Posted by: Mithrandir | January 11, 2008

Oh, well done, Namco. Well done.

It is the best friends that can hurt one the most, they say… and it certainly appears to be the case with Namco’s unveiling of the SCIV secret characters we have been hearing about during December. Well, Namco did announce two new characters that will be appearing in the next Soul Calibur. And I really, really wish they hadn’t. Because the new characters are Darth Vader and Yoda. Yes. The Star Wars arch rivals and none other.

In typical sales-aspiring fashion, Vader will only be available in the PS3 version of the game, while Yoda will only appear in the Xbox 360 version (I wonder what that says about Namco’s view of the evil side of the Force… heh). This will probably only be the case at first, though, as the suspicion of both characters being offered as optional (read: paid) downloadable characters later on, through Xbox Live and PSN, is very strong. What’s more, the Web is already rife with rumors about those two characters not being the only ones from the Star Wars universe appearing in Soul Calibur IV. Which makes sense, since Namco would not negotiate with the infamous Lucas Arts money machine for just two characters.

In any case, Namco’s choice hurts. A lot.

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I remember the time I first read about the inclusion of Heihachi Mishima, Link and Spawn in the versions of Soul Calibur II for PS2, Gamecube and Xbox respectively. I was bitterly disappointed then, since it was the same marketing mentality which lead to that decision. But, well, Heihachi and Link were still video game characters, so that softened the blow somewhat. In practice, Link actually played pretty well and did not seem out of place much (well, excluding the bombs, of course). Heihachi’s braces blocking swords? Ridiculous, but I went along with that (for the three or four days it took to complete the PS2 version). Spawn was totally out of place, of course, purely there for the American audience, but him I learned to ignore pretty fast. In time, all three just faded into the background in my mind… and that was that. I am pretty sure this is how it went down for all SC fans, sooner or later.

So, I was disappointed then. But now? Now I am enraged.

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I am enraged because… well, there are marketing choices and then there are marketing choices. It’s one thing having video game characters (often used in fighting gameplay mechanics) appearing as kameo characters in a beat’ em up and quite another having movie characters – that were created in a totally different context – engaging in one-to-one combat for no apparent reason. It’s one thing having two characters that could fit in a medieval background (the one Soul Calibur has built upon) in a fighting game roster, and quite another bringing in that background two characters from some far off future, pitching sword to light saber. And it is one thing borrowing characters from another fictional universe and quite another choosing not just any fictional characters, but Star Wars characters, which have printed money for Lucas and his crew in all the possible ways known to mankind. It is such a cheeky, in-your-face choice, that it is nothing short of embarrassing.

I wonder how would Namco’s story writer explain a scene where Yoda and Mitsurugi would have to cross swords (Namco will not bother, of course, but let’s just imagine so for the sake of the argument). Let’s see. Did Vader and Yoda come from the future to claim Soul Edge, in order to bring peace to the Empire, one way or the other? Did the wizards that resurrected Astaroth send him to a parallel universe, where Knightmare was a Sith Lord, to steal the evil sword? Or has the whole Soul Calibur franchise actually taken place in a virtual space inside the Emperor’s arcade room and we were all playing a fighting simulator for the last 13 years?

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Of course, I can discern the reasons behind Namco’s decision. I do realize that video games have to have a world reaching effect nowadays in order to be really profitable. They have to appeal to as many gamers as possible – and that means mainly American gamers, yes, since that is the biggest market for a number of years now. But even based on that, I do have to question Namco’s choice. The Star Wars business surely is not what it used to be, even in the US (its next peak will probably be “the definitive Blu-ray  collection”). It’s sizable, sure, but is it so important as to dictate that kind of decision on Namco’s behalf?

Japanese people seem to have no clear indication of what is “hip” in the Western world nowadays, if one thinks in terms of global and not US-centric appeal. I mean, come on. Darth Vader…?!?!? He is not even remotely hot anymore and many clicks away from being considered a “classic” character of universal appeal. His time has passed and people who are into movies know that he was a weak symbol to begin with. Geeks that have been decorating their rooms with Vader posters are what? In their mid-thirties now, like me? And does anyone in their right minds at the Namco HQ think that the “Star Wars Generation” should be the primary target group for SCIV?

Let’s face it: chances are that more of the people who are interested in the “lifestyle side” of a game like this would rather have Aragorn or Jack Sparrow or Blade or The Bride as a selectable character than Vader and Yoda. Plus, make that kind of choice hoping that geeks of days past will be interested in a modern beat’ em up just because a character they like is in it…? Not to mention that die-hard followers of the Soul Calibur franchise will be indifferent (at best), annoyed (at worst) towards this decision. And I do hope that Namco does not underestimate those followers by thinking that they will buy SCIV even if SpongeBob Squarepants was included in the roster.

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No, there is no logic in this. None at all.

But, when all is said and done, it is not a matter of logic or sales or global marketing. It is a matter of respect. Of respect to a legacy built over more than 10 years, over more than three different versions and several different formats. Of respect to the fans that have honoured that legacy, recognising the work that has been put into making the Soul Calibur universe a coherent one: one with a generally decent main story, entangling a lot of interesting – conflicting and tied by their own smaller stories – characters. All that now goes out of the window, because there is no way the elusive “suspension of disbelief” any video game strives for, could be retained in players’ minds once a Star Wars character walks into a medieval castle yard or a Japanese garden wielding a light saber. The two images are just too incompatible. And being that, they ruin everything.

But, hey. Since there is apparently no problem with shoving mismatching fighters down Soul Calibur’s throat, I have this to propose to Namco: why not go all the way? Why not include any and every character the marketing department says has a good chance of boosting sales! Include Oprah, complete with a deadly saucepan. Hell, make a new fighting stage out of her TV stage. Include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, wielding a hard drive with all our personal data in it. Signature special move: the Suspension of Account. I also hear that Britney Spears is making a comeback. Arm her with a really long microphone handler. That should do it.

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It all is so very disappointing. So very hurtful. And still… will I be buying Soul Calibur IV? Well, yes. Of course. I just hope the smartypants at Namco that thought all this was a good idea have the decency to include a “Special Characters On/Off” option in the Settings Menu. I do not want to even have to look at Vader’s black helmet in the Characters Selection Screen. Ever.

Oh, and I do hope that Capcom does not get any brilliant ideas based on Namco’s choices. The director of Street Fighter IV has repeatedly stated that he wants the new version to stay true to the spirit and “feeling” of the classic series. Here’s hope that the marketing people harassing him are all on vacation right now. The last thing I would like to see in spring are SFIV screenshots with 50 Cent facing Ryu. With a gun.

Namco, you managed to disgrace yourself and your best product as only you could. You also spoiled what I deemed to be the video game highlight of 2008 for me, killing off all the enthusiasm I had to pour into this blog in the process.

Congratulations. I hope you’re happy.

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