2D fighters ruled the gaming landscape during the early-to-late ’90s by fostering a new era of competitive gaming that was more intense, personal, and thrilling than trying to bump a stranger’s high score in Ms. Pac-Man. Capcom and Street Fighter II receive the the majority (if not all) of the props for creating the genre, but SNK was also there every step of the way to help push fighting game boundaries. Samurai Shodown was one such series.
Samurai Shodown may not have invented weapon-based fighting — the Commodore 64′s Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior did the same thing years before — but it perfected it. SNK didn’t just create a Neo Geo Street Fighter II clone with swords, however; the gameplay revolved around pokes and counters more so than dazzling combos. I won’t go as far to say that any Samurai Shodown game was a sword fighting simulation (many characters, after all, toss fireballs), but the gameplay was distinct enough to stand on its own.
SNK released a slew of sequels, the vast majority of which stuck with the successful 2D video game formula. Never a company to rest on its laurels, SNK tested the 3D waters with the Samurai Shodown 64 and Samurai Shodown 64: Warrior’s Rage for the Hyper Neo-Geo 64, but no one played them as the arcade scene was on shaky grounds in the late ’90s. And word of mouth says that they are pretty icky, too.
Samurai Shodown Sen… trips, falls, and impales itself on its own dull blade.
Upon powering on this Xbox 360 exclusive, you’re treated to a title screen loaded with excellent 2D, anime-style art that’s reminiscent of past Samurai Shodown games. It’s a blessing and curse, really. Although I appreciate the loveliness of the 2D art, its inclusion makes me wish that the entire games was crafted in that style because the 3D character models are remarkably bland. Not bad, bland. 3D Harumaru, for example, has the same big, spiky hair as 2D Harumaru, but the ‘do looks silly when rendered somewhat realistically. Galford, too, suffers in the transition to 3D; his huskie sidekick only appears as a special move (and in his ending pose) instead of being a trusty sidekick throughout the fight. Weak.
In fact, the entire game suffers the same fate: The 2D games’ vibrant visuals are replaced with muted, dull colors, which causes Samurai Shodown Sen‘s set pieces to be non-memorable (even stages lifted from the 2D games). That’s not to say that there aren’t any advantages in moving from 2D to 3D. Galford’s spinning head-drop grapple looks great, and you can imagine that this is how the developers of the 2D games envisioned the move.
Fortunately, character control and movement are responsive and smooth. Whipping out horizontal slashes (A button), vertical slashes (B button), grabs (Y button), kicks (X button) are easy as a finger tap. Beyond these basic moves, you can whip out a horizontal power slash (RB), vertical power slash (RT), Fatal Flash (QCF + A + B when the life gauge is flashing red), Guard Shatter (LB), and Rage Explosion Move (QCB + B + X when in Rage Mode). The 2D Samurai Shodown titles (outside of Samurai Shodown III) have never been combo-heavy games; they’re all about pokes, deflections, and well-timed heavy attacks. It’s the same here, so 2D Samurai Shodown fans will feel right at home. Handy pivot moves add to the defensive strategy by enabling you to dodge certain attacks instead of blocking them. Players who take the time to learn the system — instead of button-mashing with abandon — engage in several tension-filled matches where precise positioning and attack timing are paramount.
The fighting action in quite solid, but Samurai Shodown Sen loses points for including cheap air juggles. SNK Playmore almost makes up for this blunder with impressive power slashes that do massive damage and can lop off arms and heads. Sadly, these moments aren’t treated with the appropriate flash that you’d expect when you dissect an opponent. A body part simply hits the ground, along with a splattering of blood. No visual effects or special music. This also plays into the overall bland aura that the game radiates.
SNK Playmore provides a wonderful cast of characters to choose from (13 returning fighters, 11 new) that have distinctive combat techniques, so you’ll surely find one that best matches your style. The freshest of these is Kirian, a Spanish bullfighter who specializes in quick pokes and fast movement.
There are plenty of ways to dive into Samurai Shodown Sen: Gameplay modes include Arcade, Story, Survival, Practice, and Online. Two additional boss characters are unlocked upon beating story mode with 12 characters (the gun-wielding Western bad ass Draco) and then with 24 characters (the caped Goba). When I ventured online to play a handful of times, no one was available to play with me, so either the target audience hasn’t purchased the game yet, or prefer to play it offline.
Samurai Shodown Sen doesn’t possess any major gameplay flaws outside of the cheap air-juggles, but overall SNK Playmore didn’t do enough to make certain that the game stands out from the 3D fighting crowd — it’s an all-around bland endeavor. Unless you’re especially enamored with the Samurai Shodown brand, Namco’ Soulcalibur series is still the king of the weapon-based fighter hill.
It’s sad to see a series known for flash and depth reduced to forgettable bargain-bin fodder.
You can buy Samurai Shodown Sen at Amazon for $9.54.