The Making Of: Soul Calibur
Until the Dreamcast was released in Japan at the end of 1998, only SNK’s eccentric and much-loved Neo-Geo AES console had achieved perfect parity with arcade technology, and that was limited to crossovers between the AES and its dressed-up-as-a-coin-op MVS sibling. Dreamcast, however, was something else.
Sega’s final home console didn’t merely bring console games to the level of contemporary arcade experiences: in many cases its technology enabled developers to surpass the quality of late-Nineties coin-ops. The most obvious example of this phenomenon was Namco’s Soul Calibur, which went from being an excellent arcade fighter to an even greater, more technologically advanced experience when pressed to GD-ROM.
But to get to the start of the Soul Calibur story, we first need to journey back to the series’ origin: Soul Edge. It was Soul Edge (known in the UK as Soul Blade), which ran on the System 11 arcade board, that marked Namco’s sidestep into the relatively unexplored territory of 3D weapons-based beat-’em-ups, a sub-genre that the Soul Calibur games would later claim as their own. The team behind Soul Edge, led by ever-present producer Hiroaki Yotoriyama, used the project as a means of taking baby steps into an area in which they were not fully confident of success and where the potential for a special gameplay experience had not yet become apparent. “We announced that we were working on the Soul Edge coin-op in 1995 and then we followed that up with a PlayStation conversion in 1996,” Yotoriyama recalls. “[During 1995 and 1996], with Soul Edge we were just able to basically explore the possibilities for a fighting game that used weapons.” The result of the team’s experimentation was a partial success.
Fighters were limited to performing sidesteps so as to evade attacks, rather than using the truer eight-way movement that would be pioneered in Soul Calibur. Soul Edge did, however, establish the core group of characters that would reappear in Soul Calibur and its sequels, giving debuts to fighters such as Siegfried and Voldo. Above all, with its utilisation of weapons in a 3D environment, the team’s initial effort presented an alternative to the then-dominant schools of Tekken and Virtua Fighter. The successful PlayStation port of Soul Edge also gave an early indication of Yotoriyama and team’s willingness to augment its arcade-to-console conversions with additional, console-exclusive content.
Instead of opting to quickly develop a Soul Edge 2 with better graphics and more combatants, Namco subsequently took a step back to evaluate how best to capitalise on the game’s successes. Yotoriyama realised there was the possibility of taking Namco’s Soul on a more interesting journey, and a name change was in order to reflect the game’s rebirth. “After our work on Soul Edge,” Yotoriyama explains, “we turned our attention towards developing a fighting game that featured normal weapons known the world over, which we moved into quite naturally. From that time on, Namco’s beat-’em-ups were running along two lines of production – the Tekken line and the Soul Edge line – but we were combining our powers: we had mutual technology and we shared our development know-how.”
The benefits of co-operation between internal teams at Namco were such that what had been the company’s flagship fighting game was in danger of being upstaged, though there seems to have been more camaraderie than rivalry between the developers of Tekken and Soul Calibur. “As a result of this [mutually beneficial alliance] we were able to produce the greatest weapons-based fighting action game in the world,” Yotoriyama boasts, in reference to Soul Calibur. And he’s arguably accurate in his (self-)assessment: Soul Calibur was the second game to be awarded a perfect 40/40 score in Weekly Famitsu and it also received top marks and glowing reviews from some of the most reputable English-language publications. The Dreamcast version has aged exceptionally well and is regarded by some as the most refined game in the entire series. Plus – money talks – more than a million copies of Soul Calibur were sold worldwide. It was, and should still be seen as, a remarkable success.
Behind the strong retail performance and the hype, Soul Calibur proved to be such a formidable experience principally because it was doing things differently. Obviously the use of weapons (which other developers had failed/declined to emulate in their own beat-’em-ups since the appearance of Soul Edge) played a big part in setting Soul Calibur at a tangent from the ubiquitous punch-kick-dominated school of beat-’em-ups. But there was more to it, not least the lightning-quick and multi-directional movement of characters on Calibur’s gorgeous stages. Now there was more to evasion than sidestepping.
“Once we’d finished Soul Edge and had moved on to work on Soul Calibur,” Yotoriyama clarifies, “it wasn’t the case that we decided at the start of the redevelopment process to implement an eight-way running system, but rather that it came about as the result of much time spent conducting various trial-and-error experiments. At that time, [Namco] had a separate game project at the prototype stage, which involved running around a field. We thought that looked like a lot of fun for some reason, so we ended up borrowing that motion [system] and just tentatively tried to reuse it in Soul Calibur. When we implemented that technology, we were surprised that it appeared to have an affinity with the system of vertical and horizontal weapon attacks that was already in place in Soul Edge. It was then that we first saw the potential for developing a really entertaining game along those lines, and from there we began work on a project that adopted the eight-way running system in-game.”
Eventually, after persistent experimentation, Soul Calibur had taken shape as a dynamic, free-moving beat-’em-up and had appeared in the arcades of Japan on 30 July 1998. More importantly in the longterm, a Dreamcast version went into development as soon as work on the coin-op was finished. The Dreamcast version wasn’t a sequel, but was clearly a level above the System 12 original, in spite of Namco’s decision to streamline the development process for Soul Calibur’s Dreamcast conversion. “For the arcade version,” Yotoriyama says, “we had around 60 to 70 people working on Soul Calibur; for the Dreamcast version, our team comprised only around 40 to 50 people. The coin-op took us roughly 14 months to develop, but development work on the Dreamcast game lasted only half of that period – around seven months.”
In 1999 Sega introduced the Dreamcast-based NAOMI arcade hardware, bringing its console and coin-op divisions together with two unified formats that were almost as compatible with each other as SNK’s AES and MVS had been. Prior to that shift, however, Japanese developers with both arcade and Dreamcast plans had no alternative but to port their coin-op code from a disparate array of technologies. (The NAOMI format was open to use by third-party developers, a notable example of NAOMI-to-Dreamcast success being Capcom’s Power Stone, so in principle Namco could have availed itself of such convenience had Soul Calibur not already been designated as a System 12 project.)
In Namco’s case, the pressure was on to transform Soul Calibur from a System 12 game to a Dreamcast one. Yotoriyama remembers the redevelopment period with something of a grimace: “I remember how different the special characteristics of the System 12 and Dreamcast hardware were – colouring methods, the accuracy of internal calculations, translucency display methods… the differences seemed to be endless. Porting the game from System 12 to the Dreamcast might seem like a simple proposition, but [even] then [neither piece of] hardware gave us a surplus of power to work with – it wasn’t like today. So while we were aiming for ‘total balance’, the fact that we had to economise various aspects of the Dreamcast game was no different to how things worked with the System 12 version. And on top of all that, we only had seven months to develop the Dreamcast version, which was a really short deadline and put a terribly strict [imposition] on development…”