There's this thing about fighting games — you really have to play them. They're like a musical instrument, like a drum set; there's this whole physical level of interaction you have with them that goes beyond the input required in the average video game. There's a reason that games like Street Fighter IV encourage humongous arcade-style joysticks; these games are at their best when players have a large instrument to bludgeon and finesse.
You'd think that the iOS version of the arcade fighting-game classic Soulcalibur would be working at a significant disadvantage, given its reliance on the device's touch-screen. And what do you know, you'd be right! As cool as it is to get to play the full 1998 game on a modern touch-screen device, the whole experience simply doesn't ever feel quite right.
How could it? A slick piece of glass could never hope to match the grabby, lumpy physicality of a joystick and buttons. Which is a bit of a drag, since the rest of the game has been faithfully ported to the mobile platform. Soulcalibur on iOS is still the 3D weapons-based fighting game that you know and love, featuring multiple game modes and 19 classic characters, each with a deep moveset and his or her own unique, complicated rhythm.
In fact, those who have mastered the original game might be the best served by this version — if you already know the combos and moves of your favourite character, I could see it being fun to sit back on the bus and rehash your old skills on a new device. But for people like me who never really mastered the original Soulcalibur, the idea of memorizing an entire set of moves simply for an iOS game is ludicrous.
That sense of inconsequentiality is brought into sharper relief by the coming release of Soulcalibur V on home consoles — in fact, I played the iPad version of Soulcalibur while on my way to a launch event for the new game. What's noteworthy is that the new game, which I played on Xbox 360 later that night, isn't actually so fundamentally different than the iPad version of the original. Yes, there are doubtless a ton of tweaks and changes that will make the new game work better and in a more balanced way. But still, it's two people in a ring, it's the same types of attacks and blocks, it's a lot of the same characters and combos.
At a fundamental level, the iPad port and the brand new AAA console game are the same, except for one crucial difference — the controls. At the event I attended, many of the Soulcalibur V game stations were hooked up to these badass mother arcade joysticks. Feel is a vital part of the fighting game experience, and there will never be a fighting game made for a touch-screen device that is as satisfying as a game with a dedicated controller.
Except… hang on a second… what about Infinity Blade 2? Hey, actually, Chair and Epic's game is a satisfying, well-designed fighting game built from the ground up for the iPad and iPhone. It works well, offers a huge amount of bang for the buck, and uses the motions that come most naturally to the touch-screen — swipe! slash! — to make its gameplay feel interesting and fun.
The team making Soulcalibur, on the other hand, has been stuck with the unenviable task of porting a 14-year-old game over to a new device the fundamental nature of which is hostile to the entire idea of joystick-based fighting controls. The game has plenty to recommend it — it's essentially a full console game on the iPad (or iPhone). It does its best with the hand it's been dealt, nicely allowing players to reconfigure the on-screen buttons into any unique configuration they desire. But none of that counts for much when the basic act of playing the game feels like banging your palm up against a vending machine, trying to shake loose a stubborn bag of chips.
Furthermore, Soulcalibur has no multiplayer component. And what good is a classic arcade-style fighting game without the ability to play against your friends? With more and more iOS games allowing for online multiplayer, the feature's absence here is a glaring omission. At least there's a "Battle Theater" mode that allows you to watch the computer fight against itself. Wait.
So hey, maybe it's a fun lark of an iOS game, made to be downloaded more for nostalgia's sake than for hardcore playing. An impulse buy. Let's look at the price: $US11.99. Double take! No actually, $US11.99 on 20%-off sale! This game is not worth $US11.99. That's almost twice as much as the in-every-way-superior Infinity Blade 2 ($6.99). $US11.99 is not app store impulse-buy money, that's real, I-want-an-actual-game-for-this-money money.
I would love to play a Soulcalibur-style game on the iPad that featured controls that were designed to work well with the swiping and slashing to which the interface lends itself. But this isn't that game. If you want a great fighting game for your iOS device, get Infinity Blade 2. If you're a die-hard Soulcalibur fan, just wait a couple more weeks for Soulcalibur V.