Before Soulcalibur made it cool, SNK’s Samurai Shodown series has been a marquee title in weapon-based fighters. This arcade franchise pitted east and west against each other in a clash of swords, blades, and even canines. Even without a huge notoriety in the west, the series has been revered by many fighting game enthusiasts. After the abysmal Samurai Shodown Sen for the Xbox 360, the series was thought to be put in permanent hibernation. Shockingly, almost 10 years later SNK shocked the world by rebooting the franchise with the simply-titled Samurai Shodown, and despite some issues, it’s definitely a return to form.
When it comes to Samurai Shodown, the controls are easy to grasp. Each character has a light, medium and heavy attack, and even a kick which trades power for speed. As the name suggests, heavy attacks inflict the most damage, and beginners would often resort to mashing that button. However, the game punishes players for this. Blocking said attacks causes characters to stagger much longer in place than if blocking a lighter attack. This makes it so the opponent can exploit the situation. The key is to mix between different attacks, as the more damaging the attack is, the easier it would be for the enemy to gain an advantage.
This is where things get a bit more technical, as the game introduces a new countering mechanic. By blocking at the right time, players can parry an attack, known as a “Just Defense”. There’s even an option to go one step beyond by disarming the opponent altogether. Doing so, however, is much harder to execute. It’s an interesting risk-reward system, since performing a counter poorly can lead to an unfortunate opening opponents will gladly use. Even without a weapon in hand, characters can inflict damage by with their fists. If timed correctly, they can even perform a blade catch that disarms the opponent in an instant.
Another returning element from previous games is the Rage meter. Either by using Just Defenses or by receiving damage, the meter fills up. When it’s fully charged, attacks will get stronger. It will also allow players to use “Weapon Flippers” (the name for super moves), which can also disarm opponents. There’s also the risky rage explosion mechanic that grants its user permanent rage powers. This also gives access to the deadly lightning attack, a swift cinematic slash that’s as devastating as it is gorgeous to see. The catch is, after using rage explosion, the rage meter is unavailable for the rest of the match. It’s really best to save it for a last resort.
The game has a colorful cast of characters, many return from previous titles, and some are coming soon as DLC. Series staple Haohmaru (the game’s Ryu or Scorpion) is the typical samurai which is excellent for beginners. You’ll also have some unique fighters like Nakoruru, who uses her pet hawk Mamahaha as her companion. All the characters have their own distinct look, which is great. Even if many use swords, their moves are vastly different from one another.
It’s such a shame the single player offerings of Samurai Shodown are rather underwhelming. The story mode is similar to traditional arcade modes from fighting games. Fight a string of enemies and challenge a boss at the end. There’s some flavor text in the beginning and ending, but the story tells itself through stills that, while decently drawn, are rather generic. In fact, intro cutscenes for each character features the same background with only the character’s portrait being different. There are also other modes like Time Attack, Survival, and the Gauntlet, which is essentially a marathon to fight every character. The game also has a Dojo mode that houses ghosts that players can challenge. Though the idea is neat, there aren’t any rewards, and opponents often use special moves without much strategy behind them. Playing versus either offline or online works well, especially with the latter’s solid net-code.
The game looks decent. The character design is great, and each one has an outline encircling them similar to Street Fighter IV. The environments, however, are severely lacking. Colors are dull, especially on stages taking place in a sunny environment. The soundtrack is standard fair for a fighting game too. The series is known for combining Japanese flute tracks with string instruments, and while it fits, it’s nothing memorable.
While Samurai Shodown brings the prolific series into the next generation with passable results, the lack of content leaves it behind many of its contemporaries. It’s nice to play a fighter that doesn’t revolve around memorizing needless frame data or ridiculous button combinations. Just having a one-on-one mind game to see who can punish who first is a lot of fun. Even with its issues, Samurai Shodown is definitely a step in the right direction for the series. If it keeps going at this rate, it can only go up.