Let's get one thing out of the way: Soul Calibur is the best 3D fighting game ever released in the arcades. Better than Virtua Fighter 3. Better than Tekken 3. If that weren't enough, the Dreamcast version one-ups the original arcade release in just about every way imaginable. Now that we've established that, let's explore why, and what it is about the Dreamcast version that raises the bar on fighting games in general.
From its debut at the 1998 Electronics Entertainment Expo, tucked away in a remote corner of Namco's booth, it was obvious that Soul Calibur was something special. Namco had pushed the PlayStation-based System 12 hardware farther than anyone had a right to expect from such a modest chipset. Namco took what it had learned from Tekken 3 and built on the ambitious, but limited, Soul Edge fighting engine. Soul Calibur was not only a substantial leap in graphics, but in gameplay as well. Employing a new eight-way directional system in conjunction with a physics engine that took weapon weight into account, Soul Calibur's gameplay reached new heights in both complexity and depth. Perhaps one of the most crucial additions was the inclusion of the tech-roll found in Tekken 3. No more lying on the ground as your opponent rained down attacks from the sky. Just a quick tap of the guard button and you were back on your feet, quick as a whistle. Graphically, the game was a fireworks display of particle effects, complex polygonal character models, and a light-sourcing tour de force, all running at a blazing 60 frames-per-second.
The short of it is, if you haven't played Soul Calibur, you need to. For sheer adrenaline working in tandem with eye-melting graphics, nothing could touch it. What then, does the Dreamcast version (Namco's first "real" game developed for archrival Sega in ages) of Soul Calibur do to leapfrog past its arcade counterpart in every way possible?
To begin with, the most obvious enhancement are the graphics. Despite the lack of a prerendered FMV intro, the likes of which we're used to seeing from Namco, the opening offered here will drop more jaws than Muhammed Ali. Think of the intros usually seen in Capcom games like Marvel vs. Capcom, but rendered in full, hi-res, 60fps 3D (with a splash of Samurai Shodown thrown in for good measure), and you're not even close to imagining how awesome the intro to Soul Calibur for the DC looks. Picture a first-person camera zooming in over some sandy horizon, as weapons slam into the foreground. Keep going until the weapons are replaced by a swiftly approaching Kilik (the staff user in SC). Trigger an impressive sequence of character cameos and a dynamic soundtrack, and there you have it. This has to be seen in person to appreciate. It looks so good it might as well be CG, because five years ago, graphics like these were impossible. The reason the arcade version couldn't be ported home to the PlayStation was due to hardware limitations. Despite the fine conversion of Tekken 3 to the PlayStation, Soul Calibur on System-12 used an extremely high amount of RAM to enable effects like Z-buffering and other processor-taxing effects - effects that were not present in Tekken 3. The Dreamcast, on the other hand, represented the perfect solution to Namco's problems. With hardware roughly ten times as powerful as the PlayStation, the DC can not only manage Soul Calibur's graphic fireworks, but also enhance them by leaps and bounds. With characters boasting not only improved polygon counts, but high-resolution textures, each member of Soul Calibur moves around each stage looking larger, tougher, more solid, and more detailed than ever before. For example, Astaroth's alternate costume sprouts Godzilla-like spikes out of his back (these spikes wobble as he moves), along with a tall Alfalfa-esque hairdo that swings and sways depending on what direction he's moving in. Soul Edge alumni and Siegfried's alter ego, Nightmare, wields the Soul Edge itself, with an eyeball set in the center that looks around at the proceedings independently of the sword. Details like hair, clothing, and accessories all move in rhythm with an extremely realistic physics model. Improving the quality of the characters wasn't enough for Namco's programmers though. They also added a muscle-flexing system that causes pectorals to ripple during victory poses, breasts and buttocks to jiggle realistically (read: subtle, not exaggerated as in Dead or Alive), and skin to stretch in a most natural way, with not a polygon tear in sight. These characters look incredible, and some benefit from the enhancements more than others (Lizardman's tail no longer looks like a polygonal mess). Everything looks perfectly smooth (especially faces), with minimal blockiness, putting the models in VF3tb to shame. This is an extremely solid-looking game. The characters have also been outfitted with an extensive set of facial expressions that add greatly to the game experience. Take Mitsurugi, for example. With every sword slash accompanied by a grunt or yell, his face synchronizes the appropriate expression as well. Even during win poses, each character mouths his own victory speech. Even little things like fingers are individually rendered.
Weapons are also impressive enough to simply sit back and watch: The blades on Voldo's twin katars move independently; Kilik's bo flexes with each swing; and metallic weapons like Mitsurugi's sword feature specular highlighting (think Gran Turismo, but better) that reflects the environment around it. Other things, like head tracking, dust clouds kicked up by the characters' feet, and amazing real-time shadows (check out Ivy's flaccid whip-sword in practice mode for a good idea of how cool simple shadows can be), round out the visual impact. Soul Calibur is so detail-intensive that even your character's breath can be seen on some stages. However, what good are beautiful-looking characters without beautiful-looking stages for them to jump around on? With the power of the Dreamcast, Namco didn't have to make compromises here, as they had in the PlayStation version of Tekken 3. All the 3D backgrounds of the arcade version are reproduced faithfully here. Perhaps "faithfully" is the wrong word though, since every texture has been rerendered in an ultra-high resolution. Additional 3D elements have been included to give the game some of the most stunning locales ever seen. Structures far back in the distance look as crisp as the details closer to you. Stages like Yoshimitsu's Water Vein, which places you on a raft speeding down an underground river, is nothing short of breathtaking. If it's architecture you crave, then one glimpse at Siegrfried's City of Water, replete with eye-searing sun flares, or the Indian Port with its distant temples, all rendered in 3D, will have you near tears. Extra touches like the rats in Voldo's stage or weather effects like rain are in abundance too. Despite the complexity and size of the backgrounds, there is never so much as a stutter in the frame rate. Amazing.