Step-G in retrospect: Was SoulCalibur II a great game because of Step-Guard–or in spite of it?

By on April 3, 2017 at 1:00 pm
soulcalibur 2 sc2 hd online

Imagine you’re a fighting game designer. You’ve put blood, sweat, and tears for years into this massive project, and now it’s shipped to the world. It gets played by a lot of people, and is generally loved, but high-level play looks completely different from what you envisioned, because of a glitch you didn’t catch. How do you feel? What would you do with this glitch if you had the chance to make a sequel to this game?

Such a broad question has to be answered differently, of course, depending upon the game and the nature of the glitch. Sometimes companies roll with the punches and incorporate the “glitch” into future titles. Famously, that’s exactly what happened with combos in Street Fighter, and backdash-canceling in Tekken. Sometimes companies axe the glitch all together. (Wavedashing in Smash Brothers Melee, for example.) Such was the fate of SoulCalibur II’s Step-Guard glitch. Or, as the forums called it at the time, Step-G.

(Just so that we’re clear, we’ll be using the numpad notation scheme that’s commonly accepted in SoulCalibur to refer to moves. If you’re not familiar with it, check it out here. There’s even a video explanation for this!)

Let’s define Step-G. SoulCalibur teaches you right off the bat that there’s an attack triangle between Horizontal Attacks (the A button) Vertical Attacks (The B button) and Movement. You want to step around vertical attacks, but step loses to horizontal attacks. In SoulCalibur II, vertical attacks will “break” horizontal attacks when they collide, and vertical attacks usually have more vertical range (obviously), allowing you to play strong footsies with them. Vertical attacks are usually your combo starters, too (for example, the generic launcher, 3B.) If you went by just what the game teaches you intuitively, you’d have this…

Horizontal (A) > Step > Vertical (B) > A

But what if Step also beat A? That’s where Step-G comes in. For whatever programming reason, there’s a bug that lets you guard while stepping. If an attack’s hitbox intercepts your step and you’re holding the guard button, you block it. Period. So now your horizontals can’t hit step. As a game designer, this is a worst-case scenario–a fundamental breakdown of the basics of your game.

Step-G was not always a common sight. During the initial arcade run, Step-G was secret tech held by top level players to keep themselves as safe as possible during tournament play. Since YouTube wasn’t a thing back then, it was a lot easier to keep secrets like this, and Step-G-using players ruled uncontested until console release. Countermeasures were developed: Step-G couldn’t guard low, for example, so a common way to defeat it was to find a low that had some sort of step coverage. You could also use grabs that tracked step, but the Step-G-er could still throw break during the step, and not every character had throws that could track step well.

Even with these weaknesses, it wasn’t enough to knock Step-G out of the meta. It protected you too well, and everyone could do it. Unlike, say, the dexterity of a Tekken backdash-cancel, all you had to do was press and hold a button. Anyone of any skill level could use Step-G easily. And it didn’t stop there: Step-G ended up being just one symptom, and not the illness itself, of SC2’s code. More glitches would appear: G2 during Guard Impact allowed players to block during the normally vulnerable frames of being guard-impacted. TER (Throw Escape Recovery) allowed people to act out of the recoil animation of broken throws. G2 during specific moves shaved off recovery frames. All of this and more piled onto SoulCalibur II as time went on, further “breaking” the game, and almost all of these were bugs similar in execution or input to Step-G in some way.

And yet, SoulCalibur II is by far the most beloved game in the franchise for tournament players. SoulCalibur II has seen a massive resurgence lately among players of 8wayrun and beyond. It’s going to be a main game at Combo Breaker. Popular FGC streamer (and SC2 World Champ) Aris dedicates a weekly stream solely to running the classic game. Even though Step-G was removed from the series afterwards, there is nowhere near the same clamor for SC3 and beyond.

The truth is, you can’t look at Step-G in a bubble. Step-G was a terrible glitch, for sure, but it existed for the right game. In SC2, moreso than any other Calibur game, frame data is wildly safe across the board and every character has shockingly strong tools, from the toppest of top tiers (Xianghua, Yoshimitsu, Cervantes) all the way down to the bottom (Yunsung). It isn’t even an opinion that SC2 has the greatest character diversity in its tournaments–it’s trivia.

Hayate wipes out Team Belgium with his Yunsung.

Without Step-G, though, it wouldn’t have mattered. This is because the characters with the absolutely safest and strongest vertical launchers would be on another plane of existence from the rest of the cast. Step-G didn’t just break the game, it exposed some of the bad design elements of it: some verticals tracked step. Some horizontals didn’t track step. Even without Step-G there were some characters that just absolutely couldn’t find a move with the A button to hit a stepping opponent. (Hi, Raphael.)

One of the best moves in SoulCalibur II is Xianghua’s 22B: a side-stepping, safe, reasonably fast vertical mid that launches and covers step completely. It beats step, beats A attacks, and likely will either clash with or beat other B attacks. Without Step-G, it could completely keep an opponent pinned in guard, too afraid to step. Step-G gave half the cast a fighting chance against Xianghua by allowing them to move when she was on the screen.

It was a combination of the overwhelming strength of the whole cast, coupled with the fundamentally poor implementation of the core attack triangle, that made Step-G not only reasonable, but necessary to the game. You could make the argument that Namco knew this, too–because when Step-G got the boot in SC3, so did the good frame data. No other SoulCalibur would have a cast as strong as SC2’s. SC4 Hilde, widely regarded as one of the most imbalanced characters in all of the franchise due to her hilariously safe combo starters, ring out potential, and high damage, would have probably been a reasonable character in SC2’s over-the-top landscape (and football stadium sized arenas). Likewise, the mostly mediocre SC2 Yunsung would almost inevitably appear top tier to SC5 players, thanks to his bevy of safe mids, high damage, and his semi-fast 11K knockdown low.

There was something of a “Tekken”ing that occurred to the SoulCalibur series starting at SC3. Tekken’s lows, and frame data in general, were very different from Calibur’s at the time. Launchers were very unsafe, fast lows usually didn’t give advantage on hit, and if they did, they were also unsafe on block. This is the exact opposite of the way frame data works in SC2. Neither approach is “wrong” because for Tekken and SC2, these philosophies worked in the engines they were built for. But by shoehorning in another game’s frame data philosophy, it became a lot harder to do things in SoulCalibur.

Let’s look at the tale of Raphael 2K, a tragedy in four parts.

Game Impact Damage Block Stun Hit Stun Counterhit Stun
Soul Calibur 2 i15 16 -11 +5 +5
Soul Calibur 3 i15 14 -14 -4 +2
Soul Calibur 4 i15 14 -14 -4 +2
Soul Calibur 5 i15 12 -14 -2 -2

Almost universally, the tale of Raph 2K is the tale of what happened to frame data as the series progressed. 2K is an ineffectual shin kick that does little damage but grants some frame advantage on hit, and its mostly low risk if it’s blocked. Since most of Raph’s other lows are slow, it’s his primary way of opening up opponents. By making it minus on hit, you effectively remove his ability to pressure, and his ability to even make a good opponent consider ducking versus him. Versus the wrong character (say, Sophitia), a blocked 2K means he loses 20%+ of his lifebar, too, hardly worth the effort of using a move that’s negative on hit. It’s not just Raph that suffered this fate: this happened across the board to lows, and even to the speed of many basic mids. Characters could just do less to you overall as the series progressed. The damage nerfs listed here are meaningless on this move since it never was about its damage in the first place, but it’s a funny number to watch fall, all the same.

It might seem like we’re drifting away from the subject of Step-G a bit, but the point that I’m trying to make is that by removing both Step-G and strong offensive options, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Whereas there was a busted defensive glitch there to balance out insanely busted offensive options in SC2, movement became neutered and unreliable in later games with bad offensive options. There was finally balance found in Soul Calibur V’s heavily modified step system, but there were other problems outside of the game-play mechanics that sunk that game, too.

So, here we are. SoulCalibur 2, the Marvel vs. Capcom of 3D fighters, sits in a strange point in history as a completely broken fighter that was made better by the majority of glitches that were discovered. Tiers compressed. Competition strengthened. The meta advanced. It’s highest levels of play are intense, varied, surprisingly easy to pick up, and drawing players back to its world over a decade later. And it was completely unrecognizable from what the original designers wanted. Players of all skill levels point fondly to playing SoulCalibur II, glitches and all, and say “Yes. I’m having fun right now.”

Back to the original question. Do you keep Step-G? Do you build a game around it? Can you build a game around it? Capcom built a genre out of combos, and Tekken’s movement glitches are doing just fine. Namco is at something of a crossroads with the Calibur series-SoulCalibur V’s engine is solid and with the right characters and single player content, I am convinced it would do well financially. But that’s not the same game, or the same audience that’s applauding and playing the happy-accident filled SC2 right now. If Namco attempted to make an intentionally over-the-top game like SC2 and succeeded, that would be an unbelievable design achievement. As much as I love to play armchair game designer, I can’t say for certain if that’s the right decision. No one wants to admit a demonstrably-broken glitch helped save a game, and a delicate hand would be needed to mold something intentionally around Step-G successfully.

It took Namco several SoulCalibur games to get its step system right by design, and the series suffered heavily in other areas as a result. If recent streaming trends are any indication, there’s plenty of players for Namco to survey to find out why they keep coming back to SC2. If that (unlikely) scenario happens, hopefully the players interviewed will find it easier to admit that SC2’s flaws made it, somehow, fantastic. I think 15 years of hindsight should help with that.

Hey, I'm just a 3D-head in a 2D-world. I like pretty much all FGC stuff, and I really like hearing about the way people think about games.