It's only taken 18 months since Samurai Shodown III for the fourth instalment, Samurai Shodown IV, to reach Virtual Console in Europe. As part of something of a Neo Geo resurgence following King of Fighters '97, Sam Sho IV is another strong addition to VC's fighter library.
SSIV takes the basic three strengths of slash from its predecessor but tightens everything else up after the mixed reaction to SSIII. Aerial blocking is out, a sneaky sidestep dodge replaces the go-behind ability and the rage system has undergone an overhaul, generally balancing it into a more calculated risk. Essentially you can only use your POW gauge once per match, and its length is determined by how much health you have; the later you leave your last-ditch attempt, the longer the gauge will boost your attack and let you perform a range of flashy moves.
Matches in Samurai Shodown always balance on a knife edge and IV is no exception. Faster than the previous game, SSIV dials down the attack power in favour of a more cut-and-thrust approach, with counter hits rewarded over gung-ho swordsmanship. While not all moves survive from SSIII, there are new combos, special attacks and even the ability to toss away your weapon to keep things spicy.
The other major new addition to the single player mode is the time limit imposed; finish within the time limit and you'll see your character's true ending, but fail to reach the castle in time and you'll lose out to your rival for a bad ending. A pre-set number of continues and a fairly stern challenge on the higher difficulty levels should keep even fighting game experts from acing the game on their first try.
While not all characters are created equal — we mean you, Galford — the ability to choose slash and bust (good and evil) versions of each fighter bulks up the roster impressively, with enough intricate differences to make alternate characters feel significantly different. New characters Kazuki and Sougetsu Kazama are a neat summation of this balance: fiery Kazuki and placid Sougetsu reflect the game's pacey back and forth action.
Animation is fluid, with detailed backgrounds and a refreshed palette making a huge jump over SSIII. The zooming in and out might look dated these days, but sprites are pleasingly chunky and full of character; whether it's Jubei slashing a handkerchief or Haohmaru catching his sword in its scabbard, the enigmatic fighters are wonderful personalities. Music enhances the atmosphere too, with slow tense pieces shimmering in the background and metal-on-metal sound effects and voices all coming together.
Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa's Revenge is up there with the best of the series; battles are often delicately balanced, thrilling affairs, with a single slash capable of turning the tide against any opponent. The addition of multiple endings based on your performance, combined with bust and slash versions of every character, give it sizeable single player longevity. A worthy purchase for fight fans.