As a kid who grew up during the peak of the 90’s fighting game boom, there were few that stood out as much as the original Samurai Shodown. Released in 1993 by SNK, the weapons-based fighter not only looked completely different from hand-to-hand titles like Street Fighter II and Fatal Fury, but it also played in its own unique way. By taking characters that were loosely based on historical figures and Japanese folklore alike, its cast ranged from American ninjas to grizzled samurai who threw tornados. Topped off by the subdued but brutal use of gore, a sharp contrast from nothing looked cooler than walking up to a cabinet and seeing it in action.
Over time, the series faded into the background as the fighting genre as a whole took a dive. SNK itself went through a series of restructurings and attempted revivals until it finally succeeded with The King of Fighters XIV. Building off of this momentum, the company next set its sights on the original weapons-based fighter. Releasing the appropriately named Samurai Shodown reboot in 2019, the game brought back most of its most popular characters with a handful of new combatants using KOF‘s 3D graphics engine. What resulted was a surprisingly unique 2D vs. title that approached the genre in a slow, methodical way.
A little over a year later, the once forgotten fighter has made the jump to the next generation on the Xbox Series X. Boasting 120 frames per second alongside improved overall visuals; this port is the first real chance to show what fighting games can do on new hardware. Ultimately, its creative approach to combat helps it overcome its clear shortcomings.
Story – Ghastly Thin
Despite being a reboot, the story slides neatly between Samurai Shodown V (the first in the series chronologically), and the original. In other words, it takes place at a point where most of the original cast can return without contradicting anything. A dark omen spreads across Japan and beyond, suspected to be caused by an evil spirit. As the ghost of Shizuka Gozen returns from the underworld, warriors from around the world converge in an attempt to stop the threat from reaching further. For those like me who appreciate some context to go with your bloody combat, the main single-player mode does a minimalist job.
Players of 90’s fighting games will recognize the progressions system. You’ll get a cutscene explaining character motives, scenes in between featuring Gozen anticipating your arrival, a rival fight to flesh out relationships among the roster, and an ending once the boss is defeated. Beating Gozen (who sports the famously cheap SNK boss AI) without continuing unlocks an extra scene, but it’s hardly worth the trouble with a 16 character roster.
It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it serves its purpose. However, in the face of massive campaigns that have become the genre norm, it leaves plenty of room for improvement.
Gameplay – Defense is the Best Offense
Yes, Samurai Shodown feels somewhat archaic in its storytelling. But like the arcades where it stood out so well, this game’s insistence on bucking trends is its biggest strength. Rather than fights going to those who memorize the most button combinations, the combat features multiple defensive techniques. This creates an environment that’s designed to punish mistakes and create openings.
From deflecting powerful strikes to disarming opponents to make them nearly helpless, each attack means something. A blocked swing can mean you’re about to lose a third of your health with a single attack. It’s surprisingly technical in its simplicity, focusing on anticipation more than most.
Look up fighting game videos online, and most of what you’ll find are intricate minute-long combos with as much visual spectacle as possible. While combos do exist here, the primary focus on patience and defense is a real game-changer. Each character has four primary attacks. Made up of a kick button alongside weak, medium and strong weapon swings, its combat relies on high risk, high reward mechanics. In some cases, a single heavy swing can drain an absurd amount of damage. Yet, they leave you wide open and are the easiest to counter. If disarmed, your weapon is replaced by weak punches. You can risk picking up your swords or try and catch their blade and disarm them in return.
THE DOUBLE EDGE OF UNIFORMITY
Aside from the standard attacks, each warrior has their own sets of special moves. What’s unusual is that most of these attacks are typically much weaker than your normal strikes. Used more as a tool to gain better positioning, they fit the slower pace that the combat is going for. Disarming, deflecting, counters and Super Special Moves all have the same inputs across the board as well, aiding in accessibility. If you’re the type that’s intimidated by the genre and its’ insistence on memorizing a wide range of commands for each character, Shodown eliminates that barrier.
As a player takes more damage, their Rage Gauge begins to fill. Once maxed out, the player receives a large boost to their attack power and a few new attack options. The Weapon Flipping Technique drains your Rage but deals big damage while disarming the opponent. By sacrificing your Rage, the Lightning Blade Technique triggers a lightning-fast attack that drains about 75% of the opponent’s health. When used, it eliminates the Gauge for the rest of the match, whether it connects or not. Again, high risk, high reward.
Overall, this uniformity is an overall positive. After the extended play, it does create an issue where many of the characters feel too similar. Sure, the cast all stands out visually. You have the heavy-hitting cover boy, Haohmaru, who throws tornadoes like the best of them. Galford and Nakoruru fight alongside their ninja pets. Ukyo… cuts apples and coughs. But mechanically, many of the characters can win fairly easily using the same tactics. In a fight that relies on waiting out your opponent and looking for openings, the gameplay variety often comes more from your opponent than from yourself or your character.
BUT WHERE ARE THE MODES?
Making matters worse is that there isn’t a whole lot to do in the game. Outside of finishing the story repeatedly, Shodown features standard modes like Time Attack, Survival and a helpful Tutorial Mode that explains all its mechanics. Its most interesting feature is the Dojo, where the AI creates ghosts based on your play data and essentially lets you fight yourself. Finding weaknesses in your own playstyle through the AI is a fantastic idea. However, it rarely fights like I do, acting as if I was headbutting the control at random instead of imitating my attacks. Either that or I’m much worse than I realize. If your ghost isn’t a great training partner, you can download other players’ ghosts.
Of course, the biggest elephant in the room is the online features. On the one hand, it deserves the highest praise for having excellent Netcode. I experienced one small instance of lag over dozens of matches played. Smooth online is the lifeblood of fighters in 2021, yet many fail to deliver. Punishing combat needs a lag-free environment to thrive, and it delivers. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to find matches. When I would, it would usually be with the same handful of people over and over again. While it isn’t a fault of the game itself, its dead Xbox community makes it a hard sell unless you have friends you can link up with.
Audio and Graphics – A Bloody Good Time
Visually, this brawler excels at making the most out of the little it’s given. While visually more detailed than KOF14, its bulky, cartoony art style is hardly cutting edge. It avoids this pitfall by applying a pencil-drawn filter over the characters and environments, giving it the appearance of artwork in action. This is exemplified by the 16 stages, many of which look like a painting in motion. Small touches from the originals also found their way into the reboot. For example, killing your opponent with a mid attack ends the fight with a dramatic blood spray. Ending it with a heavy attack sees the enemy get cut clean in two.
Despite being generally simplistic, that doesn’t mean the graphics don’t have their wow moments. The special moves, in particular, all look impressive, some more than others. Nakoruru’s Super Special Move specifically is a sight to behold. With enough flare and unexpected gore to add that sense of brutality that moves like this need, it’s a stark contrast to her gentle demeanor. Yet, the violence never feels over the top, only enhancing key moments of the fight.
THE SERIES X DIFFERENCE
Regarding the Series X specific improvements, matches did feel smoother than they did during previous iterations. With that said, I never felt like I was playing at 120 frames per second or even 60, for that matter. I’m hardly a gamer who analyzes frames, but it didn’t seem like the frame rate was appreciably different. I can’t complain since it never dipped and was clear enough so I could react appropriately to the on-screen action. Unfortunately, there were some glitches that weren’t present on other platforms. Most noticeably, Nakoruru’s hawk has a slightly detached wing; Jubei Yagyu’s dango skewer vanishes in his hand during his intro every time he’s used.
The graphics are backed by a low-key soundtrack that fits the samurai aesthetic. Nothing is particularly memorable outside of Charlotte’s stage music, but it does its job. The Japanese voice acting brings the roster to life, while the audio is largely carried by the narrator. Guiding players throughout endings and between rounds, the start and end of matches brings a nostalgic feeling as he calls out the exact same phrases as he did nearly 20 years ago.
The weapon shots all sound hard-hitting and satisfying, assuring the player when a big shot lands. Counters are rewarded with the defined sound of blades clashing, all blending into an overall package that rounds out the presentation.
Samurai Shodown was reviewed on Xbox Series X with a review key provided by HomeRun PR.