You certainly can’t accuse SNK Playmore of ignoring its past. Recently we’ve been blessed with the retro-themed duo of King of Fighters Collection and SNK Arcade Classics, and the Japanese veteran is now following up with yet another compilation of top-notch vintage action. Samurai Shodown Anthology contains six slices of weapon-based one-on-one fighting madness and is arguably one of the finest retro assortments we’ve yet seen on the Wii.
The series kicked off on the Neo Geo AES/MVS system way back in 1993; this was a time when Capcom was thrilling arcade goers with its Street Fighter II phenomenon, and while SNK attempted to challenge the champion with the likes of Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown marked something of a departure for the company and some believe it even went as far as to revolutionise the way people approached 2D fighters.
Although the gloriously excessive action was similar to Capcom’s game (combatants could still perform amazing acts such as hurling fireballs at each other, for example) the inclusion of weapons and the pace of the game made it stand out; a few well-timed slashes of your katana could reduce your opponent’s health considerably and the gentle, almost methodical nature of the game rewarded the more thoughtful player. Even the music was at odds with what was usually customary for the genre; soothingly traditional Japanese tunes accompanied the blood-soaked bouts.
The first game was an overnight success and was quickly ported to several different formats. Playing it today reveals that it has lost little of the allure it possessed back in ’93; the sprites look a little basic compared to those in the sequels but this is still a fantastic game. Considering how badly the likes of Street Fighter II have aged, it just shows how far ahead of its time SNK was back then.
The second title is considered by many fans to be the best entry in the series, yet it didn’t get anywhere near as much attention when it was first released. It basically takes the brilliance of the debut title and polishes it; the visuals are improved, the backgrounds are gorgeous and the game engine has additional layers of complexity; you have the ability to roll and dash in and out of the fray, and there’s even the chance to break your opponent’s weapon. Again, playing this today is a humbling experience and the overall package is so beautifully realised that it feels like it could have been published yesterday.
The third game showcases some radical alterations to the core gameplay, including the introduction of the now famous ‘Slash’ and ‘Bust’ system. When selecting your character you can choose between a good (Slash) or evil (Bust) version. This decision results in slightly different special moves, although to be perfectly honest the change is negligible. It’s still a solid entry to the Samurai Shodown legacy but it’s easy to see why it’s commonly ignored; it feels rushed and lacks the consistency found in other versions.
One such version is the fourth game. SNK took the core engine of Samurai Shodown III and plastered over the cracks; the result is one of the finest 2D brawlers available on the Neo Geo, or any other system for that matter. Gore fans will be pleased to learn it’s also the bloodiest entry in the series, and even takes a leaf out of Mortal Kombat’s book by including grisly fatality moves. Other gameplay embellishments are also present, all of which make for an excellent title.
Fans had to wait a while for the fifth instalment, and when it finally arrived in 2003 it wasn’t entirely what they were expecting. Because of SNK’s financial problems around this time, the company farmed out development of many of its key franchises, Samurai Shodown included. Yuki Enterprises produced the game and while it’s a commendable effort, it’s not a patch on the previous entry. The main problem is that the character balance is hopelessly off-target and this ruins the game for serious players. Still, it certainly looks nice and if you’re not interested in competition-level play, it’s fun, too.
The sixth game – which is deemed so special that it is set apart from the other titles in this collection on the main menu screen – marks a fairly radical change for the series. It’s the only game here that didn’t appear on the tried-and-tested AES/MVS hardware, instead being released on Sammy’s Atomiswave arcade board. The result is something of a mixed bag; visually the game has its moments and the backgrounds are impressive, but the sprites are essentially taken from the previous games and end up looking a little suspect when placed against the high-res backdrops, a problem that recurred in Capcom vs SNK 2.
Where Samurai Shodown VI does succeed is in its scope; it’s basically a celebration of the entire series and features pretty much all the fighters you’ve come to know and love over the years.
Aside from a few token bonus features, that’s your lot. Hardcore fans will lament the omission of Samurai Shodown RPG and Samurai Shodown 64, and it would have been nice to include the Neo Geo Pocket Color versions as extras, but even without these games this is still an epic collection for fighting fans to get stuck into. The great thing about this series is that although the game engine improves with each instalment, they’re all still incredibly playable and because the developers haven’t been afraid to tinker with the mechanics of each title, there’s plenty of reason to go back to the first and second game in order to explore the slightly different gameplay.
With SNK’s other fighting collection – King of Fighters – we found there was little reason to play the early entries as they basically played like toned down versions of the later games. Here that isn’t the case and that’s why this is a better compendium all round; it also helps that the Samurai Shodown series has considerable depth and rewards those willing to invest time and effort in perfecting each fighter and exploring the myriad of gameplay possibilities.
Sticking six fighting games from the same franchise on one disc is a risky proposition as there is a good chance people will simply play one game and ignore the rest; thankfully here that shouldn’t be an issue, as practically every title in the Samurai Shodown bloodline is worthy of inspection. If you consider yourself to be a fighting game connoisseur, and you have like-minded friends that enjoy a good digital scrap, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this.