Samurai Shodown is a fighting game series I remembered playing as a kid when we rented it from Blockbuster. I found it fascinating that these characters wielded weapons instead of doing martial arts and throwing fireballs. My thoughts on the feudal Japan setting in which these samurai battled was also the same. Every time I think about this franchise brings some nostalgia from the days I remember playing Samurai Shodown II. It has been just over ten years since we have seen a new entry to the series. When I heard that we would be getting a modern reboot, I was ready for it. I was disappointed with the results when I got my hands on it, but grew to enjoy it over time. This Samurai Shodown is a strong contender to sit at the top of the genre, but it needs something more to make the cut.
Spiritual Content: The plot of Samurai Shodown takes place as a mysterious cloud of darkness covers Japan. The final boss fight of the game is against a princess who is possessed by an evil supernatural being.
Violence: Every character in the game wields a bladed weapon, and must use it to fight against their opponent. Large amounts of blood are seen when a weapon makes contact with an opponent, and the characters will cry out in pain. Characters can stab/impale their opponent and also dismember them from their torso.
Drugs/Alcohol: One of the characters is a pirate who drinks out of a giant barrel when she wins a match. What she is drinking is never confirmed, but the odds are very likely that it is intended to be grog.
Sexual Content: The boss character changes into a form in which she is completely nude. Her hair covers her breasts and groin when she is in that phase of her transformation.
When playing Samurai Shodown, I instantly noticed how uninspired the presentation felt. Yes, it does carry the painterly Japanese art style to some degree; you’ll notice it in the menus, special effects, in story intros and endings, but that’s all. Where it falls short is in-game—I feel like I’m playing Street Fighter IV with Samurai Shodown mechanics. Considering the existence of games like Dragon Ball FighterZ and the upcoming Kill La Kill IF, the route SNK went here feels dated.
However, the fighting mechanics that we know and love from previous iterations are still there: a four-button fighting game in which you can be killed in only a few hits if you are not careful. The defensive gameplay method that this series has always asked from us feels welcome in the current state of the genre, which is very offense-driven (Editor’s Note: Not Tekken!). Players will find themselves punished for button mashing and will survive much longer when blocking attacks and waiting to land a few good hits instead of 20-input combos.
Many of the familiar mechanics that have been a series staple have returned, such as sword clash, just guard, disarming, and the rage meter. There are also some new tactics as well, such as dodging and the “Lighting Blade” ability that can be used to make a comeback. One of my favorite matches I’ve played was when my opponent and I engaged in a sword clash. The results involved both of us losing our weapons; we ended up finishing the rest of the match in hand-to-hand combat. In my experience, some of the tensest fights I have experienced in the genre come from that series. That still seems to be the case in 2019.
I have to applaud the developers for the amount of accessibility they have included. The tutorial is simple and yet in-depth enough to for me to learn everything I needed to know. Though button shortcuts are more common in fighting games these days, I found them to be beneficial. The shoulder buttons are mapped to the most important mechanics, and this allows players to quickly learn them while pros can stick to the arcade format of the face buttons. I was also happy to find that the difficulty settings are well crafted. The brutal arcade ports destroyed me a few weeks ago as I prepared for this game’s release.
Now, let us dive into the roster. All of the best characters from the early entries in the series are here, and will be boosted when the season pass drops with more returning characters. A few unique characters such as Yoshitora Tokugawa from Samurai Shodown V and Shiki from Samurai Shodown 64 (a 3D rendition on the Neo Geo 64) also make an appearance. As for new characters we have Yashamaru, Darli Dagger, and Wu-Ruixiang. I haven’t spent much time with Wu, but I have enjoyed my time with the other two—Darli is my new main. These new characters feel right at home as the rest of the roster includes the best in the series. The roster feels small, but I feel it creates more intimacy with learning your favorites and learning how to defend against everyone else.
Samurai Shodown offers only a handful of options to enjoy the action. There is an arcade-like story mode, but the huge drawback to that is the typical cheeseball SNK-style boss. Having to fight that boss every time drew me further away from wanting to see those endings and into the dojo mode. This mode includes “ghost battles” in which you can fight other players’ characters including an “Iron Man” mode in which you can fight multiple in a row. You can train your own by simply playing the game, and it mostly works well other than the fact that my Darli seems to be broken. Doing these ghost battles and training my own is where I have spent most of my time enjoying the game.
Other than the dojo and story modes, we have time attack, survival, and another where players attempt to take on the entire roster. Now that I have had more time and experience with the game, I plan to see how far I can get and test my skills. Although the real test is playing online. I could see myself attempting to play online since I don’t have to worry about being decimated by 100-hit combos without even scratching my opponent. I can lose just as easily in Samurai Shodown, but at least I have the same chance of defeating my opponent just as quickly.
At its core, Samurai Shodown‘s best trait is its gameplay. its defensive focus brings some intense fights that kept me from rushing in like a normally would have done. I wish that the developers would have gone for a unique presentation style instead of leaning so hard into one that already exists. Though I usually gravitate towards a fighting game’s arcade more, I have explored beyond that thanks to the terrible boss fight. Overall, Samurai Shodown makes a decent comeback, but I want to see how/if they decide to follow it up. Fans of the series may want to spend some time with it and see if they like it, but I can’t recommend it to everyone.
The Bottom Line
Samurai Shodown's gameplay is a welcome return, but it lacks a unique presentation that keeps it from standing out amongst the greats of the genre.