SNK's once-prolific output in the '90s has slowed in recent years, but thanks to Neo Geo ports arriving weekly on Switch and other platforms, some of the company's most popular arcade series are once again vying for players' attention. Samurai Shodown is one of those. The weapons-based 2D fighting series thrived for close to 15 years, but it has largely remained dormant since 2008's Samurai Shodown Sen. While it's great to revisit the series' past on modern consoles, it's also exciting to know that a brand-new Samurai Shodown fighting game is on the way--and it feels even better to report that my time with the game has only increased my anticipation for its upcoming June release.
In order to get an inside look at the new systems and to discuss the game's overall direction, I recently played a few rounds during a meeting with three Samurai Shodown developers: producer Yasuyuki Oda, game director Nobuyuki Kuroki, and game designer Josh Weatherford. Oda and Kuroki have experience working at SNK during its heyday in the '90s, and though they both worked on 2016's King of Fighters XIV, each had spent years away from the publisher working with other companies. While Kuroki helped ship a number of Sonic the Hedgehog games, Oda worked on Street Fighter IV at Dimps, the studio that co-developed the title with Capcom--which may help explain the similar inky rendering effect seen in the new Samurai Shodown. The team at SNK, we're told, is roughly a 50-50 split of veteran SNK developers and fresh talent from across the industry.
Weatherford, Oda, and Kuroki are all very good players, as you'd expect, and in their capable hands the new Samurai Shodown looked very impressive. Familiar faces like Nakoruru and Galford clashed with great speed and ferocity, with spurts of blood and blots of ink accenting the action. As with the ink, characters were vaguely reminiscent of Street Fighter IV's expressive and slightly exaggerated designs, yet it all feels distinctly Samurai Shodown, where beauty and brutality clash with ease. It's a testament to the strong character designs that have evolved with the series over the years, and proof that lessons were learned after King of Fighter XIV's poorly received graphics had to be overhauled post launch.
"I've led the charge on the art style," said Kuroki, "and I was really worried prior to the announcement and reveal of the game what the reaction would be to the visuals. I went really hard on the Japanese style with everything, from the UI, to the colors, and the textures. It's not what the Western image of 'Japanese' would be, it's a very original style, no corners cut or anything, and I wasn't sure if that would be popular in the West. Still, so far, everyone has been positive, so I'm happy to see that."
We now know that the roster will feature a total of sixteen characters, including 13 returning faces and three new fighters. The new characters remain a mystery, but we can now confirm that the 13 veterans are: Charlotte, Earthquake, Galford, Genjuro, Hanzo, Haohmaru, Jubei, Kyoshiro, Nakoruru, Shiki, Tam Tam, Ukyo, and Yoshitora. For Oda, seeing these familiar characters shine in a new light is a relief. "If you think about how the old 2D art was made," he posited, "it was very stylized, to the point where if you viewed the same character from the front, their hair would be so ridiculous and it would make no sense. I've loved the reaction so far, with everyone saying it looks like the old games, but in 3D; not like a reimagining."
If you've played Samurai Shodown in the past with any amount of regularity, you should have no problems picking up where you left off with the returning fighters. The rage gauge system is back, where each fighter has a meter that fills as they take damage, activating powerful buffs and attacks when it maxes out--including the disarming weapon-flipping technique. And once per match, you can activate a rage explosion with a simple button combo that destroys your rage gauge but gives you the chance to use a Lightning Blade attack, a move powerful enough to dramatically turn the tide of a contested battle.
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Having left the series after Samurai Shodown V in 2003, it felt great to take control of these characters again. The speed, the hard-hitting fights, and the attitude is there. The visuals truly pop, giving me a newfound appreciation for a series that had until last year felt all but forgotten. I've only played a handful of fights so it's too early to say whether or not Samurai Shodown will have what it takes to excite casual and competitive fighting game players alike, but it will be tested soon enough.
"People always ask why we brought the series back," said Weatherford, "and as Kuroki always says, it's not just that the community's request via polls was very high, but it's also, even among other fighting games, it has a very different style and a different pace. We felt, with the current trend towards esports, that it could stand out on its own very easily."
The team at SNK won't have to wait long to see how its revival shakes out with fans and pros alike. The new Samurai Shodown is currently scheduled to release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in June (Switch and PC at a later date), and shortly after, it will share the spotlight as one of the nine main games at EVO 2019 in August. That will be a big test, for sure, but having had a taste of what's possible during my demo, I already know it will be one of my most anticipated tournaments when the annual fighting game event kicks off in a few months' time.