The Samurai Shodown series, known as Samurai Spirits in Japan, has never really grabbed the headlines in the west. Having been a one-on-one fighting staple of the early ‘90s arcade scene it’s recognised by genre stalwarts, but few outside of that ever diminishing circle. That’s a shame, as the series has frequently been a vehicle for innovations that have later became standard for the genre.
The latest edition of Samurai Shodown, recently upgraded for Xbox Series X|S, is yet another title that supports all of the above arguments. It’s clear that SNK Corporation isn’t expecting a breakout success in the west, as the localisation supports merely subtitles; no voice acting or even the on-screen text in the game’s Story mode. It does, however, make efforts to experiment with the fighting game formula that has become pretty stagnant since Street Fighter IV bought the genre back into the limelight way back in 2008.
The most notable of these is the Rage meter. Opting for a singular meter with varying functions – kind of halfway between Killer Instinct’s mess of character-specific meters and Mortal Kombat 11’s more versatile meter – the Rage meter is built by sustaining impacts. It can be activated at any time and used to increase the power of basic attacks or execute a potentially devastating once-per-match Lightning Blade attack (think Mortal Kombat X’s X-Ray moves). Further to this however, you can also use it for stylish weapon spinning techniques or, if you’re stuck on the defensive, to disarm your opponent. Finally, if you fill the bar to its fullest before execution you’ll have access to an incredibly powerful attack that can instantly turn the fight in your favour. That’s a lot of functionality for just one meter.
As stated above, disarming your opponent is a chance to turn the tide of a match. For the uninitiated, Samurai Shodown is a weapons-based fighting game. While the inputs are very closely aligned with Street Fighter, every single character performs very differently with those inputs. The style is more akin to the ill-fated Skullgirls than the more mainstream competitors. This, coupled with the fact that the development team seem to take pride in stubbornly ignoring fans demands for returning characters and opting for balance instead, creates a game which can seem simple at first but quickly adds depth with every further player experimentation. Samurai Shodown is not a game that’s easy to get good at.
With all those compliments out of the way, we come quickly to the bad stuff. Samurai Shodown is not a good looking game, nor is it making the best use of the powerful next-generation hardware. The team behind the game are obviously more interested in mechanics than graphics, as Samurai Shodown looks dated despite the recent upgrades. The Story mode’s picture painting is basic at best – far from comparable to the likes of Mortal Kombat’s detailed movie sequences – and the lack of detail in the backgrounds coupled with stuttering intro sequences prove that the in-match frame rate was always the priority.
Samurai Shodown is a relic of the past. An era where fighting games could afford to be different and experimental while still finding an audience ready to push them to their limits. For that same audience that have grown up with the genre, this latest edition shouldn’t be overlooked. However, if your only taste of fighting games has been Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and a few rounds of Street Fighter V, you’ll most likely find Samurai Shodown to be little more than an impenetrable button masher; a tic-tac-toe of timing your Lightning Blade attack and little else. Much like the now decade-old Samurai Shodown Sen, this new Samurai Shodown definitely deserves more credit that it will likely receive.