"Samurai Shodown is what Soul Calibur would be if it played in 2D and hated you more. "
Samurai Shodown is what Soul Calibur would be if it played in 2D and hated you more. Released back in 1993, the first Shodown took a distinctly oriental approach, mixed its twelve-strong cast between the serious and the cartoonish and did what it could to produce a more tactical tournament fighter. Mixed in between fluttering wind pipes and backdropped by vibrant and lively stages, players did their level best to stab the hell out of each other.
If it sounds like Iím a fan of this game, itís because I am. SNK have always had a habit of throwing out excellent 2D fighters that unfairly get eclipsed by Capcomís efforts (and fairly by Arcís!) but the Shodown series has never really got the credit it probably deserves. The first outing starts out solid; it primarily follows the pride-filled Haohmaruís rivalry over the more subdued and laid-back Ukyo who both bring their own individualistic aspects to the gameís heavy samurai vibe. Haohmaruís in it for nothing but the fight: to test himself against any and all, while Ukyo is more poetic and reserved, more concerned with the fleeting beauty of life. But itís not always about clashing katana and Eastern sheen: Charlotte is a French crusader clad in bulky torso armour and armed with a rapier who might well find herself in the dusty wasteland of Texas, besieged by winds and rolling tumbleweed while facing off against Earthquake, a big, fat Yank with a spear on a chain and a recent diploma from a newly-founded Ninja Correspondent School who has no problems with grabbing his always-smaller opponent by the scalp and farting a cloud of noxious, health-plummeting gasses in their face.
The cast is filled with both those you would expect and those you would not. Hanzo is a black-clad ninja who can vanish in a puff of smoke leaving nothing but a substitute block of wood in his wake while the toad-like Gen-An can spew streams of poison for unwary foes to stumble into and use his razor claws to bundle into foes like a buzz saw. The battle-scarred Jubei fights with twin katana, that he uses to become a whirlwind of cutting steel while the lithe Nakoruru uses a combination of her grace and speed to dart beneath defences and plague them with viper-like strikes with her concealed dagger. That, or pelt them with cannonballing attacks from afar, or plague them from the skies with her pet hawk.
Many of these special moves can be taken away from you in an instant; slash at a foe attempting the same blow as you, and your weapons clash together, prompting you into a desperate button mash to gain the upper hand. The loser of this sees their weapon fly from their grasp, limiting their offence and handicapping their defence. Even with your weapon, your strikes need to be more planned out than the majority of fighters; each swing, each special, each thrust, can leave you open to a blistering counterattack as the stab is deflected or dodged. Shodown is a battle of calculated attacks, of baiting, fake-outs and creating opportunity.
The second game shares all of this, as well as power meters that grow as you take damage which grant extra power to your punch when filled, but throw in a few new cast members including the universally-adored Cham-Cham, the jungle girl with a wild mess of emerald hair, a massive boomerang and an endearing habit of surging across the screen and clawing your face right off. Shodown II eliminates some of the jerkiness prevalent in the first gameís engine and takes with it some of the sense of strategy but, in total, itís much more polished and well-rounded game. It allows Ukyo to cough up a lungful of blood after defeating a bulky Wan-Fu who drops his previous cutlass to wield a huge slab of rock instead, showing that, even in victory, his life is a fleeting flame vulnerable to extinction.
Samurai Shodown III became the franchiseís obligatory overhaul title. The goofy or cartoonish characters were either banished from the line-ups or injected with mammoth dosages of angst. As quickly as she arrived, Cham-Cham vanished, making way instead for more serious warriors and the complete reworking of the engine, giving each fighter a myriad of differing styles and techniques to choose from. The game became overly complex. Showing some remorse for their mass redundancy, Shodown IV reinstates several cast members but sticks with the previous gameís technique tier, only does a much better job of executing it. The fifth game looked to be a guaranteed success as SNK got more and more comfortable with maintain a balance between keeping the heart the original games wore on their sleeve while integrating more options and granting their players a chance to craft their own individualistic style of slicing people up into ribbons. It was seven years in the making. Then SNK folded, and Shodown jumped the shark.
The fifth gameís biggest problem is its complete lack of direction. The cast almost doubled (and still without Cham-Cham!) is bloated artificially by numerous clone characters, taking on near-identical move sets and actions as pre-established fighters. Just as the twin styles of the last two games started to show fruits, theyíre banished and in its place, fan service in the form of characters like the scantily-clad and oft-useless archer Mina or the surreal, like hulking pot-bellied demon, Kusaregedo, who fights with a spur growing from the festering stumps of his arm and demonic summons. Itís also about here that the PSP collection's head-scratching slow-down stops being a slight annoyance and starts to really affect your ability to play the game. Load times stretch on for ages and the game will often freeze mid-attack, allowing advantages for your computer opposition that shouldnít exist. The arcade port was infamously rushed, the outcome being a complete lack of promise or care. No mid-battle taunts, no real endings to your struggle through the ranks. This remains true.
The PSP collection gave me my first opportunity to play the sixth chapter of the series. I braved the ever-increasing load times as my PSP chugged away at loading in the game, admiring the art for the new black-haired girl in a maidís outfit showing a lot of cleavage. I had plenty of time to look at her.
The character selection screen was filled with a staggering amount of faces to choose from and, yes, there was dear, sweet Chamcham (she had lost her hyphen during her long exile) beside Gen-An (who had not!) and a host of new and old fighters alike! It helped me endure the load times to take my dear jungle girl to the packed streets of London to fight to the rousing pompadour music playing regally in the background and even offered me complete choice of which of the previous titleís battle engines I could employ. Within seconds, I was mincing poor flame-haired Genjuro with numerous slashes and asking my primate helper to set himself aflame and bounce like a crazy ball across the screen to engulf him in banana-scented fires.
The game was good. And itís a rare feeling to get a happy ending like the one Samurai Shodown VI gleefully dropped into my lap. Itís a shame that this collection holds some faults that its PS2 brethren does not, and thereís no reason that issues such as elongated load times and crippling slowdown should exist on a machine as powerful as the PSP, but theyíre there and itís stupid to try and ignore them. But theyíre not constant and theyíre not enough to take away from some of the brilliance SNK presents with its coeval fighting feast. From the never-cracking foundations of the initial titles, to the hiccups in the middle sliding down the greased slope of unfulfilled expectations to eventual redemption, Samurai Shodown Anthology does a lot of justice to a series that deserves our time and respect.
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