It might seem like the fighting game market of the current day is crowded with games looking to stand out, but it’s nothing compared to the early '90s. While Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat ruled the roost, everyone was trying to find a way to set their game apart. Among the competition was SNK’s Samurai Shodown, a weapons-based fighting game that emphasized careful movement, high damage, and rewarding patient, careful reading and reacting to your foe’s attacks--along with some fountains of blood from downed opponents for good measure. Over 25 years later, history is repeating itself as a new Samurai Shodown draws its blade, offering many of the same things that made it great all those years ago--only now it feels even fresher.
The Samurai Shodown series is one of SNK’s most beloved properties, but also among its most inconsistent; the series has had some very high highs (Samurai Shodown II, Samurai Shodown V Special) and extremely low lows (Samurai Shodown III, Samurai Shodown Sen). Thankfully, the developers at SNK have understood the franchise’s mixed legacy, and worked to really focus on what makes Samurai Shodown special in the world of fighting games: the thrill of being in a high-stakes, life-or-death struggle where one wrong step could take you from a comfortable lead to lying on the ground with a sword in your gut.
If you haven’t played Samurai Shodown before, the first thing you’ll notice is the relative simplicity of the game’s controls. You have four attack buttons (three strengths of weapon attacks and a kick), each of which has a very distinct feel when pressed; you’ll really feel the weight of a heavy slash’s slow, powerful arc as opposed to the quick hilt-smash of a light slash. Combinations of the buttons allow you to perform dodges, overhead slashes, and throws and even a special desperation-style mode. Special moves vary for each character, but are almost all easy-to-perform semi-circle, half-circle, and Dragon Punch-style inputs.
Playing around with the various characters and seeing their unique moves and abilities really establishes just how good everything feels to control. The various attack weights feel substantial, and even basic standing, crouching, and dashing moves are a lot of fun to see executed onscreen as blades whoosh around in beautiful arcs--to say nothing of the flashy special moves. Simply doing things with your chosen fighter feels inherently enjoyable, even if you’re just getting the grasp of their moveset.
Pressing buttons mindlessly might feel good, but you’ll soon discover that restraint is of the essence. Samurai Shodown was known in its heyday for extremely high damage, and if you’re coming off other fighting games, you’ll have a bit of a shock once you see how much life a well-placed heavy sword strike can chop off. Strong moves hit hard, and if you leave an opening for your opponent to take advantage of, you can very quickly find your life bar melting like butter in a frying pan under the pressure of their blade. If you try to go in furiously swinging, you’ll likely find yourself left open to a very, very painful counterattack as you’re stuck recovering from that heavy sword slash you just whiffed.
To offset the high damage, there are a lot of defensive options that you can utilize. There’s good old-fashioned high and low blocking, but there’s also a special “Just Defend” block you can execute right as the opponent’s attack is about to hit that will very briefly stun them. There’s also a dodge attack, a universal parry, and multiple means to disarm your foes, leaving them weaponless and at a severe disadvantage. (Be careful, though--some characters are more capable when disarmed than others!) You also have forward/backward recovery when knocked down, allowing you to avoid a lot of pressure when getting up if used well.
The big, flashy attacks and myriad defensive options combine to make a game with a much different focus than most other fighting games currently out there. Rather than mixups and combo strings (you’ll only rarely see double-digit combo hit counts), Samurai Shodown heavily emphasizes pacing, carefully reading and reacting to your opponent, and patiently waiting for the ideal opportunity to capitalize on your foe’s vulnerability. There’s not a lot of complex layered-on systems here, but that doesn’t matter; this isn’t about lengthy combos or executing multiple super attacks, this is about finding out how to make your opponent dead in the most effective way possible.
The core gameplay, great as it is, is only part of a bigger package--one that might be a bit disappointing to those looking for a strong single-player experience. The roster is small in comparison to some other fighters, but it offers a lot of variety. Fans will appreciate seeing old favorite characters like wild-haired samurai Haohmaru, determined Ainu warrior girl Nakoruru, and even somewhat more obscure picks like the multi-sword-wielding Yoshitora and ethereal trickster Shiki. The game also introduces new characters to the franchise: hard-drinking, razor-sharp shipwright Darli Dagger, clumsy but deceptively cunning Wu-Ruixiang, and the bird-themed, aerial-attack-heavy Yashamaru.
The big, flashy attacks and myriad defensive options combine to make a game with a much different focus than most other fighting games currently out there.
But even though there's plenty of characters, the story mode is pretty weak, giving each character only an intro, ending, and few simplistic cutscenes, along with a final boss who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with a lot of the cast. (Said final boss can also be incredibly challenging if you don’t find an AI exploit with your chosen character--the term “SNK Final Boss Syndrome” exists for a reason.) There are training modes, along with gauntlet (fight every character) and survival (fight a bunch of characters on a limited lifebar), but beyond that, you’re going to need to either invite a friend over or hop online to truly enjoy what Samurai Shodown has to offer.
Online play is a cornerstone of modern fighting games, and Samurai Shodown’s online dueling could be described as "pretty okay." The netcode is input-delay-based, so the quality of your online experience will mostly rely on the distance and connection quality of you and your opponent. Ranked mode allows for character switching after matches if you rematch, which is a nice consideration. Lobbies, however, are rather chaotic, forcing you to manually queue to play and spectate each match.
Dojo mode allows you to download a player’s "ghost" data and play against a CPU fighter that mimics their play style--a novel concept. At the time of this writing, however, there’s not much to grab yet, and it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of ghost opponents if you haven’t played them live for a good amount of time. You can play against your own ghosts, which is an interesting experience, but it’s not recommended until you’ve spent a lot of time with a single character and given the game sufficient data.
Samurai Shodown is a great reboot. It captures what made the original fun and unique, but also at a time when high-damage, high-stakes fighters like this are a rarity, making its combat feel both fresh and familiar. Its accessibility and easy-to-grasp gameplay belie a lot of strategic depth that makes for very intense, bloody struggles. While the single-player experience is a bit lacking, it doesn’t drag down the whole significantly--Samurai Shodown is a fighting experience well worth taking up the sword for.