I’ve been a fan of Samurai Showdown for a long time, spending an almost diabolical amount of time on the second instalment of the game across its many ports, and so I came close to wetting myself when the news dropped that SNK were bringing back the legendary series, and might have needed a fresh pair of undies when they finally showed it. But enough about my underwear.
Set in feudal Japan during a time of war and strife, Shizuka Gozen, the deceased spirit of a young woman who is possessed and trapped in Yomi threatens to destroy Japan, as you do. For various reasons, including under the pretence of finding a 7th lover as 6 weren’t enough, the various characters set out to uncover the truth, and defeat the possessed maiden.
Samurai Shodown is, as ever, a fantastically solid fighter. Instead of the aggression of other fighters, the game relies on patience and careful strategy. More so here than any other fighter, you are waiting for your opening in your opponents defences to strike, whether you wait for a strike and punish, or through the deep parry system to force an opening to strike.
There are a lot of mechanics to explore here, from the SNK mainstay, Just Defend, to the Rage System, which acts like a kind of “super bar” and gives access to Issen (a stupidly powerful cinematic super move). You also have the ability to spot dodge attacks, if you get the timing right leaving your opponent open for an attack of your own, so defence really is king here.
But, the best mechanic in Samurai Shodown is the Counter which, if timed right, allows you to completely disarm your opponent. This alone creates tense and considered gameplay, creating an intensely unique fighting game experience, with every move inviting a deadly rebuttal. It’s so satisfying landing a perfect counter, and cutting through your opponent’s remaining health.
In terms of modes, Arcade Mode is alive and well, along with a Story Mode that operates much like an Arcade Mode only with little bits of narrative interspersed throughout, giving your chosen character a set purpose for setting out in this dangerous world at war. Then begins a series of increasingly difficult matches against the other members of the roster. However …
Classic BS SNK Final Boss syndromeTM is definitely alive and well here, with the final boss of the story mode being reprehensibly broken, able to through out multiple projectiles and moves with little build-up and hardly any recovery, and suffering pretty much zero recoil from your own attacks. It’s an unnecessary spike in what had been a superb difficulty incline.
Worse is that the first version of the boss lulls you into a false sense of security by being relatively balanced. It’s definitely challenging, sure, but manageable for even a medium level fighting game player like myself. Then they transform, and I felt pretty dumb that I allowed myself to believe that SNK had not implemented BS SNK Final Boss SyndromeTM this time.
Outside of this you have all the mainstay modes including a survival-like mode, training, gameplay tutorials a database of terms and gallery. But, it’s hard not to notice what’s missing, namely any character-specific tutorials, meaning that the game is leaning into Training Mode grinding, which just isn’t enjoyable for some players and leaves them in the dark about the characters.
The net code of the game is pretty much superb, with barely any built in lag, and so playing online is an absolute dream and works to continue the great gameplay of the game. You have your expected online modes, encompassing both Lobbies and Ranked, the former allowing you to jump into a private room for you and your friends, and Ranked being, well, Ranked.
A small issue with the online is that the online lobby, the best way to play games with friends in all honesty, is a complete mess of different boxes with no real direction, or method of having a sort of queue in place to give good rotation on the players. It doesn’t impact the matches themselves, of course, but I don’t think I’ve experienced such a poor lobby system since SFV.
So, really the only big problem with Samurai Shodown is how lacklustre the overall gameplay package is here, with a bunch of typical modes that don’t really offer anything new or interesting. The only unique addition is the Dojo, allowing the player to take on the ‘ghosts’ of other players, or upload their own, but even this lacks any real depth or use outside the mode.
The art style chosen here is close to perfection, going with style referencing classical Japanese brushwork. The result is a medieval Japanese painting in motion, that looks glorious. All of the characters look like their previous iterations in the over-exaggerated glory, and the new additions look completely at home. Also, the cinematic Rage-fuelled Issen is glorious to behold.
I can’t move forward without discussing the stages here, and they are stunning. They’re full of life, without being distracting, and continue the long legacy that SNK, and Samurai Showdown especially, have of visually interesting and distinct stages. If you loved the divine attention to detail that the series has always paid to the stages, it’s most definitely still here.
The sound design as well is stellar, keeping everything very zoned in on the quintessential Japanese feel of the game. The voice over work is solid, all of the attacks sound like they hurt (matching how much health they chip off), and the music all fits in well. In fact, my only gripe is that the music doesn’t stand out, but that doesn’t negatively impact the game at all.
Samurai Shodown is an excellent fighting game, with some of the most solid and enjoyable moment-to-moment gameplay I’ve seen. All of the mechanics are well-implemented, and oh so satisfying, and the roster diverse and interesting. Visually breathtaking, the game looks so good in motion too that you can almost forget the shortcomings of the game. Almost.
As it stands, the game just doesn’t have enough to support the fighting, lacking a reason to stick around aside from online and a broken final boss in Story mode, and missing some key things that really should be here to boost the longevity. The gameplay marks this as one of the best fighters of all time, but the rest of the blade is just a little duller than I would like.