When I was growing up, there were always two games I’d play in the arcade: Soul Edge and Samurai Shodown. I was good at both – really good. Every Saturday morning, my parents would take me to the casino bowling alley here in Vegas, give us a handful of quarters and send us on our way. My brothers and I would take turns fighting the computer, thinking we were hot stuff since we could get through the arcade mode on just a few quarters. This is our Samurai Shodown review.
Fast forward to 2019 and I honestly felt the latest installment of Samurai Shodown would make me feel the same way. I could not have been more wrong. Samurai Shodown is a great mix of fundamentals-focused, highly stylized gameplay that simply never gets old no matter how many times the wrong spacing leads to a round-losing punish.
Years of getting lazy in fighting games made my first few games in Samurai Shodown a frustrating mess. I kept trying to attack Samurai Shodown like any other game – rushing and trying to string together combos. It was quickly made apparent that Shodown is slow, deliberate and deadly.
Samurai Shodown thrives on fundamentals. I mentioned previously it’s deliberate: that’s a good thing. This isn’t a game where you’ll string together 20 hit combos on the regular. Samurai Shodown is instead a game where you’ll constantly be fighting for spacing, setting up the perfect counter attack. Each attack has the potential to close out games, causing tons of damage, making some rounds last only four or five swings of a weapon before the end of the round.
It’s this adherence to fundamentals that makes Samurai Shodown so thrilling. Each round is tense as you never truly know if the next strike you land will be the last. Samurai Shodown has the bog-standard Light, Medium and Heavy Slash, as well as a kick to land attacks. Each character in Shodown’s varied roster boasts unique playstyles, strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the mysterious Shiki is great at closing distances and dealing death in a myriad of slashs from her dual daggers, whereas Darli swings a saw-tooth form shifting knife, dealing devastation with a single swing.
Each round is a tense staredown of your opponent, feeling out the neutral space and figuring out which player is going to strike first. If you don’t solidly connect your attack you can pretty much guarantee a punishing counter is on the way. This type of gameplay exists in other fighting games such as Street Fighter V Arcade Edition, but it isn’t nearly as pronounced as it is in Shodown. As a result, Samurai Shodown feels wholly distinct in the genre.
Samurai Shodown’s simple button scheme doesn’t mean that the game lacks in complexity, either. SamSho includes multiple ways to defend yourself from attacks, such as perfectly timed blocks which can be followed up quickly with a punish. You can also disarm your opponent, leaving them rushing to get their weapon back. Some fighters are just as versatile without their weapon, such as Galford who still has his Wolf pet and fireballs he can toss. Others, such as Darli, are just as dangerous without her weapon as she is with.
Each fighter also has a Rage meter which builds every time you are hit by an enemy attack. When your rage gauge is full, you have access to a weapon flipping technique which deals a ton of damage but also disarms your opponent. Additionally, you can activate your Rage meter at any time, powering up your attacks for a brief period with the tradeoff of losing access to the Rage meter for the rest of the match. Additionally, each character has a super special attack they can perform, dealing devastating damage and oftentimes closing out a round, but like the Rage meter, it can only be used once per round. Knowing when to use these techniques is simply another aspect to the game of chess you and your opponent plays as you dance around the battleground.
Samurai Shodown includes multiple versus modes such as a time trial and gauntlet mode, but it’s the story mode that impressed me the most. While the final boss is a bit frustrating to beat because it ignores all the rules the game has conditioned you to follow throughout the eight or so rounds to get to that point, it’s completely worth blasting through with a character or two purely for the beautifully crafted cutscenes and hand-painted backgrounds. In fact, Samurai Shodown is one of the most visually appealing games I’ve played in quite a long time – the vibrant use of color is unmatched in fighting games today. The soundtrack also helps set the tone of Edo-period Japan thanks to its liberal use of Shakuhachi and other traditional Japanese instruments. The whole game has the appeal of a Kurosawa Samurai-flick, and that’s definitely never going to be a bad thing.
Where Samurai Shodown falls flat is its tutorial mode. There isn’t an individualized tutorial to teach how to play each character as you’ll find in other fighting games. Additionally, the main tutorial feels skinny, and while it does teach some of the important fundamentals, there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the fundamentals which make Samurai Shodown as solid as it is.
And it’s that focus on fundamentals that makes Samurai Shodown both great for FGC novices and veterans alike – though I’m sure the former will get frustrated early on. The fact that Shodown is so focused on fundamentals will make anyone who spends the time to master them competent at any other fighting game they venture into. I just wish the training mode did a better job teaching the importance of neutral space, footsies and punishing your opponents.