The first Soul Calibur was remarkable in that in reignited my interest in the fighting genre of video games. I had been something of an early adopter of the genre, playing the original Street Fighter when there was no such other thing. When Street Fighter II came along I loyally played that, along with the many Capcom and SNK variations ranging from Fatal Fury to Samurai Shodown to Darkstalkers to the now infamous King of Fighters. But then something happened. I got burnt out.
For the period I was in college I scarcely played a fighting game at all. Then I discovered Soul Calibur and I was genuinely intrigued. No more buying magazines for stupid move lists, the game came with its own. It sported unlockable secrets earned by playing the game more and more. I had reasons now to play characters I would otherwise never touch. And it had so many ways to play rather than regular arcade mode. It had the increasingly common time attack and survival modes, but also mission mode, which could teach a player the basics of the game in a controlled environment as well as challenge them in situations that do not appear in the basic arcade game (like defeating an enemy by only using certain moves).
When Soul Calibur II came out, I added it to my "buy" list. $50 is a little steep for a fighting game, I think, even for the crown jewel among them, so I waited until it was on sale, and for $30 I think I got my money's worth.
Soul Calibur II doesn't break much in the way of new ground and some characters don't return from the last game, which is a bit of a pity (though there are pale imitations of them added for the US release which did not appear in the Japanese, which I suppose is better than nothing). I particularly missed Hwang and Lizardman since I had actually used them. I really didn't care for Rock. Assassin, Beserker, and "Lizardman" now replace them and are functionally the same as the originals, but they lack move lists and can't be played in most game modes. To some degree Siegfried didn't return either, though it's more of a plot reason since Siegfried and Nightmare are essentially the same person even though they were playable as separate characters in the original Soul Calibur.
In years past I had been fond of speed characters. Vega was an old favorite in Street Fighter II. With Soul Calibur I found that I wasn't very good with Taki. It took a lot of effort for me to use her with some degree of comfort. But I found myself to be a powerhouse Siegfried. And then I dug a little into the stories of the different Soul Calibur characters (which are better fleshed out than the average fighting game protegonist's) and decided I really liked Siegfried's story. I was disturbed to see that he had reverted to his Nightmare form again in Soul Calibur II, but there wasn't much for it. He was my best character so when I got my new game I once again hefted the cursed sword known as Soul Edge and plowed my way through. (Fortunately there is an unlockable costume for Nightmare that gives him his old Siegfried outfit from Soul Calibur so I can at least pretend I'm playing Siegfried again since they're almost functionally identical. ^_^)
The controls between the two games aren't that different, but I found myself short a couple of moves that I had enjoyed. One of them I actually used a lot and I think it's been disabled entirely, which is too bad. The other I only would use against other players to annoy them because it would make Siegfried jump in the air and flop down on his face. He won't automatically get up without direct player input, and it's just funny having your opponent regard you warily (or with a hint of irritation) while you're lying face down on the floor. That move is still in the game, but it's harder to pull off now, which is too bad. I also suspect, though I can't be sure since my Dreamcast is no longer connected, that the button layout between the Dreamcast and the GameCube have been shifted somewhat, because my throw variety just doesn't seem to be what it used to be and I think that might be because I'm performing them differently. I used to use the left trigger and an attack button to throw, but now I use guard and attack at the same time and because of the positioning of the guard button it's easier to use it in combination with a horizontal attack than a vertical one.
It used to be that unlocking extra characters and battle arenas was an easy thing to do. Each time you beat the game with a new character you would get something new. Not so anymore. Instead, the vast majority of the unlockables are acquired by playing Weapon Master Mode, which is the equivalent of the old Mission Mode. Weapon Master Mode resembles its predecessor in that each match takes place in a different locale with its own set of completion requirements, but now it's taken a vastly more linear approach and has more of a story. Dare I say that this may be laying the groundwork for the first fighting/RPG hybrid? Weapon Master Mode sees the player naming his/her alter ego and a story unfolds about a madman named Veral, an arch-rival named Leon, and a cursed sword known as Soul Edge. Through ten chapters, four subchapters, and two extra chapters, the player moves across the map, delves through primitive dungeons, and battles hosts of opponents under varying conditions. Each battle scenario is given an introduction that explains why the fight is about to occur and why your character chooses to take part (if he/she has a choice). Also, each main chapter of Weapon Master Mode is prefaced by a short passage of text that moves the story along and explains the quest, what has transpired thus far and what is about to occur.
I naturally took up the tortured knight Nightmare as my alter ego (though this is changeable after the story has begun) and with the exception of one extra mission (unlocked after beating the regular Weapon Master Mode) I completed the entire game using that one character. I am a role-playing gamer after all and it just makes more sense for story continuity that I play the same person throughout.
Each chapter of Weapon Master Mode allows the player to buy new weapons (which will affect offensive/defensive abilities), costumes, or other knick-knacks. Also the completion of certain missions will unlock extra characters, movies, arenas, and other battle modes such as Extra Survival, which allows the player to play Survival mode using the special weapons unlocked during Weapon Master. Also returning once more are the weapon exercises from the original Soul Calibur where it's possible to watch a character perform an exercise routine with the weapon of their choice. The returning characters perform their old routines, but the new ones are of the same caliber. Link's is rather fun if only because the traditional Legend of Zelda overworld theme is playing in the background. Raphael's is by far the best of the bunch, with him even performing a little dance before fully launching into his routine. With that music though, one would expect him to be Spanish instead of French. His fencing exercise makes me think very much of the flamenco.
One thing I've found interesting about the Soul Edge/Soul Calibur series is that the characters actually age. Granted, most fighting game series make use of some timeline or another, the Soul games actually put a few years in between stories. (I'm not sure, but I think they may also match the number of years between game releases.) The result is that not all the characters are teenagers anymore. One of them, Sophitia, even has two children. For all I know, she just might be the first fighting game protagonist to also be a mom! I think that Siegfried was the youngest of the original cast of Soul Edge and he must be a strapping twenty-three by now (as Nightmare his age is not given). The result of this is that the new characters tend to skew young, to fill in the void left behind by the older ones. Yun Sung and Talim are both fifteen, though surprisingly Raphael, also a new addition, clocks in at thirty-three years of age. I find this diversity refreshing though. It's uncommon for the average age of any cast of video game characters to be staunchly in its twenties, and probably mid to late twenties at that.
I can't say I think much of the Todd McFarlane character though. I really don't know why the designers bothered to add Necrid because it must have cost some money to bring McFarlane on board and his character, a warrior who once wielded Soul Edge ages ago, doesn't really do anything for the story; unsuprisingly since he only exists on the home version of the game. Also Necrid doesn't really have any moves of his own. He essentially acts as a big conglomerate of all the other characters so he borrows a little bit of everyone and puts it all together. This gives him great flexibility I suppose, but not very fun for me. It I want a particular character's move I'll play that character.
Lastly, this may be one of the few games I've played where they upped the difficulty for the American release. One thing that's always bothered me about fighting games is that the AI can be overwhelmingly difficult sometimes. I don't like to win by button mashing or using one cheap move after another. The original Soul Calibur was nice in that it wasn't too difficult and I didn't have to resort to cheap moves, and yet I never felt that the AI was a complete blockhead. It was a very good balance. The US Soul Calibur II release had the difficulty adjusted so that the AIs block more. Aside from the fact this made certain missions in Weapon Master Mode a greater pain in the butt than they had to be, it made it difficult for me to finish the normal Arcade version of the game without continuing, and it's no longer possible to get on the high scores list if a continue is used. Thus, by sheer craziness I got lucky with Maxi and he wound up on the Arcade high scores list, but Nightmare, who is arguably my best overall character, is not.