Samurai Shodown is one of those series from back in the day that you either loved or had never heard of at all. It’s a storied franchise that came about during the ’90s era of the arcades, when fighting games ruled the scene. Those of us lucky enough to live near a Neo-Geo MVS machine got to play the one fighting game that wasn’t like all the rest, the period piece that SNK gave to the world. A game that took place two hundred years ago in shogun-ruled Japan, starring samurai, ninja, knights, and whatever Earthquake was supposed to be. And now, 27 years after the original captured our imaginations, we return to the Tenmei era for a Samurai Shodown reboot.
Samurai Shodown loosely follows the plot of the original game. While it stars the new protagonist Yashamaru, old favorites like Haohmaru and Nakoruru (and Ukyo, of course) are still here and prominently featured. Not counting DLC, we’ve got 13 veterans and three newcomers. Each character has a theme and a unique play style that you won’t find anywhere else. In fact, the visual design for each character is one of the standout gems of this game.
Instead of aiming for expertly crafted and executed combos, Samurai Shodown has a different kind of depth. Think about a duel in an old samurai movie: two opponents meet in a field, tension building, sweat dripping, waiting to strike, and then clash! They meet for the briefest of moments. A breath. Then another. And finally the blood blooms on the loser’s kimono. He realizes he’s finished and slumps to the ground, defeated in honor. That’s what a match of Samurai Shodown is like.
In addition to four attacks — light, medium, heavy, and kick — there are also a few advanced techniques to deepen the strategy. We’ve got guard breaks, spot dodges, and special attacks. A Rage Explosion can be activated to increase attack power and perform some truly flashy and devastating moves, at the expense of losing the Rage Meter for the rest of your time with this opponent. And what SNK game would be complete without cinematic Super Special Attacks?
Each character having their own visual and fighting style actually adds to the strategy element. Haohmaru fights with his trusty katana, utilizing the range of the weapon and the relative speed of it to land a couple of good blows. He’s not particularly flashy but gets the job done. Earthquake, on the other hand, takes up half the screen by himself, and his kusarigama (a sickle on a chain) covers the rest. It takes forever to swing, but you don’t want to be on the receiving end of it. All of this is a visual feast, and it feels so satisfying to pull off something especially awesome.
The graphics in general are amazing. Samurai Shodown takes inspiration from Street Fighter 4‘s art style with thick outlines, inky visual effects, and a natural color palette to evoke the feeling of old Japan. The Switch doesn’t falter in rendering any of it, which might have been a concern for some gamers worried that a port might not be as good as the original. In fact, I didn’t notice a single frame drop anywhere, and even with a wireless controller I didn’t catch any unexpected latency.
Samurai Shodown‘s story mode feels like a relic from the ’90s arcade way of doing things. You get a brief intro cutscene as to what your character’s motivation is and a short description of the events that drive the narrative. Fight random opponents until facing off against your rival, and then it’s boss time. The final boss is difficult in an incredibly unfair way. My friend and fellow Enthusiast Art, who loves fighting games, said it best, “That’s some SNK.” You’ll probably adore this if you liked playing story mode on an actual arcade.
Samurai Shodown is packed with different ways to play. Aside from battles and story, there are a few other offline modes. Gauntlet mode allows you to fight each character in a series of best-of-one matches. Time Trial and Survival test your skills for speed and endurance, respectively.
There are, of course, online battles, with ranked and casual modes. Unfortunately, at the time of writing there were no people to play against online. This is to be expected for a review copy of a game, and we’ll update this review once we’ve had time to play around with it.
There’s also the Dojo, which allows you to download player data from the internet and battle other people’s ghosts. This seems like a decent way to practice, though there’s no substitute for live opponents.
Good news, bad news
As a fan of the old Samurai Shodown games, I love how they updated the series for the modern day without losing what made it so unique among its peers. The character design is amazing, and you’ll find someone you absolutely adore in no time. The music and stages are likewise fantastic, and the whole package feels like it was crafted with so much love and care for the series and the fans.
Still, there are a few things that I didn’t like so much. The load times aren’t the worst I’ve ever seen, but they are plentiful and they will interrupt the fun. Also, as I don’t own a fight stick, I made due with the Switch Pro Controller. It’s not the best way to play this game, and I found the Joy-Con even worse. Samurai Shodown requires too much precision for the average Switch controller.
– Fin –
Samurai Shodown is a fighter made for the old crowd, but it offers a unique experience to modern gamers. SNK has done an incredible job adapting the series to the Nintendo Switch. It’s not perfect, but it does what it does incredibly well. If you think you would enjoy a fighting game that rewards patience, strategy, and timing, give this one a chance. You’ll be rewarded with one of the most well-designed fighting games there is.
A review code was provided by the publisher.