After the first two Samurai Shodown games the third outing was seen as something of a disappointment by hardcore fighting game fans. It removed some of the more popular characters and various movement options available to the player, drastically altering the pace of the game; it also felt half-finished when compared to its polished predecessors. Samurai Shodown IV – originally released in 1996 – was an attempt by SNK to return to the roots of the series and win back its fanbase, and it's fair to say that it was a success in this respect.
If you've never played a Samurai Shodown game before, it's worth pointing out a few basic features. While these are one-on-one fighters in the same vein as Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat and The King of Fighters, the key difference is that the combatants are armed with weapons. This changes the flow of each fight and places a greater emphasis on blocking and countering incoming blows. A round in Samurai Shodown usually consists of plenty of clanging sounds as blade hits blade and each player waits for an opening. Successful attacks often trigger a torrent of blood as the character on the receiving end is thrown backwards; it's fair to say that a single, well-timed strike can turn the tide of a round.
The four buttons control various attack strengths and there are the usual selection of special moves to learn and master. SNK decided to remove mid-air blocking – something introduced in Samurai Shodown III – and this decision makes the game feel a little old-fashioned when compared to other fighters of the time, but lends each bout an additional layer of tension as taking to the air leaves you open to a counter. Other tweaks – such as ditching the go-behind move (where you could quickly outflank your rival) and restricting the use of your "POW" meter to once per round – make this fourth outing feel subtly different from its forerunners. It's also possible to forfeit a round in order to give yourself a full POW gauge in the next – the tactical benefits of which should be obvious. Finally, in a nod to Mortal Kombat, some characters possess "Fatal Slash" moves which serve as gory fatalities.
The "Slash" and "Bust" system makes a return, offering two different versions of each character and extending the longevity of the game considerably. While it's tempting to pass this off as little more than a palette swap, there's much more to it than that, with revised moves making each variant feel unique. The cast sees fan favourites Charlotte, Tam Tam and Jubei Yagyu return from the first game and also includes all of those from the much-maligned third instalment. Siblings Kazuki Kazama and Sogetsu Kazama round things out, but sadly they're not all that memorable. There are some unfortunate omissions – Neinhalt Sieger, we're looking at you – but on the whole there's enough content here to keep you happy for a while.
Presentation-wise, Samurai Shodown IV is a vast improvement over the third entry in the series, which boasted new sprite designs but ended up looking a bit rushed in places. The visuals are much more refined here, with each character sporting a more distinct, cartoon-like look and silky-smooth animation. The backgrounds are also gorgeous, putting to rest the rather drab stages seen in Samurai Shodown III. As ever, the gorgeous music – much of which features traditional Japanese instrumentation – serves as the perfect accompaniment to the on-screen action.
As you might expect, Samurai Shodown IV's focus on local multiplayer makes it ideal for the Switch and its detachable Joy-Cons, although the analogue stick on these controllers isn't ideal for pulling off the intricate moves. A better option would be to invest in the Switch Pro Controller or an 8Bitdo SNES30 pad, the latter of which was recently updated to include support for Nintendo's new console.
While Samurai Shodown IV wasn't the last game in the series, it is considered by some fans to be the best, and with good reason. The weapon-based gameplay is refined after the experiments of the first three outings and roster of fighters is unique and varied; add in the "Slash" and "Bust" variants and you've quite a few combat options to master. All of the Samurai Shodown games boast excellent presentation but this entry truly benefits from the increased storage available on the Neo Geo at the time; smooth animation and plenty of detail in the backgrounds helps to elevate the game above many other 2D releases of the period. While it's easy to grumble about the proliferation of fighting games on SNK's platform, this franchise has always set itself apart thanks to its focus on swords and other weapons, so if you're sick of Street Fighter and can't stand another King of Fighters then this might be just the tonic you need.