Embrace Death – Samurai Shodown Review
Developers: SNK Corporation
Ever since Street Fighter IV made its debut in 2009, the fighting game scene has been going through a second renaissance not seen since the original fighting game boom of the early ’90s that is still going strong today. We have seen almost every major title get a reboot or reimagining in some fashion. From classics like Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs. Capcom to smaller, but still beloved titles like Killer Instinct and King of Fighters. SNK, in particular, has had their ups and downs throughout this second wind. From foregoing video game development altogether to jumping back on the scene with the masterpiece that was King of Fighters XIII to, whatever SNK Heroines was, SNK fans such as myself have had a lot to chew on for quite a few years now.
One title missing from SNK’s comeback tour was the much loved Samurai Shodown. Releasing two years before the other weapons-based fighter Soul Blade, which would later evolve into the Soul Calibur series, in 1993 Samurai Shodown was the polar opposite of Capcom’s Street Fighter, and even their own King of Fighters. Set in feudal Japan, Samurai Shodown had a colorful cast of characters duke it out with weapons that did huge damage, and as a first for 2D fighters, a decent amount of blood and gore. While not nearly as over the top as Mortal Kombat, it was nice to see another with an appropriate amount of bloodshed. They are slashing each with swords after all. Instead of long combos, SamSho focused instead on a patient back and force footsies game where a match could end in as little as two or three hits. SamSho was a hit among fans, but the last mainline entry in the series came out in 2005 with Samurai Shodown VI. Fans had wondered if SamSho would receive the same revival treatment that KoF had, and now in 2019 fans got their wish with the aptly titled “Samurai Shodown”. This new SamSho takes everything that made the originals great while adding modern fighting game concessions that make for a new and refreshing take on a beloved franchise.
Graphically speaking SamSho 2019 is a massive improvement over SNK’s last fighting game outing KoF 14 that, while mechanically sound, lacked the gorgeous visual presentation of its predecessor. SamSho 2019 features a unique, ink-based art style that feels like a mix between Street Fighter 4 and 5, and each character moves and attacks with a fluid grace that is great to look at. The music doesn’t leave much to be desired, but the voice acting is great by the Japanese voice cast making the game feel like an authentic, classic samurai anime or film mixing the aesthetics of Kurosawa and Samurai X. The blood effects also look great, with spatters and spray sticking to characters and their weapons lasting the entire rest of the match.
The mechanics, however, are where SamSho 2019 truly shines. Playing exactly as you remember from the old arcade days, the main focus of the back and forth gameplay is a patient game of footsies as you and your opponent jockey back and forth for positioning. Seeing as each round can end in a flash with such high damage normal moves, one small mistake missed timing, or wrong button press can instantly lose you the game. SamSho 2019 doesn’t have a lot of combos, the most gracious example of what could be called a “combo” in this game usually doesn’t last longer than 3 or 4 hits. With less focus on manual execution, this allows players that feel overwhelmed by the long, extended combos found in other games to feel much easier and focus more on positioning and patience without having to worry about memorizing, much less performing, complicated combos.
This doesn’t mean however that SamSho 2019 isn’t a technical game, not by a longshot. The focus is just placed in different areas. Players have access to several defensive abilities such as Spot Dodges, which let a player dodge an incoming attack if timed properly, acting similarly to parries found in other fighting games. Just Defends are activated by blocking an attack as soon as it connects and allows players access to their Stance Break moves which can knock down an opponent leading to a huge advantage. Counter moves let you stun an opponent, again leaving them at a huge disadvantage, and forces your opponent to not become predictable. Throws also work differently than other games, which instead of dealing damage push the opponent back and can let you land a free hit, albeit with less damage.
SamSho 2019 does have a number of offensive options as well which can lead to flashy and devastating finishers. Taking damage and successfully using Just Defends will fill your rage meter that, when full, puts your character in Max Rage mode which increases the dame of all your normal moves, change the properties of your special moves, and grant you access to your Weapon Flip move. Weapon flip moves let you knock your opponent’s weapon out of their hands. A disarmed opponent can use a Weapon Catch to turn the tide though and will catch the opponent’s weapon and disarm them right back. You can expend your rage meter though to enter rage explosion mode. You retain all the benefits of max rage mode but with the added benefits of extra damage and access to the Lightning Blade technique which can end the match in an instant if timed correctly. If you miss however rage explosion mode will end and you will be left wide open.
The netcode in SamShi 2019 is another highpoint, which works exceptionally well and after hours of playing online with friends and random opponents, I barely experienced any lag or dropped moves. The cast is another great aspect of the game featuring classic returning characters like Haohmaru, Genjuro, and Nakoruru, but also featuring exciting new characters like the pirate girl Darli Dagger, which is one of SNK’s best new character designs in years.
However, SamSho 2019 is not without its faults. Despite having rich, layered gameplay with an arsenal of fun characters, beyond playing online and offline with friends, there isn’t much to do in the game. The game does feature a pretty spectacular training mode though, with the ability to fight ghost data of yourself or other players that you can download. But despite coming just under the price of a full-fledged AAA game at $50, beyond a bare-bones arcade and survival mode, there isn’t much to do outside of just fighting in SamSho 2019. Those looking for a more robust single-player experience similar to something like Mortal Kombat 11 are going to feel disappointed with Samurai Shodown. But for those looking for deep, thoughtful, and fun fighting mechanics, colorful characters, and a solid online experience, fans of the classic games and those looking for something different from the plethora of other fighting games available now will find plenty to love in this incredibly impressive reboot of the beloved franchise.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.