Between the arcade stands that every kid in the 1990s went mad for, there was always that other cabinet that fighting game purists gravitated towards. A stand with the SNK logo on it, more modest graphics and a different approach to one on one combat. Samurai Shodown was the franchise that fighting game hipsters found themselves praising for its blue-collar style and bloody attitude.
A decade later, and SNK is finally ready to take a stab at the franchise again that is an unapologetic return to basics while throwing in a few new modern touches for good measure. The most obvious of which are the visuals, which lift Samurai Shodown from its quaint 2D sprites of yesteryear and instead focuses on presenting an experience that takes half a dimensional step forward towards Street Fighter territory.
Make no mistake though, this is still a 2D fighter at heart, one wherein the zone that you inhabit can result in a make or break situation depending on your chosen warrior and the weapons that they wield. Each of the cast pulsates with energy thanks to revamped visuals, which feel like a hybrid of style and substance as you unleash fiery combos and nigh-unstoppable mad dashes across the screen.
In your hands, Samurai Shodown still feels like a blast from the past that’ll awaken your muscle memory. This isn’t the kind of game where a sprint across the screen in an effort to deliver dialled-up combos will secure you victory. Instead, Samurai Shodown emphasises a layer of precision between each slash of the sword and poke of the rapier.
It’s about knowing which attack to unleash at any given moment, parrying and deflecting between light, medium and heavy attacks and striking in that moment of opportunity. Samurai Shodown is the kind of fighting game where equivalent retaliation dominates the screen, long enough for you to seize the moment and rotate your analogue sticks into a flurry of impressive special attacks.
There’s a tension to the combat, where matches can be decided with a mere handful of moves and within seconds, as opposed to other fighting games that draw out the action with time-stretching special attacks and combos. A sensation of action that feels clean and hefty, where rounds feel like they’re always one counter away from giving the advantage back to your opponent.
This titular shodown between players can, of course, be further countered with Lightning Blades wherein players strike back in an instant and leave their opponents gasping in a geyser of their own blood that has the potential to shave up to two thirds of their health away, but it’s also the kind of attack that has a slight telegraph to it and needs to be used when the moment to launch it is perfect.
Beyond that, Samurai Shodown feels like the kind of game that you remember from the good ol’ days, a combination of Rage Gauge mechanics, deflections and grapples that set opponents up for an injection of steel to the abdomen. It’s not so much as a whole new sword in the sheath, but a sharpening of the blade that has served SNK so well. A refinement of what makes Samurai Shodown feel unique in an ocean of fighting games that dominate the genre currently.
There are some neat ideas on the horizon though. While I couldn’t test it due to the servers not being up yet, Dojo mode promises to be a feature that’ll push you to evolve constantly, as it’ll take all the data gathered from your various sessions and create a ghost who can match you blow for blow with your own combat quirks. That ghost will make its way online, ready to battle other players with an AI personality that serves to replicate your character when you put your controller down for the night.
Samurai Shodown is a love letter to its past, but one that reflects the more modest scale and budget of the small studio that has poured their heart and soul into it. It’s oddly archaic in what it offers, and while Samurai Shodown will easily gather together a hive of fans who crave its distinct action, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive in its online offerings such as Mortal Kombat 11 or Street Fighter 5 who boast massive leagues and evolving competition on a daily basis.
The storyline is also completely bonkers, offering the lightest of references and not giving a damn to anyone’s familiarity with the original source material, creating a lore that’ll have you scratching bloody chunks out of your head as you try to figure out just why a dual sword-wielding samurai is beating up on a Chinese scholar who’s attempting to cosplay as Captain America with her shield.
Online play so far is a smooth and bloody brouhaha, at least on the local side we tested so far between myself and Geoff, who lives many many leagues apart. It could be better though, as setting up a game veered into godawful territory that highlighted just how bad the user interface is. It’s not complex to be honest, but it’s an unwieldy and counter-intuitive beast at the best of times, a stark departure from Samurai Shodown’s otherwise easy to understand combat.
Just how far can that love and passion for the past carry Samurai Shodown? It’ll be interesting to see how the game shapes up and if Dojo mode can keep the lights on once the launch week buzz has died off, but for now this newest chapter in the long-running series isn’t just a slick and polished blade that feels fresher than ever, it’s also a welcome and familiar return from a series that deserves to a whole lot more love.
Last Updated: June 24, 2019