SNK managed to release a new game in the Samurai Shodown series every year from 1993 to 1996. But in 1997, rather than release another sequel, they took the idea in a different direction and created The Last Blade.
It’s almost impossible not to compare the two series. The Samurai Shodown games are great weapon-based fighting games taking place in ancient feudal Japan. It’s filled with all kinds of great gimmicks, like weapon clashes, being able to disarm your opponent, destructible environments, animal helpers, “Bust” and “Slash” variations of each character, fatalities, and so on. But because of that, the games got to be rather complex and a little overwhelming. With The Last Blade, SNK scaled back on the frills, and focused on the core gameplay. There are fewer attack buttons, you can’t lose your weapon anymore, “Bust” and “Slash” were changed to the more understandable “Power” and “Speed,” and while characters can still be killed at the end of a match, even that’s more subdued.
In writing, it may sound a little bland, as if Samurai Shodown had been defanged, but in actuality, it allowed the gameplay to be highly refined. The Last Blade is easy to get a grip on, so you don’t have to be a fighting game master to jump in and understand how to play it. But it’s still very deep and strategic, with multiple options to handle just about any situation, and the matches have a great flow to them.
One of the keys to playing The Last Blade is mastering the “deflect” move, which allows you to defend against an oncoming attack, and gives you the opportunity to counterattack. It’s somewhat similar to the “parry” maneuver in Street Fighter III, and even Samurai Shodown had move like it, but it required pressing multiple buttons, and in both games the timing was very strict. In The Last Blade, however, it’s done with a simple button-press, it’s easy to pull off, and it factors very well into the strategy of the game.
It also has fantastic atmosphere and presentation. Instead of taking place in feudal Japan, it depicts the “Bakumatsu” era, in which Japan first began to open itself up to Western influences. It’s done very well, and gives the game a unique style. The music is a subdued orchestral style, but the game also makes use of ambiance and sound effects that adds a lot of atmosphere. Not everyone will appreciate that approach, but I feel that ambiance in lieu of music is a very underused direction in game audio.
The Last Blade never caught on the way Samurai Shodown did, and the series ended after just one sequel. It might have had something to do with the games being released in the late ’90s when the Neo Geo was getting a bit old, and most players were more interested in jagged 3D polygons rather than detailed 2D sprites. But still, it’s never too late to discover a great 2D fighting game, and if you don’t have a Neo Geo MVS, AES or CD system, the game can now be downloaded on the Wii Virtual Console. It was also ported to the PS1 and PS2, but only in Japan. Whether or not you’re a fan of Samurai Shodown, The Last Blade is just a great fighting game that’s worth a look.