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|[ 06/16/04 ] = To Destroy All Enemies
When Samurai Shodown came out for the SNES, I was ecstatic. The SNK sword-fighting game that I had spent so much time with in arcades had come home to the consumer. With its unique characters and intense gameplay, Samurai Shodown was one of the best fighting games of its time. Having the game on the SNES was nothing short of great. However, upon its release the game was reviewed horribly in an issue of GamePro magazine. The game deserved better. After reading the review, I vowed to someday give it the coverage it deserved. This is that coverage.
For many reasons, Samurai Shodown is one of the top series in the genre of fighting games. As of this writing the series is at Samurai Shodown V Special, and with the continuation of the series every new title is just as good as the last (read very good). Everything has a beginning, and the first Samurai Shodown game built a strong foundation for the series (and fighting games, in general). There are a lot of things that made Samurai Shodown impressive for its time, and the game scores high in all areas. However, more than anything else, the game's unique visuals (unique character design, animation, and presentation) are what distinguishes it from other titles in the genre. Although Capcom was king of 2-D visuals at the time (and still is today) with Street Fighter, SNK's Samurai Shodown was a formidable equal. And while some (not including myself) consider SNK's early Fatal Fury titles to be Street Fighter II knockoffs, anyone who has played Samurai Shodown knows that it was a pioneer title.
Considering when the game was released, SS's character roster is quite impressive. The ninja, samurai, and weapon-wielding oddballs that compose the game's unique roster are of the quality design characteristic of SNK. Plainly put, the character design in this game rocks. The characters have style and personality; Galford is a proud "American ninja" with a pissed-off dog, Ukyo (my role model) is skilled in the ways of the sword and one with the beautiful ladies, Haohmaru is a skilled but arrogant swordsman, Hanzo is the typical mysterious ninja, Earthquake is an overflowing, dirty tub of shit whose humor is only matched by the pink tattered clothing he wears, and Gen-An is an incoherent, filthy hermit. Even though characters like Galford, Hanzo, Ukyo, Earthquake, and Gen-An may steal the show due to their immediate appeal, the fact is that the remainder of the roster looks good, too. From the mysterious Hanzo to the boss, Amakusa, every character is creative and interesting.
Not that other fighters of the time didn't have interesting characters, but SNK's approach in Samurai Shodown was above average. The backdrop of the game is essentially feudal Japan, but its varied cast of characters contains fighters from other regions, as well. One might say that the game's allure comes precisely from how well its character variation matches the theme.
SNK's quality character design is accompanied by impressive visuals. The graphics are some of the best of the 16-bit era; the amount of color and detail SNK put into each character is staggering. Brilliant, intricate patterns can be seen on the clothing of characters like Ukyo and Amakusa, while others, like Galford, Hanzo, Charlotte, and Wan-Fu, are shaded with the utmost care. While it's difficult to say that the animation is better than Capcom fighters of the time (Street Fighter II Turbo, Final Fight 2, Saturday Night Slammasters), it must be said that the characters animate very well. Each character's walking, idle, jumping, attacking, and win animations not only look nice, but reflect the aforementioned individual personalities of the characters. Each fighter attacks gracefully in perfection, as slashes draw blood, leave sparks upon collision, and slice through dead air. The game has to be seen in motion.
By far, Ukyo's animation is the most impressive. With every step, and with every attack, Ukyo animates in the utmost elegance. He doesn't have many Special Moves, but the few that he does have look great in motion. He tosses an apple into the air and slices it neatly into four pieces (while slashing the opponent), while in another he ascends into the air, performs a clockwise crescent slash, and from the fire of his blade a flaming image of a Phoenix emerges. However, while Ukyo is unrivaled in style, he isn't the only character in the game with flashy moves; there are a lot of flashy moves in SS (even normal attacks are flashy). SS was probably the flashiest fighting game of the 16-bit era; moves emit a variety of colorful effects, including bright trails that streak across the screen, as well as a plethora of vertical-ascending waves that light up the screen.
The camera is fixed from afar (which many scoff at), so the characters are smaller than in other fighters of the time (such as SNK's own Fatal Fury 2), but the game's expansive, beautiful backgrounds can be seen in their entirety. Good thing, because the backgrounds in SS are nice, and like the character roster, they are varied and fit each character's persona. All of the backgrounds look good, but some of the more impressive backgrounds include beautifully-animated waves crashing against rocky cliffs, brightly-colored bamboo extending into the sky, sparkling rushing water, and shimmering candles. Some backgrounds are lively, and contain plenty of motion, while others are more simplistic; for example, Galford's stage features a rowdy crowd of bustling sailors and roughnecks, while Hanzo's stage depicts the grim aftermath of war. In its simplicity, the most impressive stage in the game is probably Haohmaru's, which depicts the rocky coast of Japan on a clear day, basking in bright rays of sunlight as waves smash beautifully against a distant cliff. Further off in the distance, a snowcapped mountain can be seen among sparkling water and hills dotted with trees. There is also a night version of the stage, where in place of the sun's bright rays, the illumination of a full moon (partially covered by clouds) can be seen in a dark sky. SS's nice backgrounds are pleasing to the eye.
Many praise the gameplay of the Samurai Shodown series, and with good reason. The game is fun. At the time, it was one of the only weapon fighting games out, and it rocked. It's the type of game that was always occupied at arcades. The fights are calculating, bloody, and intense. Players of all skill-levels can jump in and play, since emphasis isn't placed completely on the usage of Special Moves; even losing at this game is fun! Battles range from sporadic slashing and sparks to well-placed slashes and bloodspill. Also, if both fighters slash at the same time in the heat of battle, their blades lock, they engage, and the player who fails to hit the buttons fast enough loses his/her weapon (but can regain it). SS features that unique SNK feel that delivers. At the time, it was one of the most intense fighters out, and it has stood the test of time.
The visuals (character design, graphics) are great, and the audio is no different. On one hand, the game features a good a mix of resonant traditional Japanese tunes, and on the other, aggressive, hard-rockin' tunes (with nice breakdowns) that get the player pumped. The music sounds good; I don't think there's a single stage in the game that sounds shitty. The sound effects, which consist of various slashes, screams, groans, clangs, and howls, fit the game's theme perfectly. The characters are vocal during battle, and the sound of each slash faithfully brings home every bit of the pain.
Is the game perfect? No, but it comes damn close. The only issue is control, which is barely even worth mentioning. The control seems to be a bit off, and while it's difficult to explain (because most SNK fighters naturally play stiff) why, response seems almost unpredictable. Not that moves never come out, they just don't seem to come out as often as they should (as in Street Fighter II). On another, more positive note, SS contains some of the most goofy dialogue ever seen in a fighting game; some of it is just downright hilarious (and even strange).
Samurai Shodown was one of the best fighters of the 16-bit era. SNK crafted a unique fighting experience that continues to set the standard for 2-D fighters even today. This is one of the games that put SNK on the map.