Final Round. – Bushido Blade

In our Final Round series, we take an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can!
In part 29, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1997’s BUSHIDO BLADE

Year of Release – 1997
Developer – Lightweight
Publisher – Squaresoft, Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms – PlayStation

In the mid-90s, the genre of 3D weapons-based fighting games was not a new concept. Things had already got a kickstart in 1995 with games such as Battle Arena Toshinden and Soul Blade, but they still largely stuck to the well-established features such as life gauges, round systems and OTT special moves.

As fun as these games are, they suspension of disbelief that they require when it comes to the combat systems is pretty high. Slicing at someone with a sword should do way more damage than just knock a bit of health bar off, bashing someone with a sledgehammer should outright destroy an opponent instantly etc. You get the picture.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the “fatal blows” in the (at the time of writing) upcoming Mortal Kombat 11, where they are so brutal and violent that they seem to nerf the intensity of some of the actual fatalities.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a complaint at all. Those moves look insanely fun to pull off and I know that making fighting games more realistic by removing these fantastical features would make for a far more upsetting (and, frankly, less fun) experience for everyone, but there’s always the niggling question in the back of my head; what if a game could heavily strip back these features and still be satisfying as a fighting game experience?

Bushido Blade effectively provides an answer to that question.

Released in 1997, Bushido Blade takes a much more cinematic approach to fighting games, but not in the way that you’d initially think. Instead of the modern, action-packed extravaganzas, the game takes its inspiration from old kung-fu/samurai movies and injects it with a noticeably tragic and dark tone. Elements of fantasy are still here (a cursed sword?), but the focus is squarely on the player’s character trying to escape from a secretive assassin dojo.

The features that we’ve come to know and appreciate in fighting games are nowhere to be found in Bushido Blade. There’s no timers, no life gauges and no mystical special moves. Hell, there’s not even any music during fights either. The game is so minimalist in its gameplay approach that it feels way more like Karate Champ than it does Samurai Shodown, and you know what? It’s incredibly refreshing.

Not only can you kill an opponent with a single well-timed attack, you can also target their limbs and disable them for the rest of a match. The moves are based on whatever stance you take (you can switch between low, neutral and high with the press of one of the shoulder buttons), and the game even gives you the option to progress to the next stage by running away (but you’ll still be pursued by your opponent until they are defeated).

Players can even change the mood of a fight if they’ve been debilitated by a foe. Pressing the select button after having your legs knocked out triggers your player to request their death with honour. Does this do much to stop another player bragging about defeating you? Not really, but it’s a classy little feature that puts a further emphasis on just how different Bushido Blade is to its peers.


Promotional Material & Box Art

The box art for the PAL release is interesting in its selection of characters to highlight, in that there’s actually only two unique fighters here. For some reason, accompanying Red Shadow is Utsusemi in two different outfits. Granted, the game has a small roster (six fighters!), but not to the point where showing off the same fighter twice is a justifiable option. Lazy work!

The NTSC release is a somewhat minimal affair that places its focus on the tools of the trade that you’ll be utilising during a playthrough. It’s much nicer that the PAL version, and it fits remarkably well with the game’s noticeably subdued, hushed vibe.

The TV spot for the game outside of Japan is, well, uncharacteristically daft. Bushido Blade is a pretty serious, often sombre game, so having a stereotypical Japanese swordsmaker comically reveal that he makes kazoos instead of weapons sends all kinds of mixed messages about the title. It’s a more wacky Samurai Shodown/Street Fighter impression than what we actually get in Bushido Blade.


Roster

Despite how the themes, weapons and overall look of the game make it seem like the game is set during the feudal era of Japanese history, Bushido Blade is actually set in the modern day.

Centered around a fictional 500-year old dojo called Meikyokan, the game deals with a society of assassins known as Kage (which roughly translates as “shadow”). These assassins live in the dojo, are sworn to secrecy and were once led by an honourable swordsman called Utsusemi, who lost his position to Hanzaki, another highly skilled member of the dojo, in an intense battle.

Hanzaki gained a great deal of respect as the leader of the Kage, until he discovers a cursed sword known as “Yugiri”. Since this discovery, his personality begins to change and he starts to disregard the honour and traditions that the Kage holds dear to them. When a member of the Kage escapes the confines of the dojo (along with all its secrets), Hanzaki sends several members of the Kage to hunt down and dispose of the defector, under penalty of death.

Players assume the role of the escapee, and certain elements of the story differ depending on which character is chosen.

The game’s playable roster consists of six fighters (and an unlockable secret character)…

Utsusemi

Since his defeat, the former dojo master of Meikyokan has turned his interest towards training students, two in particular being Red Shadow and Tatsumi. When Hanzaki starts abusing his power, Utsusemi decides to take action.

Particularly skilled with the katana and the nodachi, Utsusemi is also armed with a kozuka as his side weapon, which doesn’t do a great deal of damage (and is pretty easy to defend against), but has a long flight distance when it’s been thrown. It’s effectively a deterrent to keep foes at a safe distance while you get into position or decide to retreat.

Tatsumi

Tatsumi is the youngest member of the Meikyokan dojo, and although he isn’t technically a member of the Kage, he has lived among them for the majority of his life. When he decides that he wants to escape the compound, his rookie status when it comes to swordsmanship is well and truly put to the test.

Tatsumi isn’t very powerful, but what he lacks in strength he more than makes up for in agility. He has no sub-weapon of his own, but he does have the ability to pick up an opponent’s and use it against them mid-battle.

His weapons of choice are the saber and, rather interestingly, the sledgehammer. While swinging this blunt instrument of death around is the best way to disable an opponent’s limbs in a fight, it requires an incredibly precise blow to the head to actually achieve a victory with it, and the weaker characters (including Tatsumi) can often fall over and stumble from the momentum of it. A bold, if not risky, strategy to implement for players that simply want to show off.

Red Shadow

Red Shadow is a skilled assassin from Russia who originally joined Kage under the guidance of Utsusemi. Fearing the worst for her master as he makes his way towards the dojo’s deranged leader, she sets out to confront Hanzaki first and put an end to him.

Red Shadow is another extremely quick character, but her attacks have a little more “oomph” behind them than expected. She is equipped with poison-tipped shuriken (that don’t really seem to do any lasting damage effects) as her sub-weapon, and she favours the saber and the longsword as her go-to arsenal.

Mikado

Mikado is a former shrine maiden who found herself living within the ranks of Kage. In an attempt to return to her simpler, more peaceful former life, she attempts to escape the compound.

Mikado’s balance of speed and power makes her an ideal character for newcomers to use as a sort of introduction to the gameplay style of Bushido Blade. Her sub-weapon, the aikuchi, is also one of the best secondary attacks in the whole game, as they are fast, difficult to defend against and do a considerable amount of damage to an opponent (they can even deal a fatal blow under the right circumstances!). Her weapons of choice are the naginata and the nodachi, both of which add a slight advantage in terms of how far her attacks can reach.

Kannuki

An assassin from the Ryukyu Islands, whose entire village was brutally slaughtered by Black Lotus, a fellow member of Kage. After discovering that this heinous attack was by the order of Hanzaki, Kannuki vows to find and kill them both.

As he is the most physically imposing character in the game, Kannuki is the most powerful fighter in Bushido Blade. Taking preference of the heaviest weapons, those being the sledgehammer and the broadsword, and having the ability to throw razor sharp tessen as his sub-weapon, he can do a great deal of damage in no time whatsoever at the cost of slightly reduced speed.

Black Lotus

A longtime member of Kage and a strict follower of the Bushido code, Black Lotus begins to question his loyalty to Hanzaki after he is ordered to massacre the villagers of Kannuki’s hometown, and decides to seek answers.

Much like Mikado, Black Lotus is an excellent starter fighter for newbies to the game thanks to his balanced out strength and agility. He’s pretty fond of using the katana and the rapier as his weapons of choice, and his tanken sub-weapon is pretty maxed out on everything from throw distance to how much damage it causes.

Schuvaltz Katze

Schuvaltz is a hitman that was hired to take out the game’s main characters as a sort of backup plan. Armed with a pistol, Schuvaltz is different to the rest of the roster in that he can only use mid/long ranged attacks. This difference in attack style means that he can effectively hit opponents as they are fleeing, at the cost of having little to no defense whatsoever. Once his legs are damaged, he’s no longer able to fight, ending the match there and then.

He’s also the only playable secret character in Bushido Blade, and unlocking him is quite the undertaking. In order to get Schuvaltz, players must defeat the game’s “Slash” mode on the hardest difficulty setting. Fighting your way through 100 opponents just to unlock an incredibly high risk character that is only available in versus mode may not sound like fun, but his totally unique playing style is worth the effort.

Non-playable characters

Sanzaka

Described as being “in a different league” to the rest of the characters in Bushido Blade‘s roster, this powder-masked warrior is incredibly deadly and wields a naginata that features a blade on each end.

Hokkyuku Tsubame

The second of Bushido Blade‘s hidden fighters is Hokkyuku, a high-ranking female assassin working for Hanzaki.

Her weapon is a modified rapier that retains the speed of the regular version with some extra power added in. She’s also incredibly fast and can use spin attacks to rush down her opponents.

Hanzaki

The final boss of Bushido Blade, Hanzaki utilises “Yugiri” a cursed version of the katana that includes a move that is normally associated with the nodachi.

Kindachi

Next up, we have Kindachi, a silent warrior with a penchant for wearing red armour and uses a modified version of the nodachi.

He can be approached by Red Shadow, Utsusemi and Mikado.

Hongou Takeru

The final hidden (and non-playable) character in Bushido Blade is Hongou, who seems to be a notable enemy of Tatsumi’s and a devoted student of the “Shainto” dojo (we’ll get into that particular tidbit when we arrive at our Final Round entry for Bushido Blade 2 in the future!).

The characters that are able to encounter him are Tatsumi and Black Lotus.


Levels

Bushido Blade‘s fighting locations are spread around the Meiyokan compound, and are satisfyingly varied for the most part. These largely empty arenas range from a beach at sunset, an underground grotto and the dojo itself to a snowy cherry blossom area, a foresty road and a bamboo thicket.

There’s some extra interactivity thrown in for good measure too, as players are able to climb up to different areas of the levels, and even slice through parts of the environment in certain cases (seeing bamboo stalks drop to the floor after being sliced through with a blade is immensely satisfying).


Bonus Round!

The first of Bushido Blade‘s extra modes is POV mode. Much like a similar mode found early in the Tekken series, this allows players to take on a first-person perspective of their chosen character during a fight. It plays surprisingly well and shows off the game’s graphics in an up-close and personal manner, but it’s far from perfect, as it’s difficult to determine what stance you’re currently using, and sidestepping is a bit of a queasy mess.

Despite its imperfect nature, having a mode like this in Bushido Blade makes much more sense than in many other fighting games, due to the game’s slower, more calculated nature. By no means is this an essential feature, but it’s undeniably one that players should check out at least once.

The other extra mode is “Slash Mode”, in which players must choose a character to fight their way through 100 CPU-controlled opponents one after the other, armed only with a katana.

While it sounds like a fantastic prospect in theory, this extended gauntlet match is slightly hit-or-miss when it comes to actually playing through it. The AI of the opponents gets pretty boring only a few victories down the line, and the whole thing generally feels like a bit of a slog to complete properly, but it still feels interesting enough to at least have a go at.


Victory!

Perhaps the most intriguing and innovative part of Bushido Blade is how it implements elements of the real-life Bushido code into its gameplay, essentially punishing people that play the game dishonourably. This unwritten set of rules was incredibly important to samurai, and they were prepared to kill themselves if they ever broke it.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the single player mode. In order to unlock the true endings of the game, players must adhere to a specific set of rules that dictate the way that they should progress through each fight. The game’s manual only alludes to this code, and can easily be overlooked as a simple bit of extra lore to tie things up thematically, but here’s what you need to to (or more accurately, need not to do!)…

That’s right, pretty much everything that you’ve been conditioned to do in traditional fighting games up until this point will actually hinder your progress!

If that wasn’t enough, not only will the game not tell you if you’ve broken the code at any point, it will straight up berate you for playing dishonourably. When you finish a game in this state, the final fight will simply not happen, and a silent black screen with a blunt quote will be displayed before you are sent directly back to the main menu.

Ouch.

Should you manage to stick to the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a character specific ending, showing what happens in the moments following the final showdown with Hanzaki. There are some genuinely upsetting moments here, such as Tatsumi’s revelation that he actually enjoys killing people after having to kill his friends and colleagues in order to survive, and Black Lotus feeling so ashamed about breaking the bushido code that he commits seppuku in order to restore honour to his name.

There are some followup ending movies too, which catch up with the roster some time after the events of the initial escape from the Meikyokan compound. Ranging from Red Shadow’s new role as a Nina Williams-esque military assassin and Kannuki thwarting off some muggers with his blade, to Utsusemi taking a well deserved break in the hot springs and the widow of Black Lotus mourning over a photo of him, these are pretty much exactly what you’d come to expect of a fighting game from this era.


Overall Verdict

GREAT

During an era of 3D fighting games well and truly trying to ride the coat tails of successful titles such as Tekken and Virtua Fighter, Bushido Blade is an incredibly unique (and somewhat underrated) entry in the original PlayStation’s lineup of fighters.

It goes without saying that the game won’t appeal to everyone. It plays at a far slower pace than its peers, requires a much higher level of strategic planning and the realistic “one-hit kill” system will be a shock to the system of players who are mainly accustomed to whittling down life gauges for a few rounds. It still feels refreshingly different, and forces players to truly consider their actions during a fight; something that is almost unheard of in the genre.


Have you played Bushido Blade?
Let us know in the comments below, or send a tweet our way!

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