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Samurai Shodown Review

Samurai Shodown
SNK / Athlon Games

Ah…fighting games from the 90s. I’ve tried just about all of them, even some of the Japanese ones that weren’t available in the states since I had a Neo Geo console with an adapter.

The Street Fighter series was known as the first fighting game that put competitive hand-to-hand combat on the map in a big way. It also featured characters that relied heavily on both projectiles and flashy combinations. The Art of Fighting series was very similar to Street Fighter—mechanics-wise—but had its own whacky characters (except Ryo who was an obvious copy/paste of Street Fighter’s Ryu). Virtua Fighter was known as the “grandfather of 3D fighters.” And then there was the King of Fighters franchise which was SNK’s answer to Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (the latter known for its fatalities).

When I first encountered a Samurai Shodown (known as Samurai Spirits 侍魂 in Japan) cabinet in an arcade back in the day, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Finally, someone (in this case, SNK) made a weapon-based fighting game that wasn’t crappy. In fact, Sam Sho (the cute way of spelling Samurai Shodown) had a super slick traditional Japanese aesthetic that echoed the bloody feudal periods, where samurai and master swordsmen traversed in search for worthy opponents.

Unfortunately, after Samurai Shodown 5 Special, the series sort of disappeared. That was back in 2004. To everybody’s surprise, SNK teamed up with publisher Athlon Games and announced back in 2019 that they were developing a brand new Samurai Shodown game, titled…wait for it…Samurai Shodown! (now that’s original!).

The latest Samurai Shodown title features a ton of offline modes for those who just want to beat up on the game’s AI. First off is the traditional Story Mode which tells a little background about whatever character you’ve chosen and what their mission is. Next up is the Gauntlet Mode, where you have to take out the entire roster of characters in one try. Fail, and you’re done for. Then you’ve got your usual Survival, Time Trial, and Versus modes to explore. And luckily, they’ve packed a Tutorial Mode with the game as well.

Perhaps the biggest draw here with the new Samurai Shodown has to be the Dojo Mode. This asynchronous mode is composed of both offline and online parts. You and other human players’ inputs are studied by the game’s AI and applied to a CPU Ghost. It can then be challenged during a single match or within the wild 100-person “Ironman Challenge.”

The move away from pixilated graphics was a good move, even though the old ones will forever hold a special place in my heart (sniff, sniff). The visuals in this new rendition are super-slick and gorgeous to behold.

The stages are the first thing I noticed. Some are updated background from the original titles (like the beach with the waves crashing on the rocks), but rendered with the Unreal engine. My favorite has to be the bamboo forest—although I’m a little let down that you can’t slash the bamboo stalks into pieces and make them fall, as in the older games. The traditional Min’yō tunes (traditional Japanese folk music) add to the immersion and you really get into the feudal Japan vibe that the game is conveying.

The entire cast of Samurai Shodown looks spectacular in their new Unreal graphics digs. The new main protagonist is a badass named Yashamaru Kurama. He wields a nagamaki (a katana with an extra-long handle) and is part tengu, which is a type of Japanese avian spirit. The other characters fit in pretty well, with the exception of a couple of oddballs (Darli Dagger wth?)

Samurai Shodown is very distinct from other fighting games in that it more slower-paced. Part of the reason is that the characters you play as are wielding weapons that can potentially end a match in one hit. Therefore, there are lots of “footsies” going on, as well as pokes. A good player will draw out a mistake in his opponent and make him overcommit to something and then strike.

Each of the characters comes with a bevy of special moves as well as a slick dodge maneuver that can throw your opponent off. There are also counter moves that can disarm your foe, slash-through moves where the screen turns red and blood sprays up from your opponent like a geyser, and flashy projectile attacks for certain characters. A match between two methodical players can come to resemble any of the great Japanese samurai anime.

In all, Samurai Shodown doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, it has taken the series to new heights by greatly enhancing the gameplay mechanics, visuals, and overall production values. It’s simply one of my favorite fighting games and I’m very excited to see where they take this venerable franchise next.

SCORE: 90%

Samurai Shodown has some pretty good looking graphics that make its strategy gameplay truly shine. However, you want to have a pretty beefy gaming PC or gaming laptop in order to play it at a decent framerate. So, you may just want to invest in a decent gaming rig:

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