2D fighting games have grown into something of a niche genre these days, having both ditched the simplicity and straightforwardness of the Street Fighters of yore, and simultaneously sticking to tradition as their contemporaries moved into 3D. They are something of a contradiction in the present-day gaming world as a result, and that’s just fine for the fanatically loyal fans who play them until their thumbs bleed. Samurai Shodown V, the latest in the series and the only one thus far to hit the Xbox, is one of these 2D fighters, from SNK, one of the last bastions of 2D fighting. While Samurai Shodown V will satisfy the hardest of the hardcore 2D fighting crowd, especially diehard fans of the series, it has flaws that may turn away the rest of us. Even some 2D fighting game fans may shirk it for others in the genre of better quality.
Samurai Shodown V continues the story…well, continue probably isn’t the right word. As is the case with most 2D fighting game series, the story usually isn’t important, at least to many of the fans who love these games. The story in this edition of the series is as follows – there is a feudal warlord in Japan by the name of Gaoh who wants to unite the whole country under his domination. With demons and other nasty consorts at his side, he may just have the power to do it. In keeping with Samurai Shodown tradition, series favorites such as Nakoruru, Galford, Haohmaru, Hanzo, etc. somehow get suckered in, and thus have to take Gaoh down. Some new faces show up to fight as well, such as the scantily-clad (as usual for female fighting game characters) archer Mina, the cannibalistic demon Kusaregedou who happens to take up half of whatever screen he’s on, and the six-sword wielding Yoshitora. In total, there are 26 characters, the largest number in any Samurai Shodown game. However, the number is artificially inflated by the introduction of clone characters, these clones being the “bust” incarnations of already established characters. (In previous Samurai Shodown games, starting with II, each character had two selectable states – “slash” or “bust,” essentially speed vs. power.) A bit of CaPCom’s influence has seeped into the Samurai Shodown universe, for better or for worse.
That being said, there’s still plenty to differentiate Samurai Shodown V from other 2D fighting games out there, owing mainly to the traditional Samurai Shodown formula that’s the game series’ hallmark, which thankfully hasn’t been faithfully duplicated in other games. Samurai Shodown has the usual button trappings of other SNK fighting games, with three strengths of attack and a button dedicated to certain moves, and many special moves use variations on Street Fighter quarter-circle and Dragon Punch-style movements, but that’s where the similarities end. Samurai Shodown, in an attempt to mimic the real life historical samurai fights it seeks to emulate, is all about the counter – finding that exact moment when your opponent lets down his guard, usually during an attack, to strike. To this end, Samurai Shodown is slower and more methodically paced than other 2D fighters, and if you time it right, regular attacks can be just as damaging, if not more so, than special moves. Extra damage is awarded when striking an opponent during or immediately after they pull off an attack or move, and it’s displayed on screen in a percentage. Granted, the characters, moves, story (or lack thereof), and overall art style are hardly realistic, but at least this emphasis on finding the right moment to strike and countering give it more of a historical samurai fight feeling than most weapons-based fighting games.
However, this unique style also comes with a steep learning curve. In order to truly master the game and be able to compete with the best of them, you need to not only know each character’s regular and special moves, but also meticulously study their frames of animation. It’s only then that one can find recovery frames, where the character is recovering his or her regular stance after an attack, those few split seconds where a strike would be at its most damaging. Then one has to learn which moves each character can do are cancelable, i.e. can be stopped mid-attack, so one can play one’s chosen character with minimum chance of being caught by surprise. Immense technical knowledge of the workings of the inner guts of 2D fighting games is required to be a competitive fighter in Samurai Shodown V, and it will be daunting for many. Adding such moves as the Rage Explosion, where your fighter’s Rage bar is increased and maxed for a short time before disappearing completely, and the rather esoteric (and not all that useful) Concentration One attack which slows down your opponent, put the learning curve way out of the league of all but the most hardened 2D fighting game vets.
Unfortunately, certain design decisions and gameplay flaws will hamper one’s progress of learning Samurai Shodown V even more. Amongst these flaws is character imbalance, especially with some of the new additions. One of these new additions, Sanjuro, can summon a minion to hold you in place while he dashes backwards and eats a life bar-restoring food item. With Mina, the aforementioned busty archer, her basic slash attacks fire arrows from her bow, and she has a special move that allows her to jump to the other side of the screen, allowing her to keep her distance under almost any circumstance. Furthermore, some of the characters, such as fleet-footed Nakoruru, just seem to be unable to do very much damage at all, even when they play by the rules of the Samurai Shodown V fighting formula and counter attacks perfectly. This lack of offensive power when countering significantly reduces these characters’ chance for survival, as being speedy in motion doesn’t seem to count for much in this methodical game. Both of these things add up to maddening frustrations when playing the single-player game, as the AI loves to severely punish players, not play fairly, and give them absolutely no quarter, even at the lower difficulty levels. I know single-player AI hasn’t exactly been the best in any 2D fighting game, as it’s extremely hard to program AI to be both fair and challenging in a 2D fighting environment. Still, Samurai Shodown V’s AI is especially frustrating, given the already steep learning curve of the game’s unique fighting style, making poor practice for multiplayer. The lack of unlockables for completing any single-player character’s storyline, sometimes unresponsive controls, and iffy hit detection does not help matters either.
Thankfully, though, where single-player fails to deliver, multiplayer, especially over Xbox Live, becomes the saving grace of Samurai Shodown V. With Xbox Live, one can best enjoy Samurai Shodown V due to the fact that one’s more likely to find players equal to one’s own skill level. The aforementioned character imbalance can still be a problem, though, especially if one’s unlucky enough to find a player who likes to cheese (repeat over and over) powerful moves. The best feature of Xbox Live play in Samurai Shodown V, however, comes in the form of the ability to set up online tournaments. These tournaments are elimination bracket style, and can hold up to a whopping 128 players. If you ever get into such a tournament, be sure to pack a lunch. Without a doubt, Xbox Live is the best way to play and enjoy Samurai Shodown V.
Graphically, Samurai Shodown V on the Xbox is arcade-perfect – a bit too much so, as what looks good on an arcade machine gets lost in translation when displayed on a current-generation Xbox. The sprites for the individual characters look heavily pixilated, with none of the Xbox’s 2D image anti-aliasing power used to clean up the sprites for display on a TV screen as opposed to an arcade cabinet. Additionally, some of the backgrounds suffer a similar, blocky-looking fate due to the lack of parallax scrolling, a staple of previous Samurai Shodown titles but mysteriously absent here. At least the art style, with its flamboyant, colorful anime-style feel, is intact, and for fans of the series, that’s the biggest factor. In terms of sound, the strive for arcade-perfect translation also fails to take into account the home environment, as on the Xbox, many of the sound effects sound distinctly lo-fi and lacking in sound quality. Not to mention that some of the sound effects, especially the voices of some of the fighters, can get quite repetitive and thus annoying. However, the music has survived the transition very much intact, with both the arranged and original background music tracks coming in crystal clear. The soundtrack combines traditional Japanese music with modern day music genres (especially rock) and sounds especially fitting for the setting and mood.
Overall, Samurai Shodown V is a 2D fighting game title that will entertain the most hardcore of the hardcore 2D fighting crowd, but there are better, more accessible 2D fighting games to be had elsewhere. For Samurai Shodown fans, the biggest incentives to purchase Samurai Shodown V are its low price tag of $29.99, and its Xbox Live functionality, but those are the only incentives this addition has over other titles in the series. Granted, Xbox Live capability is a great incentive, but considering the pedigree the Samurai Shodown series has of quality fighting games, its biggest fans will come away from this game wanting more.