It might seem like the fighting game market of the current day is crowded with games looking to stand out, but its nothing compared to the early '90s. While Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat ruled the roost, everyone was trying to find a way to set their game apart. Among the competition was SNKs Samurai Shodown, a weapons-based fighting game that emphasized careful movement, high damage, and rewarding patient, careful reading and reacting to your foes attacks–along with some fountains of blood from downed opponents for good measure. Over 25 years later, history is repeating itself as a new Samurai Shodown draws its blade, offering many of the same things that made it great all those years ago–only now it feels even fresher.
The Samurai Shodown series is one of SNKs most beloved properties, but also among its most inconsistent; the series has had some very high highs (Samurai Shodown II, Samurai Shodown V Special) and extremely low lows (Samurai Shodown III, Samurai Shodown Sen). Thankfully, the developers at SNK have understood the franchises mixed legacy, and worked to really focus on what makes Samurai Shodown special in the world of fighting games: the thrill of being in a high-stakes, life-or-death struggle where one wrong step could take you from a comfortable lead to lying on the ground with a sword in your gut.
If you havent played Samurai Shodown before, the first thing youll notice is the relative simplicity of the games controls. You have four attack buttons (three strengths of weapon attacks and a kick), each of which has a very distinct feel when pressed; youll really feel the weight of a heavy slashs slow, powerful arc as opposed to the quick hilt-smash of a light slash. Combinations of the buttons allow you to perform dodges, overhead slashes, and throws and even a special desperation-style mode. Special moves vary for each character, but are almost all easy-to-perform semi-circle, half-circle, and Dragon Punch-style inputs.
Playing around with the various characters and seeing their unique moves and abilities really establishes just how good everything feels to control. The various attack weights feel substantial, and even basic standing, crouching, and dashing moves are a lot of fun to see executed onscreen as blades whoosh around in beautiful arcs–to say nothing of the flashy special moves. Simply doing things with your chosen fighter feels inherently enjoyable, even if youre just getting the grasp of their moveset.
Pressing buttons mindlessly might feel good, but youll soon discover that restraint is of the essence. Samurai Shodown was known in its heyday for extremely high damage, and if youre coming off other fighting games, youll have a bit of a shock once you see how much life a well-placed heavy sword strike can chop off. Strong moves hit hard, and if you leave an opening for your opponent to take advantage of, you can very quickly find your life bar melting like butter in a frying pan under the pressure of their blade. If you try to go in furiously swinging, youll likely find yourself left open to a very, very painful counterattack as youre stuck recovering from that heavy sword slash you just whiffed.
To offset the high damage, there are a lot of defensive options that you can utilize. Theres good old-fashioned high and low blocking, but theres also a special “Just Defend” block you can execute right as the opponents attack is about to hit that will very briefly stun them. Theres also a dodge attack, a universal parry, and multiple means to disarm your foes, leaving them weaponless and at a severe disadvantage. (Be careful, though–some characters are more capable when disarmed than others!) You also have forward/backward recovery when knocked down, allowing you to avoid a lot of pressure when getting up if used well.