Samurai Shodown review

Release Date
25 Jun 2019
Athlon Games
PS4, Xbox One (PC and Switch versions coming later)

This review turned out to be harder to write than I thought, mostly because I had to resist splurging my entire history with the Samurai Shodown onto the page, which would have been fun to write, but irrelevant. Sorry, I just really like Samurai Shodown in general, it’s always been unique among fighting games in a way I find very appealing.

Real quick though, I loved it in the arcade, but never managed to get hold of any of the previous games on home machines because either A. The versions for machines I owned were never on sale anywhere I could buy them, or B. I never owned the machines they were released on. It was only in the last two years or so that SNK decided to pull their thumb out and release the arcade ROMs of the previous Samurai Shodown games as the ACA collection for the PS4 and Switch, allowing me to finally own the selfsame versions I loved in the arcades.

I’m sure this was no coincidence either, with SNK pulling their socks up and getting into the thick of the fighting game market again with King of Fighters, and it was only a matter of time before they turned their eye to one of their other beloved franchises – this time it was Samurai Shodown, a series that hasn’t seen a mainline release in almost 15 years. That’s me reckoning by Samurai Shodown VI, by the way, not counting any spin-offs or Japan-only releases that may have happened in the intervening time. So releasing the entire series beforehand to remind people of it seems like a good idea – oh, and by the way, I highly recommend the PS4 version of Samurai Shodown V: Special, it’s a thing of beauty.

But why do I love Samurai Shodown so much? For the same reason as all the other fans, I guess. Most 2D fighters have been steadily increasing in complexity since their heyday in the ’90s, adding more mechanics and becoming ever more intricate and combo-centric, requiring higher and higher levels of co-ordination and finger gymnastics to truly master. And I love all that stuff, my taste in fighting games is broad, but Samurai Shodown offers something refreshingly different, a change of focus to simplicity. Instead of mastering the longest combos you can, you need only focus on landing a single well-timed strike to deal as much as 60% damage – sometimes more – to your opponent’s health bar. If this sounds overly-simplistic or boring, well, just give it a try. The matches take on a unique intensity when you know that the lead can be gained or lost by one or two expert (or lucky) strikes. No matter how badly the fight is going, you can always come back instantly; and no matter how well you’re doing, you can always have the tables turned on you before you know it. That’s the appeal of Samurai Shodown.

That’s not to say there aren’t combos in this game. Almost every character can manage a basic two- or three-hit cancel of some kind – some of the weaker characters like Nakoruru, Galford, or newcomer Wu Ruixiang benefit from landing these small combos to make their lower damage output more comparable to the beefy characters like Haohmaru, Earthquake, or newcomer Yashamaru. But it’s simple stuff, it’s nothing complicated.

Also in this game is the hallmark of the series, the Rage gauge. This bar at the bottom of the screen fills up only when you take damage, and fills at different rates for different characters. Cool-headed characters like Ukyo Tachibana are slow to anger so it takes a while to fill, whereas it doesn’t take many hits to fill the gauge of hotheaded characters like Haohmaru or Genjuro. When it fills completely, it will stay full for a short while, during which you’ll do more damage and one of your special moves will become enhanced. You can also perform a type of super called a Weapon Flipping Technique, which does a lot of damage and knocks your opponent’s weapon from their hands, forcing them to fight barehanded until they can retrieve their weapon. After you land a Weapon Flipping Technique, the Rage gauge empties. If you don’t perform a Weapon Flipping Technique, it empties automatically after a few seconds, so enjoy it while it lasts.

There are also two specific techniques you can perform only once per match. The first is the Rage Explosion, accessed by pressing all three slash buttons. While in this temporary state, you do more damage, can perform Weapon Flipping Techniques, and by pressing all three slash buttons once again, you can perform the Lightning Blade, in which your character dashes across the screen at lightning speed for a single attack. If it hits, it does damage proportional to the amount of rage gauge you had left – but it’s a signficant amount even if you have almost none left. Unfortunately, as quick as the Lightning Blade is, it can be stopped by a simple block, and whether you hit or miss, that’s it, your Rage Gauge disappears for the rest of the bout, no matter how many rounds are left, meaning you can no longer perform Weapon Flipping Techniques or Rage Explosions – so it’s best saved for a do-or-die situation in the the final round.

The last common technique each character has is a Super Special Attack. Similarly to the Lightning Blade, you can only attempt this move once per match, and whether you hit or miss, that’s it, you can’t do it again. Thankfully they don’t affect your Rage Gauge at all and you can attempt it any time, even at the start of the first round, so you have a bit more leeway as to when you can bust out a super. Super Special Attacks work differently for each character, but all have a large wind-up. If you manage to land them however, they do ridiculous amounts of damage, usually somewhere around 80% of the opponent’s life bar.

All of the usual fighting game features are present, online and offline versus, practice, a gallery to view to unlocked endings and other movies, a tutorial to teach you the mechanics, and a few single player staples like survival, time attack and a gauntlet in which you face every character in the game. There’s a story mode too, which functions a bit like a classic arcade mode, in which you fight your way to final boss and see your character’s ending story. The final boss, Shizuka, is a spirit of vengeance who fights with magical talismans and seems invincible at first – typical for an SNK boss – but there’s actually a pretty easily discernable method for beating her. Another feature they touted quite proudly as the Dojo mode, wherein you can play against CPU opponents that copy the fighting style of the real world player you downloaded them from. Any character you play will learn your style, to some extent, and then other players can download their data and try to beat them. It’s a sort of asynchronous multiplayer mode, and from what I’ve played it seems to provide a different experience to fighting the normal CPU opponents. The characters I downloaded did exhibit some human-like behaviours, such as that annoying thing some players do where they twitch back and forth on the stick during a standoff… why do they do that? What advantage do they think it gives them, apart from annoying their opponent?

A lot of old characters return, including the series poster boy Haohmaru, who is the all-round Ryu character of the franchise. There’s also my favourite, Ukyo, who fights with his sword sheathed and his back turned, drawing his sword at lightning speed to strike. Of course Nakoruru and her hawk Mamahaha had to be in there, as one of the most popular characters in the series. She’s fast but not too strong, relying on landing short combos to rack up the damage. Dual-weilding swordsman Jubei is back too, along with his hugely damaging reversal attacks that only experts can master. The french female knight Charlotte, another of my favourites, is back, sporting all her classic moves and showing a bit more skin than before – not that I’m complaining. The flamboyant kabuki warrior Kyoshiro is in there too, with his special moves he can employ even when unarmed, making him one of the least disadvantaged if he loses his weapon.

There are three new characters this time, starting with Yashamaru, a former samurai turnsed masked vigilante who fights injustice. His weapon is apparently called a nagamaki, a big ass sword with a handle almost as long as the blade. He does a lot of damage, but I find him the least interesting of the new characters as he’s basically a dull anime hero guy. The next is Darli Dagger, a pirate who fights with a giant saw blade, slamming it into her opponents and yanking it out in what looks like a most painful manner. She’s pretty damaging and quite mobile too. The last is a very interesting character, Wu Ruixiang, a meek, bespectacled Chinese girl who fights with a shield, like a mousy female Captain America. Her normal attacks do only average to weak damage, but her special moves are where it’s at. She has a useful reversal which hurts like hell, and her shield can shoot cones of fire, ice projectiles and a close-range lightning area attack. The fire cone attack in particular does respectable damage, even if the range is short, and the enhanced fire cone when she’s in Rage mode hurts like hell! It has a long recovery though, so be careful with it.

My problems with the game are few. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a slightly bigger roster, and the upcoming DLC characters aren’t exactly my favourites. I like the visual style, it reminds me of Street Figher IV in some ways, with the illustrative slashes to exaggerate the moves, but – and this is a huge personal nitpick – I wish they’d hand-animated the cloth and hair rather than using a physics engine. For example, Nakoruru’s classic win pose just doesn’t look quite as good as it did in the original, where her strands of hair fell down her shoulders as she whirled into position. It was an awesome detail, but a physics engine can’t quite replicate that – and it’s weird, because they hand-animated all of the cloth and hair beautifully in KoF14, so I kind of expected the same here. It’s disappointing not to see it. I also wouldn’t mind a classic arcade mode without the fluff and load times of the Story mode. Also, none of the returning characters have even one new move… which is fine, but a new move or two would have been nice.

Sheesh, this went on long, and believe me, I can get into way more intricate detail than simply mentioning the hair animation in one character’s win pose – so I’ll quit now before that happens. Suffice to say, Samurai Shodown is as true to its roots as you could hope for. It’s still the same tense versus fighter where one good slash can turn a losing struggle into a sudden victory. What next, SNK? Dare I to hope for The Last Blade 3?

I can't tell you how happy I am to finally see a new Samurai Shodown game after so long. Fighting games have been on the rise over the last decade, which is great, but none provided the unique, tense, stylish battles that Samurai Shodown did. There are a few minor niggles, such as the load times on the PS4 version, but overall it's true to its roots and fun to play.
The battles are still the same old intense standoffs as you look for opportunities to land your most powerful strikes, where timing and spacing are all that matters
The stylish slowdowns when you land a particularly damaging hit are still present
The historical Japanese aesthetic permeates the entire game, from the flashy intro to the stage select screen where every stage is represent by a hanafuda card, to the beautiful authentic music
When you select the big fat Texan ninja-wannabe, Earthquake, the way the Japanese announcer pronounces his name sounds like"arse-quake", which is strangely fitting and amuses me because I'm immature
Two of my favourite characters, Cham-cham and Gen-an, are not in the game on not on the list of upcoming DLC characters
The load times are bit long for my liking
I wish the cloth and hair would have been hand-animated to match their classic forms rather than left to a physics engine
The new characters are very cool, but I do wish the old guys could have gotten a new move or two
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