When Street Fighter II arrived in arcades in the early '90s and turned the one-on-one fighter into the genre of choice for millions of players, it predictably caused a deluge of copycat clones to flood the market, each offering a slightly different take on the concept. Few of these could hold a candle to Capcom's effort, but one title stood out from the rest not only due to its unique and atmospheric setting but the way it actually played. Samurai Shodown (known as Samurai Spirits in Japan) was the work of SNK's crack developers and former Capcom staff, which perhaps accounted for the incredible leap in quality over its rivals. With a focus on weapons, this was a more methodical fighter, in which victory (or 'Victoly' if you're going by the often amusing 'Engrish' translation work for which the series is famous) could be a matter of a handful of successful blows.
Fast forward to the present day, and Samurai Shodown continues to hold a high level of respect among fighting game aficionados, even if many of them argue that the series saw its zenith with 1994's Samurai Shodown II. After resurrecting its equally popular King of Fighters series in 2.5D, a rejuvenated SNK performed a similar trick with Samurai Shodown, bringing the game to modern consoles last year. Predictably, the Switch has had to wait a little longer, but the good news is that those few months have been totally worth it for fighting game fans. Safari Games – the company responsible for this conversation – has skillfully carried over everything that matters without having to cut too many corners when it comes to performance.
If you've never played a Samurai Shodown game before, a brief introduction is probably in order. While it has things like projectile attacks, combos, super moves and all that jazz, it really is worth stressing that the core gameplay feels very, very different from the likes of Street Fighter V and King of Fighters XIV. The fact that the characters have lethal weapons means that fights are often over as quickly as they have begun; hitting home with a powerful heavy attack is enough to slash away a massive chunk of your opponent's health bar, and, as a result, the game is less about pressing your advantage as it is about playing defensively and waiting for an opening to appear.
Past sequels have tried to tinker with this slow-and-steady approach with varying degrees of success (and the less said about Samurai Shodown Sen, the last mainline update from 2008, the better), so it's pleasing to note that with this update, SNK has utterly nailed what made the series so compelling back in the early '90s. While Samurai Shodown in 2020 obviously looks a lot better than it did back then (more on the visuals in a moment), it 'feels' just as fresh and different now as it did in 1993. Battles have a wonderful ebb and flow to them, with the balance shifting quickly between opponents as they mix up powerful blows with tricky special moves. Knowing that a single mistake could leave you open for a crippling attack from your foe makes every dash, every leap and every attack something you need to consider carefully; few fighting games punish you as dramatically as Samurai Shodown (with the possible exception of Square's underrated Bushido Blade).
Samurai Shodown's controls are relatively simple compared to those of Capcom's Street Fighter II, largely because the Neo Geo only had four action buttons compared to the six seen on Capcom's arcade game. SNK has tweaked things a little here by giving players weak, medium and strong attack strengths, along with a button for kicking – a cheeky move which can often help surprise and unbalance stubborn opponents. Having more granular control over the power of your weapon attacks gives the game additional depth, and this is supplemented by the famous 'Rage Gauge', which can be 'popped' when it's full once per match to make your fighter more potent for a limited period.
In this enhanced state, you'll also be able to unleash the new 'Lightning Blade' attack, which – along with Super Specials (which, again, can only be used once per match) – trigger a cool cinematic animation that calls to mind the eye-popping supers from Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter V. Some of these super-powerful special moves do feel like they unbalance the game slightly – especially when you consider how easy they are to execute – but learning how to deal with them is all part of the challenge.
Of course, fighting games live or die by the selection of characters they offer, and the good news is that Samurai Shodown's somewhat modest cast of 16 fighters offers plenty of variety and challenge, even for veterans of the franchise. It's also worth noting that the three all-new combatants (Darli Dagger, Yashamaru Kurama and Wu-Ruixiang) who rub shoulders with the 13 returning cast members (Charlotte, Earthquake, Galford, Genjuro Kibagami, Hanzo Hattori, Haohmaru, Jubei Yagyu, Kyoshiro Senryo, Nakoruru, Shiki, Tam Tam, Yoshitora Tokugawa and Ukyo Tachibana) are a fairly likeable trio, and SNK is supporting the game with additional characters via a DLC campaign. Hisame Shizumaru from Samurai Shodown III is free, but the other fighters who make up the 'Season One' DLC pack – Rimururu, Kubikiri Basara, Kazuki Kazama and Wan Fu – will cost you real money. We're still not entirely comfortable with the notion of having to pay more cash to access additional characters in a game that already costs quite a large amount, but it would seem that's the way the market has gone now, so moaning about it makes little difference.
Visually, Samurai Shodown is a treat, running at a reasonably smooth 60FPS in both docked and handheld modes. When played in the former, it's incredibly close to the PlayStation 4 version in terms of how things look, although the animation on background elements can be a little choppy compared to the smooth movements of the fighters themselves. Granted, Samuari Shodown doesn't aim for the same graphical complexity as, say, Street Fighter V, but it's still a gorgeous-looking spectacle; we especially like the way each character is covered in brush-strokes which makes them look like they've stepped straight out of a painting from the Sakoku period. Sadly, the visuals do take a noticeable hit when played in handheld mode; the overall resolution plummets and elements of the on-screen UI also degrade quite alarmingly. However, the gameplay remains the same, which is what really counts. Load times are a little longer than we'd like, too, but not so excessive that they ruin your enjoyment.
There's no denying that the core fighting engine for Samurai Shodown is as solid as a rock, and if you've got a local opponent to fight against, then you're in for a treat. Likewise, those of you who love playing online should find plenty of challenge here. The only people who will feel left out in this situation are those who crave a solo challenge, as the game is somewhat lacking when it comes to single-player content. Each character has a unique narrative to uncover in the main 'Story' mode, but there's little to unearth beyond that – unless you're unreasonably excited by the prospect of unlocking videos, artwork and background music, that is. While fighting games, by their very nature, are social affairs that are best enjoyed with a second player, there has been a concerted effort in the genre recently to bulk-up the amount of content for solo players. That hasn't really happened with this update, and that's worth keeping in mind if you plan to play alone more than against other human foes.
It doesn't help that SNK's effort to change this doesn't really work. The 'Dojo' mode sees you facing off against 'Ghost' fighters in what is misleadingly termed 'asynchronous multiplayer'. These are CPU-controlled characters who base their fighting style on those of the player who created them, with the idea being that as you play, the game 'learns' your signature style and applies it to the Ghost in question. It's a neat idea on paper, but we're not entirely convinced it works; even the Ghosts with seemingly high rankings were fairly easy to defeat, with some displaying some rather odd tactics and strategies. SNK might be able to tinker with this aspect a little more to make it more robust, but at the moment, it feels like a failed experiment to us.
While Samurai Shodown has taken a very slight visual hit as part of its protracted journey to Switch, the most important thing is that the core 60FPS gameplay remains intact. The downgrade is most noticeable when playing in handheld mode, but it's still incredibly enjoyable and compelling, especially if you appreciate fighting games that exercise your mind as well as your fingers. The single-player portion of the game is perhaps a little too lacking by 2020 standards and some of the ideas don't work as well as they should (Dojo mode, we're looking at you) but with its appealing cast of fighters, decent multiplayer options and a host of new gameplay ideas to keep things feeling fresh, Samurai Shodown is nonetheless a confident and assured update of a classic fighting game series – and bodes well for SNK's future attempts to resurrect its enviable stable of titles for the modern era.