It’s been over a decade since we last saw SNK’s classic weapons-based fighting game Samurai Shodown. It was in 2008 when an Xbox 360 exclusive Samurai Shodown Sen tried to fit the series’ traditional 2D gameplay into a trendy 3D. In short, the game failed miserably. Samurai Shodown hibernated eleven long years until it suddenly woke up in a time when classic fighting game series enjoy a renaissance. The new Samurai Shodown places its footing firmly on the legacy of the series, ditching the unfortunate attempt at 3D movement and bringing back the solid 2D fighting the franchise is known for. In many ways, Samurai Shodown seems out of time and it certainly doesn’t flirt with modern casual audiences. You have to tell the likes of dragon punch motion and just defense apart or else the merciless AI or a skillful online opponent will wipe the mat with you.
Samurai Shodown is a kind of prequel to the first game released in 1993. Curiously, Samurai Shodown V that made an appearance at the arcades and on PS2 takes place one year before this new game. It doesn’t make much sense but that’s a fact when it comes to the series canon. Samurai Shodown sports 16 fighters, 13 of them are old favorites and the rest three completely new characters. A masked swordsman Yashamaru Kurama, a busty buccaneer Darli Dagger and a nerdy Feng Shui master Wu-Ruiziang join the likes of Haohmaru, Nakoruru, Kyoshiro Senryo, Charlotte and Earthquake, who in in his new form might very well be the largest fighting game character ever. The roster seems limited when compared to the previous entries in the series. However, we live in that time and age when games aren’t complete upon their release but are supplemented with paid DLC. So, as old-fashioned as Samurai Shodown otherwise is, more characters are made available in the future for a fee. The first DLC fighter will be Nakoruru’s little sister Rimururu.
Personally, I would like to have seen the androgynous sword master Yumeji Kurokouchi and the huntress Mina Majikina coming back. Maybe the latter’s bow & arrow attacks would have broken the new gameplay but she was the only character with whom I was able to beat the TOTALLY UNBALANCED final boss of Samurai Shodown V. On that topic, the word “balance” shouldn’t really be applied to fighting games at all as such thing doesn’t exist in them. Some characters are bound to better than others, no matter what. Nothing forces you to be so boring and pick up them to play as, though. Give yourself a challenge and choose an underdog for a change! I myself liked to fight the most with Nakoruru and Shiki. They aren’t the strongest characters in the cast but they are fast and nimble – and cute and hot, respectively.
Samurai Shodown has lots of game modes to chew on. Tutorial goes through the basic of the game in short lessons and the practice is where you hone your skills. Traditional versus lets you fight against a local opponent or AI in a single match. In the gauntlet, you face all characters in the game while in the survival you take on endless opponents with one lifebar that replenishes only a little after each match. Then there’s the time trial where you have to defeat as many as opponents as you can until you either lose or the timer runs out. Dojo features a curious online game featuring ghosts. Basically, they are AI fighters based on the playing style of their players. You fight ghosts either in single matches or in an Ironman challenge where you face a total of hundred ghosts! In online, you can create or join casual lobbies or ranked matches with a wide array of search tools to find opponents. You really can pinpoint who you want to fight and from where. Pre-release, there wasn’t that much opponents around but whenever I got into online matches, the gameplay performed swiftly. Each game mode has online leaderboards to give incentive to replay them.
The meat of the game, though, is its nine-bouts story mode where each character has his or her own tale to play through. Complete with artistic intros and outros, they’ll meet their personal rivals and ultimately, a common final boss. Shizuka Gozen is an imposing yet tragic figure who can make a short work of a careless player with her magical fan attacks. She proves that Samurai Shodown really isn’t a beginner friendly fighting game. Here, a mindless button mushing won’t carry you far. Actually, it might just drop you on your knees in the beginning.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward as it is. There are not that many variables to worry about, it’s more about being precise and able to quickly react to the phases of each match. You can go only so far with the PS4 dual shock controller with its sloppy thumbsticks and imprecise d-pad as the game is very picky about its inputs. For example, 2D fighter BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle I reviewed the last year was much more forgiving in executing quarter circle and dragon punch motions. Samurai Shodown needs precise and fast inputs as there’s simply no room for even a slight delay or a missed direction. As it stands, the default difficulty level and up really crave for a decent arcade stick. With one, it’s like playing a whole different game. You can effortlessly pull off advanced motions and cancel moves from one to another to give you an edge in matches.
Rage as a gameplay mechanic is a product of modern fighting games but actually, Samurai Shodown introduced it in the third game. It returns, appearing as a rage bar that fills up by taking hits. When activated, it gives attack and defense buffs and stops the clock. More than that, the bar can be dumped for a devastating lightning strike that deals heavy damage to the opponent. However, it’s not an automatic I win button. Rage can be used only once in the match and the lightning strike can be evaded or guarded against. Likewise, each character’s flashy and deadly super special move can be activated only once in a match. It’s telegraphed by a gong and a hunching posture to make it possible to dodge or defend it. So, in the long run, skillfully extending your attack strings to normal special moves is often the key to victory. Certain conditions can disarm the characters or have them enter a sword clash where you have to rapidly press attack buttons to come out on top.
When it comes to an eternal clash between Japanese and Western fighting games (in practice, NetherRealm Studios who has a monopoly in this side of the world), Samurai Shodown proves that an Eastern take packs more punch and shows more finesse. The gameplay is tight and disciplined and doesn’t resort to a needless show-off. You will always have straightforward means at your disposal to affect the outcome, whether it’s a timely dash, a surprising guard break or a simple slash to distract the opponent. Meaty hit impact, complete with blood sputtering in meters-long arches, transforms perfectly to the gameplay. You know when you have hurt the opponent and it also shows in blood tarnishing the combatants. Movement is nicely paced to the characters’ different stances and footsteps so there’s a good sense of weight to them.
At the first glance, Samurai Shodown might look something that would have been at home on PS3, too. After all, it features similar inked and cross-hatched character models that looked amazing in Street Fighter IV and all its iterations. However, give the game time and you come to appreciate its very Japanese outlook and presentation. Big, bold, crisp and vivid characters slash it out against stylish backdrops swimming in colors. The score that mixes electronic sounds with traditional Asian music heavy on percussion, flutes and strings also keeps the game as unique as possible. All speech is in Japanese with subtitles of your choice. A system voice reads out menu features, match venues and such in sometimes amusing accent. The developers admit that Samurai Shodown wasn’t made with Western audiences in mind and it was a gamble whether it would strike a chord elsewhere than in Japan. Well, at least I liked it a lot and I think I won’t be the only one.
In bringing the series back from the dead to today’s competitive scene, Samurai Shodown not only chooses to honor the series legacy but dares to be old-school. Instead of flashing extra frosting to attract attention, the game trusts that its basic gameplay is enough to keep the players coming back to it. There’s no trendy character customization and all the collectibles are just gallery items, such as sounds, artwork and movies, you unlock by playing, not paying. Samurai Shodown is like a Chinese checkers to more showy and easygoing fighting games out there but not any less engaging. It’s not how fast you can hit but when you hit that matters. Uncompromised and dignified, Samurai Shodown might be a niche title in its genre but it does its own thing and succeeds in it.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.