I guess Samurai Shodown is considered the closest thing SNK had to a mainstream success in North America. It was pretty novel when it first came out in 1994. Rather than being yet another Street Fighter wannabe, it had a unique setting in feudal Japan, a much different flow with a more deliberate pace, and the addition of weapons and animal helpers. However, I was never really able to get into it back then. I was still kind of stuck in a Street Fighter frame of mind, and couldn’t adjust to the slower gameplay.
Strangely, I think it finally clicked with me how I was supposed so play SamSho while I was playing an entirely different game. It was when I bought The Last Blade 2 for the Dreamcast that I figured out how to approach these samurai style games properly. It makes sense considering that The Last Blade series was more-or-less a spiritual successor to the first four SamShos. I had to be defensive, look for openings, and choose my strikes carefully lest I leave myself open to a brutal counterattack.
However, I never got the chance to dive back into the series until I picked up the Samurai Shodown Anthology for the Wii, so I don’t really have any particular memories of playing the games in the arcade. I have to admit, it’s probably still not my favorite fighting game series, but my appreciation for them has grown a lot since I’ve been able to play them more in-depth.
In a way, they’re almost like a Japanese version of Mortal Kombat. It’s bloody and violent, and you can kill your opponent after a fight with either a fatal wound or by cutting them in half, but the violence feels like it’s portrayed in a very different way. It’s not as gratuitous, and it’s there more to punctuate the fight rather than be the focus of attention in and of itself. In most of the games, the fatalities (or “No Contests,” as the game calls them) are circumstantial, and usually happen involuntarily.
I think my favorite in the series is Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa’s Revenge. It’s got a quicker pace, but still retains a bit of the methodical combat of previous games. It’s not as brutally difficult, either. (SNK got its cheap AI under control for all of their games in 1996.)
My favorite character has got to be Galford, who is essentially a ninja version of Terry Bogard. I’m also fond of Shizumaru and Rimururu. But the variety of characters is really pretty awesome, and as I’ve said before, great character designs are what really attract me to most fighting games.
I don’t really have too much else to say about SamSho. I consider it among SNK Playmore’s “big three” franchises, along with The King of Fighters and Metal Slug, for which they still bother to create new installments for once in a while. As of this posting, the series has been in hibernation for several years, with the exception of 2008’s much despised Samurai Shodown Sen, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it. If recent job postings are any indication, SNK Playmore seems to have plans for it. Let’s hope that one day the series makes a triumphant return.