SNK became something of a fighting game factory in the early ‘90s, releasing titles like Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury to capitalize on public interest in the genre that had been kick started by a certain 2D fighting title from Cacpom. However, Samurai Showdown (or Samurai Spirits, as it was known in Japan) marked a real change of pace for the company: instead of the typical modern-day setting with white t-shirt wearing thugs throwing fireballs at each other, SNK set their latest epic in the past. The decision was an inspired one.
Widely regarded as the first weapon-based game of its type, Samurai Shodown is set in 18th century Japan. Although it features special moves like any other fighting game, the tone is extremely authentic.
The music is based on traditional Japanese themes and gives the game an almost Zen-like quality at times. The levels are also somewhat restrained, but in a good way – the falling cherry blossom and crashing waves found in some of the stages are the complete opposite of the brash effects of other games of the era.
All this would be enough to make Samurai Showdown stand out against the competition, but SNK wisely decided to back it all up with one of the finest fighting game engines of the day. Weapons clash and blows are deflected, special moves are balanced perfectly and the challenge is considerable. It’s also a more methodical game than its rival, rewarding players who take their time and look for openings before attacking; button bashing will not win fights here.
When it was first released, Samurai Showdown caused concern in America due to the amount of blood it contained. It was subsequently censored when released in the US, sadly removing much of its appeal (not to mention realism – it’s hard to hit someone with a katana and not draw a little blood, after all). Astonishingly, the Virtual Console release has all the gore intact - this should come as quite a shock to anyone who remembers the toned-down version of Mortal Kombat that SNES fans had to endure all those years ago! Nintendo has obviously relaxed its stance!
With Fatal Fury, SNK proved it could compete with Capcom, but with Samurai Showdown it showed it had the talent to surpass its rival. Fans still argue over which game is better – this or Street Fighter 2 – but one thing is for sure, any self-respecting Wii owner should really own both.