Link suits the world of Soul Calibur. The elf-like little twink fit into the roster as well as any sword-wielding fantasy hero could – facing off against the likes of the machiavellian Frenchman Raphael, the inhuman hellspawn Astaroth, or the horny gimp Voldo, the Legend of Zelda guest character fits right in. Weaponry, aesthetic, move set… all of it gels with Soul Calibur’s camp high fantasy world – even when you’re pulling massive bombs out of God-knows-where and hurling them across the stage. It just fits.
You know what doesn’t fit, though? Lightsabers. No amount of sci-fi reasoning, magic, or blaming it on wizards can make Yoda, Darth Vader, and (eurgh) Starkiller fit in the war-torn European and Silk Road settings of Soul Calibur. It just doesn’t track. Why Bandai Namco decided to shoehorn the trio of characters into the fourth Soul Calibur game, then, remains a mystery; it’s damaging to both brands, it makes no sense canonically, and – more than anything else – it’s just all a bit tacky (or should that be Taki?)
And yet, I like them. All of them. Even Starkiller and his stupid every-00s-action-game protagonist face. As guest characters in a fighting game, they’re fun – a surprisingly low bar, but one that is very often tripped over and mashed into the ground beneath (here’s looking at you, Negan).
As playable characters, the fighters offered something quite different to the core Soul Calibur cast. Remember Gon in Tekken 3 – the farty little dinosaur that no-one could hit, that couldn’t be thrown, and that had a ranged fire attack? Well, because it clearly never learned its lesson, Bandai Namco made all those same mistakes, again, with Yoda (an Xbox 360 exclusive character, to begin with). The little green bastard was ludicrously hard to hit thanks to an apparently elasticated hitbox, and he could zip all over the stage on a whim like a hyperactive Jack Russell… not a dignified Jedi Master.
Yoda was fun to play as – if you have no attention span – but a proper nightmare to play against. Coming up against a Yoda player online always elicited a groan, knowing that even your best Hilde probably wouldn’t get to land a meaningful combo against a flurry of lightsaber and green skin. The only upside? The irritating old man would, more often than not, ring himself out after some ridiculous leap from one corner of the arena to another. No number of midi-chlorians will save you from that, will it?
Over on the PS3, there was Darth Vader. A master of the lightsaber fighting style of Djem So, Anakin was a slightly slower attacker than other characters in the game – but the payoff was stupendous damage. He felt more like a Samurai Shodown character than a Soul Calibur one. Popping off with a Force Eruption / Force Cannon mega-move from practically every one of his actually-useful combos would be enough to tear a third off an enemy’s health, easily. Then there’s the Dark Vortex; an extremely fast series of guard-breaking attacks that always ended up penetrating the opponent’s guard.
For newcomers – y’know, the sort of players that might pick up a Soul Calibur game simply because there’s some Star Wars gumpf on the cover – Vader was easy to use. His special attacks had simple inputs, and they didn’t take up too much meter. He taught you bad fighting game habits. And he had very few prods and low-attack utilities to make him a threat against players that actually knew what they were doing.
And that’s what was fun about him! He was stupid, and broken. Both Vader and Yoda were banned from competitive play very early on, because – from a fighting game standpoint – they were totally busted. Their stories were ludicrous (Vader used Soul Calibur and Soul Edge to bolster the Empire’s power, go figure). In terms of a power fantasy in a fighting game, this was brilliant – and rightly so! That’s what you get when you bring a Lightsaber to a sword fight.
And you know what, if you step back and put your best GCSE-level criticism hat on, you can just about justify the thinking behind the Star Wars x Soul Calibur crossover, too. Both series absolutely love a light vs dark theme, and it underpins pretty much every thread of every narrative both properties have ever flirted with. Yoda and Vader as fated opponents, doomed to this fruitless rivalry even as they’re transported to another world, makes some sort of perverse sense and abides by both universe’s rules in an irritatingly elegant way.
The Soul Calibur series has been something of a bastion of guest characters when it comes to fighting games (if you ignore Spawn). Even Soul Calibur 5’s Ezio Auditore was a good fit, in his own way… despite those bullshit crossbow moves. More recently, we’ve had 2B and Geralt – both of whom fit the fantasy and look the part, too. Heihachi and Devil Jin – both more or less made in the same engine – were good additions to the roster in Soul Calibur 2 and 5, respectively. Even if they were only there to keep Harada happy.
The Star Wars characters were the low tide of Soul Calibur guest characters, and yet they still represented a fun and undeniably unique offering in fighting games at large. Now that Disney has sunk its corporate claws into Star Wars, we’re highly unlikely to see anything like this happen again; the IP is now safeguarded in a more responsible way (unless you count that whole Quantic Dream thing…) With that more curated, thoughtful ownership comes less experimental and bizarre crossovers like this – and that’s always going to be a shame.