on 100%. We do it this way, or I will eat all of your children."
This sounds dictator-like, does it not?
Well, what does it mean that all those assembled shouted in righteous assent, "You got it"?
I'm not sure. That's why I'm asking.
We still enjoy the game, of course. We enjoy it for the same reasons we enjoyed Soul Calibur. However, like the now-grizzled and stubbly Mitsurugi, we are older and more seasoned in our arts of playing. We lay out familiar quick combos. We use guard impacts and parries that suggest tens of hours of practice.
We enjoy ourselves very much like we enjoyed ourselves back when we first picked up our Dreamcasts:
We enjoy the way characters flow from combo-to-combo. We enjoy speaking at length on the "Rhythms" of the game's control. We enjoy the way intuitive skill as a videogamer -- not knowledge of insane button-pressing, joystick twirling sequences -- dictates who conquers and who is conquered.
We enjoy remarking on the way we can see one wooden plank moving behind another wooden plank in a half-finished building in the sunsetting distance behind a windmill.
It's just that we enjoy these things more seriously than we enjoyed them before. To wit: the first time I beat the game as Mitsurugi, I pressed start, and skipped the ending. I was instantly aware of what I'd done, and I felt the way I did when I finally turned attack animations off in my faithful old copy of Pokémon Red.
Namco shares our enthusiasm for seriousness. They demonstrate this seriousness in the straight-faced endings -- quiet music playing over hi-res still images of your fighter finishing the quest and doing what they will with the evil sword Soul Edge -- and in the Weapon Master Mode, with its chapter-beginning injections of on-screen-explanatory text detailing voices calling out to your fighter from the darkness, bandits challenging you to a battle, and various other "et cetera, et cetera" moments.
In creating a fighting game with a "historical" setting, Namco is backed into a corner: they must take this game more seriously than we do. The costumes have to be authentic. The stage background details have to mesh. The new characters have to exist in the universe of the old characters for explainable reasons.
Like Cassandra, a Sophitia clone who takes Sophitia's place because . . . Sophitia is dead? And Yunsung -- a Hwang clone who replaces Hwang because . . . Hwang is dead? I'm not really sure. I don't pay attention to the story.
At the same time, Namco is honoring its fans in logically questionable ways. Spoilers be damned, I'm going to tell you that Sophitia is an unlockable character. Never mind that Cassandra is basically the same character -- and looks almost the same, at that -- there exist hundreds or even thousands of Sophitia fanboys, and Namco's going to give them their Sophitia for safety's sake.
On the other side of the coin, my friend remarked, upon seeing Voldo in eerie serpentine action, "Why can't they make a fighting game without these loser-y characters?"
To which I replied, "There are people who like Voldo, though."
My friend retorted: "Well, I'm not one of them."
An hour later, we were at another friend's house, showing off the game. A common question was, "Who's your character?"
My answer was "Seung Mina."
My one friend replied, "Xianghua."
Another friend dismissed our characters as "pedestrian."
"I go for Astaroth all the way," he said, confidently.
"Why's that?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "No one else uses Astaroth."
I heard this, and thought: I see.
There's a certain undeniable artistry in the characters of Soul Calibur; it seems the producers weren't bold in their willingness to mess with that artistry when they made the characters in Soul Calibur II. The friend who plays as Astaroth because no one else does remarked that the facial portraits are "too different-looking." Thinking about my friend's comment, I came to understand something about fighting game aesthetics: though I love pirates, I just can't stand playing as the foolish-looking Cervantes; fan of Godzilla, Lizardman strikes me as needlessly ugly and misshapen; I myself prefer Xianghua or Kilik or Seung Mina. Yunsung, whose straight red hair I prefer to Hwang's matted, crazy do of Soul Calibur, is very clean and simple-looking, and I think I'm starting to like using him. Talim, the cutest of the young girl characters by far, dresses in simple, symmetrical outfits.
It takes a certain kind of gamer to prefer Astaroth because no one else uses him, or to use Voldo for any reason at all. It takes another kind of gamer -- nay, person -- to consider Ivy the sexiest of the females on display.
Now, get this: as we become attracted to a potential mate first by sight, so we first make the subconscious decision to claim "our" characters in a fighting game.
When some people declare a character "my character" in a fighting game, they're bound to that character for life. It perhaps speaks volumes for the success of a fighting game franchise if the "new" characters can become favorites. I would say that, for the most part, Capcom failed to make "The New Challengers" of Super Street Fighter II anyone's favorite characters. That says something about the success of the Street Fighter Alpha Series, where many people started to love Charlie, who was merely a modified Guile. And it speaks a disconcerting word of partial failure for Soul Calibur II, that two of its new characters are clones of earlier series semi-favorites.
That's not to say all the new characters in Soul Calibur II are rehashes. In fact, the above Xianghua-user now only uses Talim. The French musketeer-ish fencer Raphael is a rhythm-heavy Maxi-like character with great range and a nice cleanly animated style. My Astaroth-using friend, upon observing that according to the records mode my Raphael had been used only once, played a round as Raphael, and declared, "I kind of like him."
[Next: is it good? or even necessary?]