• It’s something of a rare treat to know before you’ve even hit the download button that a game is going to be really rather good. Recalling the heady days of Dreamcast ownership around the beginning of the decade, it’s also good to know that three of the games that defined Sega’s console as a lot more than just a flash in Japan, have now made their way to the Xbox Live Arcade more or less intact.

    Certainly in the case of Ikaruga, you couldn’t hope to lay your 800 points down on a tougher and more challenging vertical shoot ‘em up. Then with Rez you were treated to trippy visuals, thumping soundtracks and a game that would sit in anyone’s collection as a classic.

    For Dreamcast owners there’s one more title that had the immediate effect of smashing our collective jaws into the floor in amazement when it first appeared – that title was SoulCalibur and someone’s given it a serious HD makeover, and released it kicking and screaming onto the Xbox Live Arcade.

    Soul Calibur HD

    We already know that SoulCalibur IV is about to smash its way onto the 360 later on this year, but harking back to a time when the whole franchise hadn’t got carried away with overblown boob physics, annoyingly out-of-place bonus characters and stilting the flowing gameplay with impossible combos, SoulCalibur really felt way ahead of its time on the Dreamcast, and it’s testament to how excellent it was by the fact that even the 360 version is missing a few bits and pieces. More on those later, but to begin with, how does SoulCalibur HD play?

    Once again, for an XBLA title it was time to dig out my trusty Hori Arcade Stick. So far it’d been wheeled out for Ikaruga and a couple of other games, but for scrappers like this the thing is essential because the 360 gamepad just can’t cut it with its nasty crosspad.

    Choosing Taki (as I always do when giving a new SoulCalibur game the once over) I blitzed through the single player arcade mode in what felt like far too speedy a first run. Time to whack the difficulty level up to ludicrous mode and try again.

    On harder difficulty levels, every single bout in SoulCalibur is fought for, and it takes the game far beyond the reaches of our old friend the button masher, who somehow manages to fudge their way through each stage by simply stabbing wildly at the action buttons without so much as a thought about combos or defences.

    SoulCalibur HD’s visuals look crisp and clear, in fact they’re a little too crisp at times if possible, somehow losing the warm fuzziness around the edges that I remember from the Dreamcast version, but recalling the arcade classic that this is actually based on, it looks pretty polished.

    More than that though, it is as smooth as hot buttered toast when it comes to the gameplay. No stilted pauses or glitches, just the absolutely speedy flowing flurry of blows and combinations the title absolutely should have. With the Hori, SoulCalibur transcends mere gaming and moves into a bizarre zen-like experience as once again you remember the button combinations and counter-moves that can save your butt when you’re trying to take down Rock with just a dribble of your health bar left.

    With the rock-solid gameplay in place, neat visuals, all the original sound effects and just about every one of the fighters you’ll remember from Arcade and DC then – where’s the catch? How can something this good be the same price as, say, something as terrible as Frogger 2?

    Well there’s stuff missing as I mentioned before. Dreamcast owners were spoiled with quite a few extra modes in addition to the Arcade and Survival Mode. For the XBLA version there’s no Quest mode (something that gave the Dreamcast version a little more depth, allowing you to take each character through a map full of objectives in order to progress). More importantly is the lack of Live Online Play, something that would’ve made this an absolutely glorious experience but perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the likes of Virtua Fighter 5 and Dead or Alive 4 and games like this aren’t meant to be played against anyone, unless they’re within elbowing distance in your lounge.

    There is at least there’s a 2 player local mode if you’ve got a couple of controllers handy, and the Survival, Team Battle and training modes have been brought across intact from the DC version – it’s just a damned shame about quest mode but a very tiny minus point.

    Back to the game then and pretty soon everyone who dabbles with SoulCalibur (particularly if they’ve never played it before) will start to understand why it was such a groundbreaking title when it first hit the home console market. To start with, there’s the fact that you can move “in and out of the screen”, neatly sidestepping an opponent coming in for a killer blow.

    Next there’s the ability to force-charge your power-ups and if you time this right, you can pretty much land a killer blow that will sap an opponent’s energy bar dramatically, more or less guaranteeing a win if you follow such a move up with a flurry of quick speedy blows.

    Of course there’s still also the ability to kick your opponent firmly out of the playing field, scoring you an instant victory (in fact there’s an achievement for doing this to every single opponent during an Arcade Mode run but if you can nail that you’re a far better player than me, the AI has a habit of sneakily side-stepping an attempt at a ring-out).

    There’s no weapon-changing like you’d see in the various sequels, but the alternative appearances for each character are still there (hit the Y and the B button during selection) and every single little trademark “speech” by the main characters is satisfyingly reproduced, as is the stirring music.

    There’s very little to pick on with SoulCalibur HD. It provides a nice little trip down memory lane for those gamers who have been around long enough to have owned Sega’s late great grey console, and definitely something of a treat for those of you hotly anticipating episode IV in the ongoing series (personally I think the Star Wars stuff has detracted something from SoulCalibur IV but maybe that’s just me) then SoulCalibur HD offers you a tantalising taste of what to expect.

    Bundled with an excellent “Museum” full of character art, renders and other goodies (and an achievement for trawling through it all), this certainly feels like a nicely packaged and timely release.

    In fact it just goes to show that quality titles can be brought back from the dead and released on XBLA, and with a whole slew of fantastic titles waiting in the wings from the Dreamcast’s back catalogue let’s hope that releases like SoulCalibur HD are the shape of things to come, and we can dispense with all that nasty shovelware that’s blighted the marketplace recently once and for all.

    Score: 8/10

    About The Author