The weird thing about video game genres is that, while many games may share a genre, they can still play very differently. There may be shared concepts but the way they are executed can be very different. That’s why they’re not always the easiest way to describe a game. Sometimes there’s a game that fits the genre, but is not what people expect and this tends to be how they manage to stand out.
So when I say Samurai Shodown is a fighting game that probably invokes imagery of fast and flashy gameplay with sophisticated combos and inputs. Many people would be put off by the genre just because of the effort that is expected in this case. Well, sometimes games buck the trend and are not what people expect and it can be a glorious change of pace. SNK’s revival of their classic series, Samurai Shodown, brings the genre back to its roots and it’s something to behold.
A sword’s poor company for a long road
In terms of gameplay, Samurai Shodown is a relic of a bygone era. Nowadays when people think about fighting games they think about flashy visuals and lengthy combos. In extreme cases, some games become single-player games when people get caught up in combos and that can be difficult for people to stomach. Fortunately for Samurai Shodown, this isn’t the case and the game returns the genre to a simpler time.
The simplest way to describe Samurai Shodown’s combat is weighty. Nothing can be done in the game without a feeling of purpose and noticeable consequences. Attacks are slow and deal far more damage than usual with combos in this game tending to be simpler and shorter than people have come to expect. Pressing a button is a commitment and this means that the pacing of the game is a lot slower, which might cause some frustration for those who enjoy just whaling away at the buttons. Once players start to understand the characters and how to handle the situations the game presents, the gameplay truly shines and becomes an enjoyable thing to be a part of.
With a heavy focus on the neutral game, where players are essentially sussing each other out and looking for a way in on their opponent, the game is a lot more approachable.
With a heavy focus on the neutral game, where players are essentially sussing each other out and looking for a way in on their opponent, the game is a lot more approachable. There isn’t this focus on knowing long combos and figuring out ways to confuse and oppress your opponent, rather an understanding of your character, their limitations and how you should approach things. While the game does make use of the more traditional fighting game inputs for special moves, the gameplay is slow enough for the complexity of these to not add to the pressure of the fight. What Samurai Shodown does do is give certain special moves and mechanics far more weight as there are lasting consequences for making use of some of these.
It’s not unique to the series, in fact, we’ve seen it in a number of modern fighting games, but Samurai Shodown tends to take it a bit further. In the game, certain special moves and mechanics can only be used once per match to devastating effects. Super special moves, devastating specials that deal a considerable amount of damage, can only be used once per match and as such can’t just be thrown out on a whim. Things like Rage Explosion provide a useful get off me button and access to unique moves, however, it can only be used once per match and once it is used the player loses access to the rage meter for the rest of the game. While there are opportunities for flashy moves in Samurai Shodown, there are huge consequences for making use of them so players need to make sure they are able to capitalise on them or they will lose out on some big damage.
And this is where Samurai Shodown is able to stand out in its gameplay. It’s a game about moving with purpose and understanding the outcomes of your actions. While you might be able to get away with some mashing here and there, the game starts to shine when you come to that critical understanding of the game and its mechanics. It might take a bit of time to get comfortable with, but once everything clicks it’s an enjoyable experience.
The art of fighting
Samurai Shodown is presented as a Japanese painting and it goes a long way to enhance the feel of the game. Heavy attacks are accented with brushstroke-like slashes that add to the weight of the moves. This coupled with the sound design and music provides an enjoyable experience. The distinct clashing of swords when attacks are blocked has a nice ring to it and the slashes of connecting attacks feel quite exaggerated but still authentic. Even the character designs feel well realised with this game’s presentation. Classic characters still feel recognisable while newcomers manage to fit right in. Overall the game just looks lovely and is definitely a step in the right direction for SNK.
The only major issue the game faces is the major bane of many fighting games – sparse single-player content. While it checks all the required boxes, it doesn’t do much outside of that. It would have been nice to have seen a decent challenge mode or a more in-depth tutorial that helped players learn the game outside of simply being told what there is in the game. Even the game’s big new draw, Dojo mode, feels a little unimpressive at the moment, but this might be an unfortunate issue with timing.
Dojo mode sees Samurai Shodown create ghost characters that are based on a player’s playstyle and tries to imitate them. With this sort of mode, the more you play the more authentic it should be but it just didn’t feel like it was adapting the characters to my playstyle even after a good number of matches. This was even present is some of the other player ghosts I played against and I just hope that this is an unfortunate case where the game just needs far more data for it to be useful. On paper it’s an interesting and useful feature, however, it feels like it might require a far greater investment than that which the typical player is willing to give.
Even with its shortcomings, Samurai Shodown is a triumphant return for the series and a well-done reboot for SNK. The game nails its presentation and gameplay which will keep fans of the series gripped for quite a while and should interest newcomers to the series. It’s a slow and deliberate fighter which is something we don’t see often, but it has enough to still feel fair and approachable. Samurai Shodown manages to shine through its shortcomings and is hopefully something that the community can rally behind and can enjoy as a change of fighting game pace.