Played on Xbox Series X
A Classic Returns
Many people outside the fighting game community won’t know this, but Samurai Showdown (aka Samurai Spirits in Japan, aka SamSho) is almost just as old as other classic fighting game franchises. While it may not have the name and brand power of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or King of Fighters, it has always been a revered series which differentiated itself due to taking the weapon based combat route. While SoulCalibur has since stolen much of the weapon based combat limelight, Samurai Showdown remained fairly consistent in it’s convictions before taking a hiatus after the less than stellar 2008 release…Samurai Showdown Sen. But in 2019 SNK brought the franchise back with a…prequel reboot(?) of sorts with the aptly named Samurai Showdown. But in March this year, the 2019 release got a Series X|S update with somewhat of a “re-brand” if you will, named Samurai Showdown Special Edition. It should be worth mentioning, the Special Edition of Samurai Showdown is a physical release only which includes the Season 1 Pass. Digitally you can only buy the standard base game, which then received a Series X|S Smart Delivery update.
What’s old is new again
Samurai Showdown as I alluded to earlier was always unique in it’s genre – particularly back in 1993 when it released, even amongst it’s cousins within the SNK stable of fighters, mostly due to it’s weapon based combat. But how does it fair in 2021 in a genre that is equally as crowded if not more so? Surprisingly well I must say. In sticking vehemently to it’s roots, SamSho manages to still differentiate itself from other fighters on the market by being a far more methodical, strategic and defensively minded fighting game. I have to admit up front, I haven’t played a Samurai Showdown game since the original back in 1993 in the arcades (and on the god tier Neo Geo), so this was an adjustment for me coming from Street Fighter V and Killer Instinct. I had to re-learn a lot of the game and really force myself to stop trying to play the game like I do SF and KI. While most fighters these days have a focus on fluid, combo heavy combat, SamSho eschews that trend by slowing right down and forcing a more tactical battle of wits between yourself and your opponent.
Having played so many fighting games between 1993 and now, I couldn’t help but feel like SamSho – while unique, has all these various elements from different fighters. Or should I say almost elements. What do I mean by that? Allow me to explain. As an example, Samurai Showdown is quite violent and bloody, you can even dismember your opponent, yet it doesn’t go all the way in the same way Mortal Kombat does. As strange as this sounds, the gore is more, subtle. There’s also an underlying counter system, but again, it’s more dialed back as opposed to being as in depth and in your face as Killer Instinct’s counter system.
The Rage system also makes it’s return which was first in the original game. A meter that build as you get hit (effectively, it’s an “I’m getting pissed off” meter) and when unleashed, your character has a “Rage explosion” that knocks your opponent back, all your attacks deal extra damage and time stops around you. While no longer a “new” feature (many fighters have since implemented similar systems) It’s a welcome return that adds an extra layer to an already very methodical combat system.
I also appreciated the game’s focus on a streamlined set of moves and special attacks. Look up the command list of almost any fighting game these days and you’ll be bombarded with a staggering array of specials, command moves, supers etc. SamSho strips that all back, but still almost demands you learn all it’s moves and systems thoroughly as it simply won’t allow you to get away with button mashing like so many other fighters do. I encourage anyone who plays to run through the tutorial (it’s quite simple and quick) and even take part in some practice. The tutorial/practice mode also has a really neat throw back to the original game where you have a referee overseeing the fight.
Samurai Showdown is a game set in 18th century Japan and this is a theme that is intrinsically linked into every piece that makes up the game. From the water colour brush strokes that permeate through the games menu screens, down to the Japanese narrator who calls out the title in it’s Japanese name “Samurai Spirits” despite Samurai Showdown being the title you see on screen.
The game is beautiful and on the Series X|S runs at a ridiculously smooth 120 frames per second, which one could argue meshes well with the games flowing aesthetic. I will say that it does share some visual elements with Street Fighter IV. A game which also adopted the almost cel shaded, hand drawn visual style with ink trails and a light “sketch work” that makes up part of the each characters render. It looks stunning and is a real showcase of the sort of variety Unreal Engine 4 can pull off. Even the backdrops are clean, free of visual clutter and show a variety of environments despite the limitation of being set in one country.
In keeping with the setting and period of the game, the music and audio also evokes the same feelings of tranquility that are synonymous with Japanese themes in most media.
Sometimes old needs to be new
The only real let down of the package – and for many it may be a deal breaker, is the lack of modes and the depth of the modes available. In this area, Samurai Showdown sticks a little too much to it’s arcade roots. Offering very little outside the basics. You have Story which is your very minimal cut scene/intro, bunch of battles, end in a boss fight, another cut scene affair. If you’re looking for something on the level of Mortal Kombat, you won’t find it here.
You also have Practice, which speaks for itself, Battle mode, which contains your standard local PvP, PvC matches, Survival and Time Trial Modes. Although it should be pointed out, the Battle menu does contain one mode which I personally hadn’t seen in a fighter before which was Gauntlet mode. Although really it’s just a spin on Survival except you simply have to beat every character in the game.
There was also the Dojo, which is the asynchronous online battle mode. In other words, ghost battles. Similar to Killer Instinct’s Shadow mode, the game will learn your fighting style and you can either fight against your own ghost or other people’s ghosts. The only issue is, the ghosts don’t seem to fight as well as I’ve experienced in other games and most just repeat 2-3 moves over and over.
Unfortunately I couldn’t manage to get into an online match no matter long I waited. I don’t know whether to chalk that up to my time zone not aligning with others around the world not being awake and playing or the game’s online scene just being flat out dead. Either way I didn’t get a chance put it through it’s paces online to see where it held up against the gold standard in Killer Instinct.
Now, in isolation, this lack of depth in the game’s modes isn’t a huge issue, but when combined with the game’s asking price (for Australians that would be $89.95 for a 2019 release) it might be a bitter pill to swallow.
A welcome return
If you can look past the scarcity of modes and the anemic nature of the ones on offer, Samurai Showdown Special Edition is a fantastic return of a beloved fighting game franchise. It’s a refreshing option for those who might want a break or palate cleanser from the combo heavy and more bombastic fighting games that are more prevalent in the scene today.
Visually stunning and yet another showcase for the Xbox Series of console’s ability to play games at 120 frames per second.
But if the price point is a touch steep for what’s on offer here, I’d still recommend it on sale for fans of the genre. Samurai Showdown die hards in particular won’t be disappointed.