In our Final Round series, we take an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can!
In part 27, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1993’s SAMURAI SHODOWN…
Year of Release – 1993
Developer – SNK
Publisher – SNK
Platforms – Arcade, 3DO, NEO GEO, NEO-GEO CD, Game Boy, Game Gear, Super Nintendo, Sega Mega Drive
In the early 90s, fighting games were fast becoming a saturated market of titles that wanted to mirror the success of either Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat, and many companies were reluctant to stray too far from the formulas that the heavyweight hitters had established. Luckily, one of SNK’s new franchises opted for a slightly different approach than its peers.
Samurai Shodown (known as Samurai Spirits in Japan) was released in 1993, and instead of relying on highly complicated combos, it focused on quick, powerful strikes and a number of interesting gameplay mechanics. It made use of a 4 button layout (light slash, medium slash, light kick, medium kick), particularly strong attacks that connected with foes triggered a slow motion effect, adding more “oomph” behind the strikes, and the ability to dash (and jump back) makes for a much more invigirating 2D fighting game than many that released around the same time.
The basics are all here though, as players fight in a “best of three” match, but there’s also some slightly peculiar features in this area too. During a fight, a referee (known as Kuroko) in the background holds flags to represent each player (whith white representing P1, and red representing P2), and when a player successfully landed a hit, the referee lifts the corresponding flag, letting players know who landed the hit. It’s a neat little design feature that harkens back to the days of Karate Champ, and gives Samurai Shodown an extra bit of depth.
Not only is there a referee hanging around in the background, but a more “involved” character also shows up occasionally during fights. This delivery man will often run around and chuck items into the player’s way ranging from bombs that cause damage to people in the vicinity and coins/gems that boost a player’s score, to food items that replenish a player’s health (in true “beat ’em up” fashion). This character, known as Hikyaku, can often hold the key to significantly changing the outcome of a fight at any given moment.
Both Kuroko and Hikyaku are eclusively playable on the game’s Game Boy port.
In addition to being one of the first 2D fighting games to primarily focus on weapons-based combat, Samurai Shodown was also one of the first to include a special gauge that gives stat improvements to fighters. Also known as the “POW Gauge”, Samurai Shodown‘s “Rage Gauge” system gives each player a special meter at the bottom of the screen that fills as a player takes damage or blocks attacks. Once this meter is maxed out, the player enters a “RAGE EXPLOSION” state, which sees the fighter turn red and all their attacks see a significant increase in strength until the meter depletes.
This feature can be an absolute life-saver when trying to get through some of the tougher fights, and can pretty much turn a match completely around in a player’s favour in mere seconds.
The game also uses a refined version of the camera zoom that was first introduced in Art Of Fighting, giving players a much better look at their surroundings. It still pixelates the fighters substantially, but at this point, it’s still an improvement.
The other unique gameplay system that Samurai Shodown implements is the “Locking Swords System”. This feature kicks in when both fighters come into close combat and try to use a powerful weapon attack at the same time, triggering a quicktime event that requires the fighters to quickly mash the light slash button. The faster player is the victor, and the loser is disarmed, knocking their weapon to the floor (similar to what you can do to Vega’s claw in Street Fighter II).
Losing your weapon leaves you in a state where your offense is reduced to simple bare-handed attacks, which, for obvious reasons, are far less powerful than usual. Luckily, retrieving a dropped weapon is pretty easy, as it requires just a single press of medium slash at the weapon’s location. Double disarm is possible too, which sees both fighters lose their weapons at the same time, making for a frantic rush to get back into the fight properly.
Lost your blade? Then there’s a specific technique available to you here. Weapon-less fighters now have a move called the “barehanded sword snag”, which can stop an enemy’s attacks without taking any damage. This early mix of blocking and parrying is both impressive and effective during battle, but it requires pinpoint precision to actually pull off.
Another important aspect of Samurai Shodown is the amount of violence that it contains. It’s a game with razor sharp blades, and not much armour in sight, so winning a fight with powerful weapon strikes can result in one of a duo of claret-splattered outcomes; a jet of blood literally spraying out from the defeated foe, or the foe being sliced in half in mid-air, sometimes dropping score-boosting items. It’s hilariously satisfying to see an opponent who’s been especially tricky in battle pause for a moment and watch their blood spray out of their body like a scene from movies such as Shogun Assassin.
The controversy surrounding the amount of bloody violence in fighting games was still a hot topic upon Samurai Shodown‘s release, with the previous year’s most notorious release, Mortal Kombat, still garnering headlines about its content. Due to this, SNK made the decision to censor the game for many platforms. The colour of the blood in the game was changed from red to white, fatal attack animations were completely removed, and each characters win quotes were altered to make no references to blood or death.
Promotional Material & Box Art
The arcade flyers for Samurai Shodown don’t stray too far from the formula of the marketing seen in 2D fighters of the era, but it does show off some gorgeous artwork from Toshiaki Mori (known to fans as Shinkiro, and created many of the most iconic SNK game artworks), refers to Akamusa as “Satan’s Shogun” (
hell. yes. *sick metal riff*) and gives us a brief look at each member of the game’s roster.
The other European arcade flyer for the game focuses more on the controls and mechanics, such as the Rage Gauge, the items that Hikyaku drops during battle and the locking swords sytem. It also highlights the fact that a couple of the characters in the game have companion animals too (it’s great to see Poppy and Mamahaha get the recognition they deserve).
The promotional material for the Japanese release shows off a more cartoonish art-style, and packs in way more information about the game into its pages. It also includes many of the special moves that are usually revealed during the games “CONTINUE?” screen. Handy!
Prior to its release, a number of TV commercials aired to hype the game up. Using the same traditional music and sound effects that you’d associate with this era of Japanese history, it’s a much classier approach to fighting game marketing than some of its peers.
Samurai Shodown is set in the year 1788, during a time where the world is plunged into chaos, with outbreaks of war, plagues and strange phenomena are quickly becoming more and more widespread across the land. Watching from the shadows, and fully appreciating the turmoil and panic that has engulfed the world, a man who had once been killed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, unleashes his ethereal and mysterious forces in an attempt to lead the world to total ruin.
However, even during these trying times, there was still a group of warriors (each with their own motivations and beliefs) that dared to battle their way through the insanity in attempt to find the source of the evil.
The game’s playable roster consists of twelve fighters, each with their own distinct fighting styles and backgrounds.
Based on the legendary Myamoto Musashi (a duelist who is said to have never lost a match) and visually modelled off of Hyakkimaru from the Dororo series (a manga & anime series from the 1960s), Haohmaru’s fighting style is heavily focused on high-power sword attacks. He can also deflect oncoming projectile attacks with his trusty
saké jug, and can launch strong whirlwinds from his sword swipes to stop players in their tracks.
A miko from the Ainu region who vows to continue her father’s traditions in fighting to protect Mother Nature.
Fighting with a kodachi, and accompanied by a hawk named Mamahaha, Nakoruru’s range and attack power is pretty small, but is more than made up for by her immense speed. Her recovery from being attacked is slightly better than the rest of the game’s roster too, meaning that she is more than ideal for players who want to implement a “hit and run” gameplan!.
As an interesting side note, a chibi-fied version of Nakoruru, alongside Final Fight‘s Terry Bogard, is (or was, at the least) also a mascot for SNK’s social action programs, which informs children in Japan about nature awareness.
Apparently Nakoruru’s popularity with players was something of a surprise to the developers, and she quickly became a much more important aspect of the Samurai Shodown series later on.
An ailing swordsman who has dedicated himself to searching for the perfect flower for his one true love, Kei (despite having several women constantly chasing him for his affection).
Based on the famed swordsman Sasaki Kojiro, and Goemon Ishikawa XIII from the Lupin III manga series, Ukyo is one of the slower fighters in the game, ultimately making him a defensive character. He can unsheath his sword quicker than anyone else in Samurai Shodown, and has a unique move where he tosses an apple to divert an opponent’s attention, only to quickly slash through it before it hits the ground, devastating anyone in his way.
This is also the only game in which Ukyo is considered to be the direct rival of Haohmaru.
A powerful general from the Qing dynasty, who upon hearing that several of the world’s greatest warriors are starting to gather together in battle, starts seeking to recruit each of them for the unification of China.
Wan-fu is armed with a dao, and is incredibly quick to anger. He is unique in that he can throw his weapon as a projectile that explodes upon impact. This may sound like it puts him at a disadvantage, but it’s one of the most effective methods of keeping an opponent at a distance where many of their attacks just won’t connect, giving players a few more moments to come up with a strategy.
A renowned and powerful hero from the fictional location of Green Hell, who vows to retrieve a sacred magical artifact that was stolen from his village – the Palenke Stone – by any means necessary.
Tam Tam is a revered warrior with excellent reach and some of the quickest light attacks out of all the fighters in the game. He can also breath fire, and launch some spooky skulls as projectile weapons too, making him a bit of a nightmare to get close to without taking heaps of damage.
Charlotte Christine Colde
A noblewoman fencer from Versailles who, whilst on her travels through the French countryside, discovers a “series of calamaties” that don’t seem to have any natural explanation. So she decides to head to Japan and fights to save her country from the approaching evil.
Based on Oscar François de Jarjayes from the manga series The Rose Of Versailles, Charlotte’s fighting style is heavily based on fencing, requiring her to perform multiple attacks at a distance. She can deliver a handful of slashes at any given time, launch projectiles and charge her sword up with powerful energy.
Galford D. Weiler
An American sailor-turned-ninja, and self appointed “Super hero” who fights in the name of justice. Accompanied by his pet husky, Poppy, and carrying the bullet that killed his father with him, he seeks to uphold his father’s dying wish to “become strong”.
Accompanied by his trusty husky named Poppy, Galford retains an optimistic, lighthearted attitude. His fighting style, however, is not to be taken lightly though, as he can teleport, create mirror images of himself to confuse his opponents and throw deadly kunai at foes.
A master in the art of kabuki who wishes to strengthen his dances through acts of violent swordplay, and aims to establish a truly “beautiful fighting art”.
Kyoshiro has a couple of different weapons in his arsenal; a deadly spear and a set of fans. He’s a tricky fighter that’s pretty effective at all ranges, being able to reach further with the spear, blowing fire from his mouth, and suckering in foes with some close-ranged assaults.
True to the nature of his Kabuki background, he’s one of the most dramatic and eccentric fighters in the game, especially when it comes to his win quotes.
An American ninja dropout turned bandit, who takes full advantage of the chaos surrounding him by pledging to steal all of the world’s treasure.
Samurai Shodown‘s bruiser fighter has a reach that is unparalleled, as his kusarigama can reach across the screen with little to no effort whatsoever. He’s one of the most powerful fighters in the game, but this strength comes at the cost of speed. His size is also an issue at times as well, especially if he misses an attack, he can quickly become an incredibly easy target.
The mightiest of the Iga ninja clan, Hanzo serves the Tokugawa shogunate, leading his band of highly trained ninja to assassinate the government’s enemies and detractors.
Hanzo shares a fighting style with Galford, but his attitude couldn’t be more different, as he’s a cold, condescendingly serious man. He uses shurikens as projectile weapons, has an array of fire attacks at his disposal and can turn invisible at will.
A ronin that was hired by the Tokugawa Shogunate to execute the demonic presences that roam Japan in the wake of Amakusa’s destructive plans.
Using a real life fighting style, Yagyū Shinkage-ryū, Jubei fights in a similar fashion to Haohmaru, but is more powerful (and somewhat slower). His “Rising Sword Charge” is one of my favourite moves in the entire game, as he charges towards his opponent, dishes out several hits of melee damage, then launches up into the air, bringing down his sword to deal heavy weapon damage.
An eccentric member of the mysterious Shiranui clan, Gen-An follows what is known as “the way of darkness”. His main purpose throughout this tournament is to become more evil.
This impish fighter is the strangest character in the game. Everything from his goblin-like appearance to his ability to spit poisonous clouds of mist, ability to crawl and shed his skin to create a dummy version of himself just confuses, which is an effective strategy.
Shiro Tokisada Akamasu
The final boss of Samurai Shodown. Many years ago, Akamasu was slain by the armies of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and has since being revived by the demon Ambrosia, has festered a burning hatred for the clan. As repayment for his new chance at life, he devotes himself to the resurrection of Ambrosia.
Amakusa’s fighting style revolves heavily around attacking opponents with a levitating orb. In addition to this, he can launch fireballs in the shape of a demon, teleport around the stage, and if players manage to get close to him, he can administer multiple powerful slaps to annihilate your life gauge in mere seconds.
Samurai Shodown‘s stages are a vivid mix of locations, ranging from Incan temple waterfalls, a Texan desert and an ornate french castle to a variety of waterside areas, a pirate-filled dock and a dark cave. There’s plenty to look at here, and the fact that the items in the foreground can be destroyed with strikes adds a nice layer of interactivity too.
As Samurai Shodown focuses on weapon-based combat, the game’s bonus round is appropriately sword-heavy. Players must slash through as many straw dummies as they possibly can while a timer runs down. If all the scarecrow-esque figures are cut down before the timer hits zero, the player wins a heap of points to add to their high score.
It’s a simple, yet much needed little breather from the intense battles in the main game, but is over with so quickly that it doesn’t really leave as much of an impact as I’d hoped it would.
The character endings in Samurai Shodown vary between the serious (Hanzo considering committing seppuku, Charlotte returning to France to lead a revolution), the overly dramatic (Gen-An shunning a lover’s advance, Kyoshiro’s kabuki performance) and the teasing (a couple of these endings tease what was to come next in the series).
Some endings are stronger than others, but it’s all in good fun regardless.
Samurai Shodown is a fantastic start to the franchise, and makes good use of its many influences (both real life and literary) and gameplay mechanics to provide an exciting, innovative fighting experience for players who were looking for something a little bit different to the multitude of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat clones at the time.
It’s a real challenge at times, and could have done with a bit more extra content to further its potential as one of the all-time greats, but the uncensored arcade version is still one of the most essential games in any fighting game fan’s collection.
Have you played Samurai Shodown?
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