Gaming wasn’t always sexy. And before the advent of modern-day graphics, more focus was put into actual gameplay and storylines. I’d like to cite the Soul series as a prime example.
In 1996, Namco released Soul Edge, a fighter that followed the journeys of ten warriors and their quest to obtain (or destroy) the legendary blade for which the game was eponymously named. There was nothing quite like it at the time: primitive, chunky 3D graphics pioneered the next generation of games to come and were exciting, new features in the world of ‘90s gaming. It had seen success in ‘95 as an arcade hit; now, as a Playstation release, players could enjoy gameplay from the comfort of their own homes.The characters were a culturally diverse group of both men and women holding seemingly believable historical backgrounds for the sixteenth century. There was a traditional “Arcade” mode, as well as the inclusion of a two-player “VS” mode, a “Survival” mode, and “Time Attack,” where the player has to kill as many enemies possible within a time constraint.
Though the game received little critical reception outside Japan, its sequel, Soul Calibur (often mistaken as the series’ first installment), enjoyed favorable worldwide acclaim. Released in 1998 as a feature game to promote Sega Dreamcast sales, Soul Calibur featured the return of the core original cast, as well as the addition of nine new warriors. Gameplay saw the addition of of a “Missions” mode, where players could complete tasks or challenges to travel across the globe. Points earned in this mode allowed the player to purchase artwork, costumes, and other in-game features that enhanced the overall experience. Namco had birthed a fruitful series. Fans everywhere reveled in the modernistic “eight-way-run” fighting experience, a feature Soul Calibur was first in its genre to have.
Namco followed up with Soul Calibur II in 2001, which enjoyed similar success. In 2005, Soul Calibur III hit the market — not under Namco, but the new company Project Soul, an inner group of game designers from Namco. I still to this day am unsure of why they chose to release it only for one console. It proved to be a grave mistake, as the sequel went mostly unheard of, and the graphics were severely disappointing for four years of waiting (considering game technology had vastly improved in said time period). Some long beloved features were omitted, and story modes lacked the meaning that they once had. Since then, Project Soul has released two main sequels, Soul Calibur IV and V respectively (and a handful of innocuous spinoffs). With each release came less features, lackluster gameplay, and most disappointingly of all … the objectification of women. As bad as the outfits were becoming in the actual game, additional online anachronistic equipment exacerbated the issue.
Soul Calibur III and its successors never should have been released. The series’ once esteemed prestige has fallen. “Soul Calibur” does not conjure the image of a powerful, enthralling fighter any longer. Plot details were thrown out the window carelessly, as well as any other features that once defined the series. Soul Calibur V was perhaps the most disappointing of all: upon its release, head developer Daishi Odashima stated that the story mode was only “twenty-five percent” of what they had written, but for time reasons, they chucked the rest aside. There were and have been no plans to release the rest of the content. “Story mode” is only limited to the two main protagonists. All other characters get no backstory and are only playable through Arcade or Versus. There are no special endings, either (the only thing IV managed to do correctly). And character movesets have been horribly simplified, complete with a guard impact change that’s just unnecessarily tedious.
The sad truth is that with the emergence of modern, hyper-realistic graphics, the age-old catchphrase of “sex sells” is becoming more and more of a universal truth. It is clear that the producers behind Project Soul are targeting an audience of young males, and consequently are putting more effort into designing their characters to be voluptuous than the actual gameplay itself. It’s unfortunate that technological advances that should, in theory, improve video games tend to unearth sexism and take a step backward in portraying strong female characters who aren’t entirely dependent on their sexuality to succeed.
The series is all but dead to me, but more importantly it stands as a representation of the entire gaming industry today. Gameplay should not take a backseat to sex. And a fighting game should not be dependent upon downloadable costumes for its main source of revenue. When a franchise’s page has resorted to sexually demeaning propaganda to promote their sales, it’s a red flag. Namco needs to step up their game — quite literally. They have the tools to create an amazing in-game experience, but the question remains: will they put them to use?