Pick from one of twelve characters, fight one-on-one against the others (and your clone) en-route to a ridiculously-dressed final boss character. Sounds standard fare for a '90s fighting game, but with its 18th century Japan setting and the combatant's use of weapons, Samurai Shodown offered something quite different.
If playing in the 5-minute Caravan mode (one of the standard inclusions with these ACA releases), rushing in and attacking wildly is a potentially useful tactic that could lead to some surprising and quick wins. True, it probably won’t, but with the strict time limit it’s got to be worth a couple of tries. Play the regular arcade mode however, and such foolishness should definitely be avoided as this is a game that rewards patience.
You have to look for an opening before launching your attacks and then make sure you judge it correctly or risk an embarrassing counter-smack to the face. Special moves are available but are often used to nullify the effects of your opponent's special, or force them into a block as part of your battle plan. Other fighting games may see regular use of special moves, but here stringing together a few regular moves can prove to be more useful.
Your basic moves consist of kicks and swings of your weapon; different ones being the most useful depending on the opponent and situation. Come together with your opponent and a tussle of weaponry (and button bashing) ensues that can lead to one or both of you losing your bloodletting implement; panic follows as you scramble to retrieve it. You can punch in the meantime, but a weapon is always more effective. Later instalments would make tweaks and additions to the gameplay such as rolls and parries, but the simpler version that we have here still works surprisingly well.
Complimenting the fighting system is the visual presentation that features detailed sprites and stages; not uncommon for a Neo Geo title. Extra flare is added by a camera that zooms in and out of the action depending on the relative positions of the fighters. This camera system also featured in Art of Fighting, an arguably less successful example of the genre.
There’s some great looking stages included here, such as one that sees waves crashing against rocks or a hill with a rolling red sky; there are some lavishly-decorated interiors to admire, too. The audio adds to the atmosphere with weapon clashes and grunts from the fighting and an excellent soundtrack that includes the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments, giving a relaxed feel that suits the precise and measured gameplay.
This release features the usual ACA extras, so the once controversial blood is just a menu-visit away from activation - or you can play the Japanese “Samurai Spirits” version, if you wish. There’s the usual screen filter options and adjustable difficulty - the latter being most welcome as the game being quite challenging at times. In addition to Caravan mode there’s the one-credit Hi Score mode to see how you compare against players from around the globe, and of course there's local two-player with a friend, which offers a lot of entertainment.
The presentation in Samurai Shodown is so good that it doesn't feel like it has aged all that much; the excellent audio helps immerse you in the setting and the visuals are packed with detail and character. With a focus on patience and its use of weapons, the game has a different feel to your typical one-on-one brawler. Later games would include additions to the fighting system but there's something undeniably appealing about the simpler version offered here. That's not to say it's superior (the sequel is definitely a better game), but this first instalment holds up remarkably well despite the passage of time and is well worth buying, even if you already own the later Samurai Shodown IV, which is already available on the Switch eShop at the time of writing.