Even more seductive were the unlockable characters, abilities, and weapons that the game constantly threw my way. I'm a complete sucker for that sort of thing, and once I discovered Soulcalibur IV's custom character creation system, I was done for. Varied, improved characters meant more interesting fighting. More fighting mean more unlocks and more unlocks meant more character creation options. It was a perfect gaming gratification loop, and it kept me up well into the wee hours of the morning.
With Soulcalibur IV I started to notice what I've probably missed about the series and many of its genre counterparts. There's an extraordinary amount of depth, variety, and balance built into the game's fighting system and styles, for example. The combat animations are simply extraordinary, and technically proficient enough to handle practically infinite combinations of characters, weapons, fighting styles, environments, and clothing. Technically speaking, it's a remarkable accomplishment.
Much to my surprise, I also learned to appreciate what I've loathed about fighting games for years: the character design. I used to hold the obnoxious denizens of such games in total contempt, writing them off as the self-indulgent products of juvenile, stunted minds. I'd assumed, incorrectly, that these over-the-top personas were there merely for the sake of variety.
But as it turns out, all that silliness serves a purpose. I didn't appreciate Voldo's freak-out appearance, for example, until I was well-acquainted with his unorthodox and bizarre combat abilities. And Ivy's oversexed dominatrix demeanor perfectly compliments her confident, punishing move set. Tira's bi-polar hysterics match her ever-shifting stances and frenetic attacks. In every case, appearance personifies ability, and brings that character's fighting style into sharp focus.
I've no doubt that these realizations will probably strike fans of Soulcalibur and other fighting games as painfully obvious, but for someone who used to dismiss the genre out of hand, they're practically revelatory. I'm beginning to suspect that Soulcalibur IV isn't the only fighting title whose strengths I may have overlooked.
Whether I'll ever become proficient at Soulcalibur IV remains to be seen. To date, my tentative forays into multiplayer matches have been less than triumphant, in part because I'm so enamored by the game's variety that haven't devoted enough time to learning any single character. But I'm headed in that direction, and enjoying every minute.
It's not every day that sixty bucks gets you a good game. It's even rarer when it buys you a whole new outlook on a genre. It that respect, it might be one of the more lucrative gaming investments I've ever made. Soulcalibur IV might be my first fighting game purchase, but I doubt it will be the last.
Adam LaMosca is really Voldo in disguise, but don't ask him to do your taxes.