First and foremost, I’ll give it to you straight up: Samurai Shodown is a nostalgia game.
If you’re someone who ever loved Samurai Shodown back in the day, someone who has fond memories of landing Haohmaru’s heavy slash at maximum rage on an opponent for a counter hit and massive damage, followed by a perfectly anticipated counter-kogetsuzan against their desperate, flailing attempt at a counterattack, resulting in a dramatic hitstop, pause, and screen-filling blood spray, you really need to understand that this game was made for you. YOU, specifically.
It doesn’t matter whether you no longer play video games, you feel you no longer have the skill to compete, or you are neck-deep in the fighting game community and feel you have matured past the simplicity of older games; this game was quite literally made for those who will experience nostalgia while playing the game….
…arguably to the detriment of everyone else.
Nostalgia as blessing and curse.
Samurai Shodown goes to great lengths to capture the feeling of the original game, and to update it to modern aesthetics. The graphics are gorgeous, the music is not merely reminiscent of the original, but extremely pleasing to the ear, as well. Right from the intro, an updated version of the original introduction to Samurai Shodown one on the Neo Geo, you’ll find yourself transported back in time, to a simpler time, experiencing the familiar sights, sounds, and thrills of Shodown’s tense, methodical, and intermittently explosive battles.
However, it doesn’t do this the way 2009’s famous, and also nostalgia-fuelled resurrector of the (at that time, quite dead) fighting game genre, Street fighter 4 did. That game pulled on the heartstrings of the nostalgic, but took major steps towards creating a new, hybrid experience that attempted to take the best parts of Street Fighter’s main successors, and create a game that would feel new even to those who had stuck with the genre through the dark times.
Samurai shodown takes a different route; casting aside anything that could remotely come close to complicating the raw core of the experience. Features found in later Samurai Shodown games are indeed present- but this experience by no means feels like one from 2019. And this is where those who are merely curious, might be advised to be a little bit cautious in their approach.
Samurai Shodown is, by nature, a subdued, stripped down, but extremely intense experience. Much of the action goes on in your head (and that of your opponent), and as a result, not a lot can appear to be happening on the screen. This is quite different from more modern experiences, which are characterised by constant on-screen aggression, combos, brutal punishes and non-stop pressure.
It’s a good idea to go online, watch a few tutorial videos so you understand enough of the “rules” of the game to appreciate it’s more quiet moments, and then head off to twitch.tv or youtube to watch competent gameplay in order to be absolutely sure the action is for you.
Because, that is absolutely the key to the experience: you must enjoy the action, as it is the absolute core of the game. Furthermore, just like the visuals and audio, every flawless attribute of the action is one in service of nostalgia, and not modern fighting game norms.
Bells and Whistles
So we’ve established the essential nature of the game. However there are more questions- such as, is it value for money? In 2016, Capcom released Street fighter V with a solid gameplay core and almost nothing else- several characters were missing, the game had almost no single player content, and its’ online features were unpolished. This has become the standard example of just why simply having a strong combat engine at a game’s core is not enough to make it worth buying. So how does Samurai Shodown measure up?
Thankfully, it isn’t quite as bad as street fighter V. Sadly, however, it isn’t as complete a package as Mortal Kombat 11; this is yet another reason why it is extremely important to be certain you are either in the nostalgia camp, or you are really sure you are into the fighting system itself, because the game leans hard on these two features.Samurai Shodown’s content boils down to three categories: online battles, the dojo, and story mode.
Story mode is not exhaustive, but it’s serviceable; the game is extremely light in story, choosing instead to focus on atmosphere: the narrative featured in the story mode is neither interesting, engaging nor deep, but it performs a very clear function: supporting the games’ traditional Japanese aesthetic.
It features a powerful and challenging boss who embodies this aesthetic, a few cutscenes that support this aesthetic, and a “collect them all” type goal featuring simple prologues and epilogues for each of the games’ 16 characters. It features difficult CPU AI which will not truly exploit the game system to its maximum (as the game is all about conditioning the opponent and making reads, the CPU will neither test nor train these aspects of gameplay) but will serve as a good sparring partner for those interested in honing their reflexes and muscle memory in preparation for online battles. In other words, it is not non-existent, but should not be the reason you buy the game.
The Dojo mode is one aspect of the game that I haven’t fully explored. On paper, it sounds great: the game will observe your style, creating a “ghost” AI of you and sending it into the wild to fight other players. You will have the opportunity to fight other players’ ghosts- essentially granting you an unlimited supply of challenging opponents to fight without needing to actually be online and find opponents. I am not certain the AI will be able to mimic a human to the extent that you’d be able to play the same sort of mind games against it that you would against a human opponent, but the truth is, my primary problem with the mode; the fact that fighting ghosts is not really a structured activity, and has no real goal beyond the “10, 50 and 100 man kumite” activities, means that even if this feature is well implemented, I’m not convinced it has been exploited to its’ full potential.
This leaves us with the Online mode. Now at this point, I’ll ask for a bit of a pause- you may have heard that Samurai Shodown has “terrible” online. This is objectively not true; with a good internet connection, Samurai Shodown works well online. However, this games’ online gameplay is not perfect for the following reasons.
First of all, the game features an outdated “input delay” based system, foregoing the more modern “rollback” based systems for an unknown reason. This is unfortunate, as it means online gameplay is a hit or miss affair- a higher latency can mean the gameplay is significantly different from offline gameplay.
Secondly, the game’s online population density is not as heavy as that of games such as Street fighter or Tekken. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, as enough people are playing the game as at July 2019 to mean wait times are not terrible, but it does introduce a problem which is:
The ELO system.
ELO systems are not a problem by themselves-Street fighter V has survived for 3 years with no other structure to its online ranked play beyond such a system. Getting to Master rank on SFV is such a journey, that it provides Street fighter players with years’ worth of motivation to play. However, this is supported by the fact that Street fighter has a very high active population, with ranks spread across the spectrum. An unproven game like Samurai Shodown unfortunately cannot depend solely on such a system, as the ranks will inevitably be skewed.
Apparently understanding this problem, SNK has allowed players to rematch each other indefinitely, and to search for opponents of random rank, which completely invalidates the ELO system in exchange for allowing players to hold onto good opponents with good connections when they find them.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I am one of those with nostalgia for Samurai Shodown, and as a result, I am its target market. I absolutely love the fighting engine, and at this point I can safely say I have a ton of fun every time I play. However, the middling-to-mediocre nature of the rest of the package cannot be ignored. I’m not sure how long I will be able to stay motivated to play considering the ranks are broken, the ghost AI is underused, and the story mode is treated as a bit of extra flavour, rather than the main course.
I see the primary motivation for my continued interest in the game being nothing more than a personal desire to seek out the next human opponent online and test myself against them in a long set of matches, completely ignoring the online ranking system. I cannot guarantee that this motivation will hold true for every player out there, but if this sounds like your cup of tea, if the way of bushido is so strong in your heart that you yearn for the opportunity to challenge others who feel the same way in single combat on the battlefield, then I will be waiting for you online, sword in hand, and together we will embrace the way of the Samurai.
Verdict: Strongly recommended for Nostalgic reasons, cautiously recommended to fighting game fans.