Sturdy, attractive and clearly built to last, Mad Catz’s first run of Tournament Edition Fight Sticks – launched to coincide with the console debut of Street Fighter IV – became something of a minor phenomenon back in 2009, with even frugal and/or previously apathetic beat ’em up fans deciding to take the plunge. Make absolutely no mistake, these sticks have never been mere novelty peripherals: what you’re getting when you invest in one is essentially the front end of an arcade cabinet. For the frame data-obsessed devotees of Street Fighter, these sticks quickly became essential. But when you’re dealing with a series that’s a little looser and less pedantic than Capcom’s rolling opus, how essential to success can a dedicated fight stick really be?

And the answer is, quite a bit. Playing Soul Calibur V with the Soul Edition stick – which we’ve already done for well over seven hours – reveals that the series has taken a notable (and commendable) step towards the hardcore. Soul Calibur’s patented 8-Way Run system was always a perfect fit for arcade sticks anyway, but a new sidestep move (executed by double-tapping up or down) quickly becomes an invaluable tool in battle; and something which benefits from the immediacy of the ball-handed joystick, and the near-total lack of input delay. Soul Calibur V also features a new gauge that has clearly been modelled on Street Fighter IV’s revolutionary Super and Ultra meters, and most (if not all) of these devastating strikes are performed in exactly the same way as one of Ryu’s fireballs; the quintessential fight stick manoeuvre.

Soul Calibur’s customary Guard Impact system has been scrapped, and replaced with a scheme called “Just Guard”. This involves repeatedly being able to nail a “Perfect” guard: essentially hitting block at the exact moment that your opponent’s strike lands. The lack of input delay is obviously a massive boon here too, as this move prolongs the amount of time that your adversary has to wait before they’re able to take another pop at you. These lag-dodging benefits are going to mean the most to online junkies, and Soul Calibur V’s online component has been brought bang up-to-date. Using the most recent incarnations of Street Fighter IV as a blueprint, numerous new tournament options, replays, customisable player cards, lobbies and online leaderboards are just some of the new features that you can expect to see on release day.

Much more predictably, the Soul Edition is a seriously good-looking bit of kit. The official artwork that emblazons the crest of the stick – depicting the Soul Edge sword on one one side and the Soul Calibur sword on the other – is every bit as lavish as you’d expect, with each half’s trademark colour bleeding over into the translucent plastic side panels. One minor complaint that was levelled at previous Tournament Edition sticks was that the iron screws had a tendency to rust after extensive use; something that will no longer be a problem thanks to the set of gleaming stainless steel screws that have replaced them. And as with all of Mad Catz’s TE-style sticks, the rubber feet that sit underneath the unit can be unscrewed, giving you the ability to mount the stick onto tables or designated cabinets.

The unit’s screw-on face panel has also been redesigned, vastly improving on the one that sat on top of the Round 2 edition of the SFIV Tournament Edition stick. The plexiglass mount on that stick was fixed a tad too closely to the unit’s edge and the plate’s brims weren’t rounded off; leading a small handful of users to complain about scratched wrists. Even if you’re the kind of player who has their forearms permanently pinned to the faceplate, the perfectly rounded edges of the Soul Edition’s hood won’t be giving anyone any grief. The button configuration also directly mirrors that of the hardcore-friendly Namco Noir arcade cabinet, and all of the other features that you’d expect – including various button-lock switches, built-in cable storage and multi-speed turbo functionality – are all present and correct.

If you plan on taking Soul Calibur V seriously – and the newly refined online suite implies that Namco are expecting rather a lot of people to do that – suggesting that the Soul Edition stick is more than worthy of your consideration would be a sizeable understatement. If you’re a bit more casual about your future with Soul Calibur V, this Soul Edition may not be essential to your enjoyment of the game, but it unquestionably gives you a more rewarding way to experience it. Be warned though; once you’ve started enjoying your beat ’em ups alongside one of these fight sticks, going back to using a standard pad will quickly become about as appealing as copping an unguarded shot to the pills.

Click here to see our latest Soul Calibur V bundle offers.

The Soul Calibur V Tournament Edition Fight Stick is currently due for release on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on the same date as Soul Calibur V itself: Friday, February 3rd 2012.

Watch the “Meet Ezio” trailer for Soul Calibur V below:

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