Samurai Shodown Review — Fighting My Way Back
SNK's return to Samurai Shodown proves to be one of the best fighters this generation with unique gameplay and a gorgeous art style.
Fighting games have come a long way since games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat 3 helped revolutionize the genre. Between Mortal Kombat 11, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Tekken 7, we are in a sort of renaissance for the genre, as I can confidently say the aforementioned are some of the best fighting games of all time.
SNK’s return to its long-running series, Samurai Shodown, continues this notion with its exceptional gameplay and beautiful art style despite the lack of compelling content.
Unlike its counterparts, Samurai Shodown isn’t about memorizing a set of complicated combos. Since every hit packs a big punch (or cut, I guess), victory is dictated by how well you can place singular hits and block incoming attacks. Because of its deliberate gameplay, it is the antithesis of games like Dragon Ball FighterZ or Mortal Kombat 11. Matches are at a much slower pace with every move having purpose. That isn’t to say DBFZ and MK11 don’t exude strategic gameplay, because they do. Samurai Shodown just gives you more time to think in the moment because of its plodding nature while most fighting games require you to think on the fly.
Controlling each fighter isn’t unlike anything you’ve played before. Each character has a light, medium, heavy, and kick attack, as well as a few special moves. Light attacks are weaker, but are typically safe on block while heavy attacks are incredibly strong but are unsafe on block. Special moves are also broken into light/medium/heavy versions sharing the same characteristics as the aforementioned basic attacks.
The familiar and simplistic controls are part of Samurai Shodown’s appeal. Having never played a single entry in the series, I was able to wrap my head around its gameplay fairly easily. As seen in the video above, I had some trouble at first, but once I figured out the basics, I was able to defeat CPUs with ease.
Further exemplifying that newcomer appeal is the special move inputs. For the most part, each character’s special move inputs are exactly the same. So, whether you’re playing as Charlotte or Haohmaru, the prompts are exactly the same. There is a sense of comfort here that makes you want to check out each and every character because you don’t have to memorize each fighter’s unique inputs and combos.
Just because the vast majority of Samurai Shodown is so user-friendly doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the same intricacies as other fighting games have. Below each of the fighters is a meter; as the meter fills, your attacks become stronger. Typically, you want to try building the meter by successfully hitting or blocking your opponent before you then go for some of the more damaging moves when the meter is filled.
You can also disarm your opponent with a special disarm move. This takes away much of the damage you or your opponent can inflict turning one’s strategy on its head. It almost becomes like a game of keep away where the opponent hovers over the weapon so you can’t grab it. Moments like this give each match some unpredictability and excitement that you don’t really see in other fighters. It’s a huge moment if someone can pull off a disarm and it certainly changes the tide of battle in the process.
Additionally, there are two types of super special moves that can only be done once per match. The red background special move is pretty easy to execute. When you press in the left trigger, you go into a sort of super state with a meter at the bottom of the screen slowly depleting. Pressing the left trigger a second time will have your fighter quickly dash across the screen to do some serious damage. The faster you execute this special move, the more damage you do. The second super special move requires you to do a pretty lengthy input that leaves you wide open if you don’t time it right. However, if you do manage to pull it off, it does a crazy amount of damage, almost ensuring victory.
Using these super special moves are very high risk. They can be blocked or avoided leaving you wide open. Also, whether you hit the opponent or not, you will lose that super special move for the duration of the match. If you manage to pull them off, the reward is incredibly beneficial as it typically takes off more of your opponent’s health. They are meant to be finishers and should be used as such. It’s just another layer of gameplay that adds more strategy to what seems like a pretty simple fighter.
If there is one complaint I had to make about Samurai Shodown’s gameplay, it’s that the inputs for special moves were a bit touchy. I never really had trouble doing the basic forward/back, quarter-circle moves; it was the yellow background super special moves and disarms that I had the most trouble with. I will say that it seems more like an error on my part rather than the game but I felt that the timing was pretty slow in comparison to other fighting games, which continues to throw me off. It was hard to reliably try to do some of the special moves, leaving me too wide open. Luckily, I was only playing against CPUs.
Featuring such an engaging and unique fighting system, Samurai Shodown is worth every penny, especially if you’re just in it to play online or against friends. However, in terms of how content-rich the package is, there’s not a lot. There is a fairly cut-and-dry story mode set between the very first Samurai Shodown and Samurai Shodown V, but it’s pretty standard in terms of fighting game stories. You play against a few fighters, and eventually, a boss that presents a bit of a challenge.
My problem with the boss fight – this extends to just about every fighting game – is that it doesn’t adhere to the rules of engagement established in the fights that preceded it. It breaks those rules making it more annoying rather than a worthy challenge. The story mode does help with testing the skills of players fresh off the tutorial, but it is definitely not the reason to play this game.
Speaking of tutorials, the one present in Samurai Shodown is nice for anyone wanting to learn the basics. Outside of that, you’ll have to get in the lab and test out your own strategies. Personally, I wish more tutorials were more in-depth. A great example is Mortal Kombat 11’s which not only teaches you the basics, but also the terminology that is applicable to all fighting games. That being said, I’ve found the tutorial in Samurai Shodown to be a nice tool if I’m confused about how specific systems in the game work.
The most noticeable facet of the game has to be the art direction. Like a traditional Japanese painting come to life, the character and environment designs are stunning. The red and yellow background super special moves give Samurai Shodown that extra flair to make it one of the most stylish modern fighting games. It will certainly stand out in the fighting game community not just for its gameplay but its beautiful art style.
Back during PAX East 2019, I said I was more excited for Samurai Shodown than any other fighting game this year. I am happy SNK brought their A-game with the newest iteration in this long-running series. Samurai Shodown is one of the best and most unique fighting games this generation, hands down. It may not be brimming with varied content, but the gameplay alone will keep you wanting more.