Samurai Shodown reinvigorated the famed series’ staccato pacing and defensive play, with stylishly drawn characters and backdrops. Now, the title has been given a re-release that delivers 120 frame-per-second output on now-gen consoles and capable displays, alongside a host of balancing tweaks.
Platform: Xbox One S/X, previously released on PlayStation 4, Switch, and PC
Publisher: SNK Corporation
Release date: March 15th, 2021
Price: $59.99 via physical or digital media
Availability: Microsoft Store
Although Street Fighter II (1991) inspired a legion of melee-driven, combo-centric fighters, it was 1993’s Samurai Shodown that established precedent for weapon-based games. SNK’s title undoubted drew inspiration from kenjutsu (traditional swordsmanship) but also decades of chambara (sword fighting movies). Revisit the Lone Wolf and Cub series or Lady Snowblood (1973) and you’ll discover brooding confrontations ended by a single, lightning-quick katana swing. Often, the maneuver was accompanied by a delightfully exaggerated crimson arterial spray.
Delve into the recent Xbox Series S/X release of Samurai Shodown and you’ll find the title rekindling these longstanding qualities. Whereas franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat let you pummel opponents with a volley of kicks and punches, Shodown forces you to play like the protagonist of a samurai film, studiously observing your opponent, before capitalizing on their imprudence. Flubbed attacks in most fighting games are frequent. With Shodown, a simple mistake can end up with an adversary siphoning away a quarter of your health bar.
Weapons with Weight
As such, you must play methodically, often feigning and waiting until opponents can’t resist the bait. Sure, fighting game novices will find Samurai Shodown mysteriously inviting. Each character has a light, medium, heavy, as well as a kick attack and an inventory of special moves. Learn to be deliberate and strike hard, and you’ll be rewarded with a splash of your opponent’s blood and a fracztion of their life, a penalty for inattentiveness. But Shodown can also be a confidence builder, letting you thrash lower-level, CPU-driven rivals. Like most of its contemporaries, the concluding boss battle wants to teach you a lesson in humility through or at least the value of exploiting a cheap attack ad Infinium. That’s one tradition that SNK needs to end.
But that’s not to say apprentices will be able to hack up veterans when they go online or complete locally. Shodown has always favored defensive approaches and this iteration is no different. Pros will not only make use of standing and crouching guards but will use employ the game’s “Just Defense”, with a well-timed block resulting in a brief stun. Let an expert in too close, and they’ll likely execute a Guard Break, which as the name implies dismantles defenses. Now, Shodown has added a Guard Crush, adding the gentlest nudge when facing a persistently guarding opponent.
Turning Friends into Blood Fountains
Skilled Shodowners can dodge, parry, and once their rage meter has maxed out, can disarm an opponent. Undoubtedly, these are highlights of matches, with unarmed, disadvantaged competitors lingering over their weapon, hoping for an opportunity to pick it back up. Despite being exceeding vulnerable, with no access to specials and an arsenal of weak punches, there’s a perilous maneuver called a Blade Catch. Land this and the tides will turn, sending your de-armed opponent soaring across the screen. A new tweak ensures that off-screen weapons aren’t completely lost.
Another risky but potentially lethal maneuver is the Lightning Blade. Trigger this, and in true cinematic fashion, the screen darkens before revealing a blade flash. Opponents with less than half of their health will be turned in a bloody geyser. While the prospect of an instant defeat might seem abhorrent to fighting game fans, it certainly adds tension to the end of matches.
A Diverse Roster with the Scourge of DLC
The decision to use ‘season passes’ to generate additional revenue tragically feels like convention for the fighting game genre. When Shodown was first released, SNK created two twenty-dollar packages that each contributed four characters, or players could opt for a piece-meal approach for six-dollar combatants.
Now, there’s a third season, ratcheting up the price for completionists. Purchase this premium-priced re-release and you’ll encounter an odd marketing choice that shirks parity. While the physical edition arrives with the first season pass and Cham Cham, the digital version lacks these accompaniments. Ideally, the publisher would have offered more of a conventional ‘Complete Edition’ that assembles all of the available content into an all-inclusive bundle. So, prepare to open your wallet for the second and third season passes if you want a comprehensive roster. Or wait and hope for the best.
On the upside, there’s a healthy number of SamSho favorites in the base game, from the wild-maned Haohmaru, the lumbering Earthquake, and good old Galford with his trusty sidekick, Poppy. While two characters has yet to be revealed in the third season pass, Genan Shiranui’s absence is noticeable. Sure, he’s been missing as a playable since SamSho II, but who doesn’t love frustrating another player with a capricious combatant? Another issue is that the game confines it’s DLC characters to a separate screen, requiring an extra button press during selection.
A Dearth of Single-Player Depth
Although complaining about the character select screen might seem petty, a few other faults are irrefutable. Sadly, Samurai Shodown doesn’t keep up with its contemporaries when it comes to fleshed-out single-player content. Story mode recalls the kind of pithy storytelling from older fighting games, with occasional bits of exposition separating the component from Battle mode. The game’s Dojo is promising, building AI for asynchronous from opponent or even your own behaviors. But in execution, collecting opponent data is a bit too slow.
For those seeking challenge from a real-life combatant, the game’s online component is functional. At present, matchmaking is a painfully slow process, possibly given the size of the active audience. While I was able to locate a challenger or two on re-release day, it was evident that Xbox S/X owners weren’t seizing the opportunity afforded by the Smart Delivery upgrade.
Shodown opts for delay-based netcode, which means online matches can appear to have sporadic slowdown, especially across large geographic distances. But given the game’s tendency for staccato pacing, it’s far more bearable than most fighting games.
Cleaving through Adversaries at 120FPS
Given the presence of a display that offers a refresh frame of 120hz, Samurai Shodown’s retrofitting is a respectable effort. Here, each character responded instantaneously to each command and after hours of play, a single waver in framerate wasn’t noticed. The new trade-off is that you can’t install the game on external storage, which is dubious decision on Microsoft’s part, as there are scant different in load times between the internal drive and external SSDs.
Given this requirement, it would have been pleasing to see a reduction in pre-match load times using the Series S/X’s internal NVMe SSD. As it stands, the intervals hover around 8-11 seconds, which isn’t a deal breaker, but lacks the velocity you might expect after a barrage of now-gen marketing boasts.
those who don’t own Microsoft’s new machine will still see some balancing chances. Besides tweaks to each character, the biggest change is the inclusion of a Guard Crush mechanic. When I first heard about the inclusion, it was a bit skeptical. After all, one of the franchise’s key distinctions is the importance of defensive play. But given that your guard meter decreases over time and crushes are only accomplished through a Standing Heavy Slash, it seems that turtlers are the only ones who will be punished. But as always, it’s difficulty to predict if an anomaly will be found by professionals.
Samurai Shodown uses the Unreal Engine 4 to depict its skirmishes. The engine allows characters and backdrops to be delivered in a detailed, painterly quality, that references Hokusai’s ukiyo-e prints. Although the visuals aren’t groundbreaking, details like the accumulation of blood splatters on combatants and exaggerated weapon trails are quite eye-pleasing. Sonically, the franchise has often used traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi, shamisen, and taiko. This reboot has the occasional guitar riff, but also some triumphant melodies that merge the old and new.
From The Last Blade, Ninja Masters, WeaponLord, Guilty Gear, Bushido Blade, and Soul Calibur, nearly every weapon-based fighter has drawn inspiration from Samurai Shodown. While SNK’s franchise has had its missteps, this reboot demonstrates the series on the mend. The main problem is rooted in the selling of season passes. Undoubtedly, the re-release of Samurai Shodown would have shone had the game accumulated of its downloadable content. Given, this undistinguished re-issue, I’d expect the game’s online community to continue to be modestly sized.
Samurai Shodown was played on Xbox Series X with review code provided by the publisher.