Soul Calibur II HD Online is set to release in a few weeks, just three months following its ten-year anniversary. Ten years… I feel like a senior citizen looking back on it. If you missed out on SC2 because you were too young or just oblivious, download it later this month on PSN or Xbox Live. It’s both deep and casual-friendly, and the only major letdown is you won’t be able to play as Link (who was an exclusive fighter in the Gamecube version).
As for today’s Top 5, I’m jumping back a decade to recall my personal favorite from 2003. I’ll warn you now: the list is Gamecube-heavy, and unfortunately I missed out on some excellent releases, most notably Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and Beyond Good & Evil.
5. Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GCN)
2003: The year of a boy, his talking boat, and an oversized ocean full of pirate romps.
Despite being the weakest of the 3D Zeldas, Wind Waker is still a Zelda experience littered with sharp puzzles, engrossing side quests, and slick swordplay. However, Wind Waker disappointed for two reasons: the monotonous sailing and the lack of gameplay originality beyond the sailing. Notice how I didn’t rip the cel-shaded visuals? Though they don’t suit the tone of Zelda, I’m okay with them if only because they broke the gaming trend of realism that’s been rampant for nearly two decades.
And as for the sailing, it was both good and bad. Good when you were looking for adventure or sidequests. Dreadful when you knew where you wanted to go and had to sit through five minutes of cartoon ocean. In the end we were left with a massive overworld with only a handful of dungeons. Epic final fight, though.
4. Fire Emblem (GBA)
Oh, you bought Final Fantasy Tactics Advance instead? That’s cute.
I already praised Fire Emblem in a previous Top 5 list, but I’ll say this: Fire Emblem had the misfortune of releasing two months after the inferior Final Fantasy Tactics Advance back in 2003. This was back when Final Fantasy was a juggernaut in terms of sales and popularity. For a lot of gamers, Fire Emblem was an afterthought when it came to jotting down Christmas lists.
At least now we know better.
3. Soul Calibur II (PS2 / GCN / Xbox)
Many gamers bought SCII solely for Link, only to discover that the game itself was excellent.
Soul Calibur II has the distinction of being the only fighting game I love that’s not named Super Smash Bros. Why the sappy crush? Because it was enjoyable no matter your skill level. You could pick it up on day one, have a blast button-mashing, then spin together some smooth combos by the end of the week. By the end of the month, you’d have a handle on some advanced techniques as well as some serious button combos.
And that’s just the core fighting. Soul Calibur II had a fun single-player mode that involved collecting weapons for each character, arcade modes, 8-character team battles, and more. And I haven’t even mentioned the vivid cast, diverse in both fighting styles and personalities.
And before you ask: my main was Nightmare.
2. Skies of Arcadia: Legends (GCN)
Ship battles, codes of honor, glass eye-patches: what’s not to love?
I have yet to play an RPG with a better atmosphere than Skies of Arcadia. Sailing the skies with ships is every bit as engrossing as it sounds, and the towns, locales, customs, and myths of the game lend to a sense of place that is rivaled by very few games I’ve played. Though Skies offers an admittedly cliched story, the presentation is top notch, and the characters are infectious, particularly Vyse (He never gives up, dammit!).
Battles run lengthy, but the combat is a fresh take on turn-based, elemental fights. Certain ship battles end up feeling particularly grand due to the length and scope of the duels (some require you to chase down titan-like Gigas or set up a beast for a harpoon takedown). When you grow battle-weary, there’s always Suikoden-style recruiting to look forward to. If you’re going to save the most vivid world in JRPGs, you might as well stock an army for the job.
1. F-Zero GX (GCN)
You vs. 29 other racers. Wouldn’t hurt to ram five or ten of them off the track…
That’s often the difference between 1st place and 6th in an F-Zero GX race. Nintendo’s best racer is intense, maddening, and delightfully masochistic, but the game shines due to its unrivaled blend of fun and difficulty. Track memorization is key, as one slip off the edge means game over. Oh? Think you can stay on board? Try doing it while ramming your booster, which juices your speed up at the expense of your vehicle’s damage threshold. Boost too much and you’re one wall-nick or driver collision away from breaking down. And you have to boost. A lot.
Not only is F-Zero GX intense, but the tracks weave, drop, and roll like poetry. If you haven’t driven Aeropolis – Multiplex or Lightning – Thunder Road, do yourself a favor an score a used copy of GX. It’s the best racer out there in this blogger’s humble opinion, not to mention my favorite game of ’03.