If you’ve ever wanted to get into fighting games, but the sheer amount of homework involved has been putting you off, it’s time to check out Samurai Shodown.
The latest game in the series, the 2019 reboot, got an FPS-boosted port for the Xbox Series X earlier this year and will finally hit Steam later this month. It’s a back-to-basics sort of game, trimming out a lot of the later-installment craziness from the original series (and adding some back in as DLC) in favor of a stripped-down approach that’s easy to pick up.
More importantly, it’s one of the single best entry-level games in the genre right now. Samurai Shodown is fast, simple, and lethal, which forces players to learn and rely on the basics in order to survive. If you’re looking for a good quick way to pick up some of the intangible elements of intermediate to high-level fighting game play, like mindgames, spacing, and baiting out attacks, Samurai Shodown is one of the best games out there.
Sword Murder for Beginners
A lot of Americans haven’t heard of Samurai Shodown (“SamSho”) at all. It was one of the franchises that put SNK on the map, alongside Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, King of Fighters, and Metal Slug, and like all SNK franchises, it never quite took off in North America.
SamSho is explicitly set in a dark fantasy version of 18th-century Japan, during the Tokugawa shogunate’s isolationist period, with a lineup of characters that are often based on various historical figures and folk heroes. The face of the franchise, the wandering ronin Haohmaru, is a take-off on Miyamoto Musashi, while its most frequently recurring villain, Amakusa, is an evil version of the teenager who led the Shimabara Rebellion.
The original SamSho, in 1993, was one of the first fighting games to feature weapons-based combat, rather than pure martial arts. It also had a unique camera system, which was great at catching your eye from across the arcade, which would zoom in and out based on the fighters’ proximity. Sadly, that feature was omitted in many home ports, such as the Genesis version.
More importantly, SamSho moves faster than many of its contemporaries, running off a simple principle: getting hit with a sword hurts, and will often kill you.
Even in the original game, SamSho was more about decisive strikes than combo moves. Fighters bleed heavily when hit, and if they’re knocked out with a heavy slash, might get cut in half. Combined with the somber music and backgrounds, it’s a profoundly darker experience than most of the other fighting games of its period.
This was a surprise to me, because the Samurai Shodown I remembered was actually kind of goofy. I went back through the first five games with the recent Samurai Shodown Neo Geo Collection, just to refresh my memory, and it was a surprising experience.
Granted, SamSho does not, as a rule, put a high priority on historical accuracy or consistency of tone. This is the series where some of its mainstays include Rimururu the manic pixie ice girl, a goofy American ninja with a wolf sidekick, and a kabuki fighter who likes to feed people to his giant frog. There is some goofiness baked into the series from the jump.
What confused me back in the day was the games’ scripts. SNK really did not get the hang of the English language until around 2016, so most of its earlier games are littered with linguistic nonsense. In Fatal Fury or Art of Fighting, it runs the range from stilted to adorably backwards, like Geese Howard calling people “the pin-headed son of an ice cream maker.” It’s funny, but not a deal-breaker.
With Samurai Shodown, however, that same translation turns the entire experience on its head. The somber music and downbeat visuals are meant to lend a feeling of drama to every match, but the English script for the first five games undercuts it by making all the characters speak like Valley girls with concussions. SNK essentially made its own gag dub, and it’s made the early Samurai Shodowns a fascinating tonal misfire for almost 30 years.
That isn’t the case with 2019’s Samurai Shodown. It’s a back-to-basics sort of game, which removes most of the goofier characters (albeit to later add them as DLC), emphasizes its most violent aspects, and most crucially, has a much stronger translation than any of the older games ever did. It’s the first new game in the series for 12 years, and the first 2D game since 2005’s Samurai Shodown VI.
If I had to pick an older game for comparison to SamSho ’19, it’s 1996’s Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa’s Revenge (below). Even for its series, SSIV is a game of rocket tag; most of the roster has at least one “touch of death” combo, where a practiced player can kill an opponent in a single string of attacks, and many special moves can inflict 25% damage off a raw hit. Make one mistake, and you’re pulp.
SamSho ’19 isn’t quite that bad, but it’s unique in that it flips the script for modern fighting games. While its characters do have the genre-standard assortment of super and special moves, such as gap closers, projectiles, teleports, and what-have-you, many of them do surprisingly little damage on a raw hit.
What really hurts in SamSho ’19 are standard attacks. It’s not uncommon for a character’s basic standing heavy slash, done with one button, to inflict 20% damage or more. If it’s a successful counterattack, it gets a significant additional boost.
As a trade-off, however, those hits also leave you open for a crucial split-second if they miss or get blocked. If you just try to button-mash your way through SamSho ’19, any opponent with half a brain will murder you in seconds. To consistently win, you have to learn how to bait out attacks, create openings, and anticipate your opponent’s actions.
This is true of any fighting game, but most of SamSho ’19’s contemporaries also have a steep learning curve. To competently play something like Street Fighter V or Mortal Kombat 11, your first hurdle is simple execution. It’s only once that’s second nature that you can start to learn things like mindgames.
With Samurai Shodown, execution definitely plays a role, particularly if you want to pick up a more technical character like Gongsun Li or Wu-Ruixiang, but there isn’t that much to execute. Characters have a relative handful of special moves each, and their inputs have been simplified from the pretzel motions of ’90s SamSho. It’s much easier to get up to speed here.
That, in turn, makes SamSho a brutal but useful way to practice fundamentals. Because you can get so much done with basic attacks, it sets you up to learn the tactical side of fighting games in a way that more complicated fighters can’t match. You can skip past a lot of the learning process and jump straight into cutting fools in half.
All the Second Chances
The learning curve on modern fighting games has been a known issue for a while. Many of the top players in the fighting game community are people who’ve been playing for decades, and the scene seems to get older every year.
There are a few other games that are trying to bridge that gap, like Fantasy Strike and Divekick, but to my mind, the biggest point in SamSho ’19’s favor, and the best reason to pick it up, is its accessibility. It might be the best entry-level fighting game in the AAA space right now.
It’s gone out of its way to be a well-kept secret, though. Since its debut, SamSho ’19 has been ducking the spotlight so consistently that it almost appears deliberate. It came out of the box with balance issues—of the top 8 players in its tournament at Evolution 2019, 4 of them, including the winner, were using Genjuro—and still runs on old-fashioned delay-based netcode. While the game itself is great, it shipped with two strikes against its longterm appeal… and then its PC version was an Epic Games Store exclusive for a year.
(…and now its long-awaited Steam port is coming out three days after the debut of Guilty Gear Strive. I’m choosing not to dwell on that.)
Now that it’s on Xbox and it’s coming to Steam, however, it’s got yet another shot at glory. Samurai Shodown 2019 was already a soft reboot for the franchise, but since then, its publication history has been a Russian nesting doll of consecutive second chances.
Samurai Shodown has always deserved a larger audience in America than it ever got, and its latest entry is one of the best games yet for fighting-game newcomers. If you’ve slept on it for the last two years, now is as good a time as any to jump in.