Review by Tachibana Ukyo

"Tsuki no Hana."

SNK’s Samurai Spirits, better known as Samurai Shodown in the West, took the arcade world by storm as the first entirely weapons-based fighting game that anyone had ever seen. Blending keenly sharp gameplay with a fine sense of aesthetics, this original installment of the Neo*Geo’s seminal fencing franchise can still be found throughout arcades today.

A cast of twelve colorful and historically dubious warriors awaits your attention at the controls, their ranks led by the contrast in styles and philosophies embodied in rival swordsmen Haohmaru and Tachibana Ukyo. The brash, bushy-haired Haohmaru accepts all challenges and strives for perfection as a warrior; quiet, composed Ukyo is more concerned with the fleeting beauty of life, of women, and of his reflection in the mirror. From the government in Edo arrive the cold-hearted Iga ninja Hattori Hanzo, a shadow wrapped in black and red who seeks to avenge the loss of his son, and Yagyu Jubei, one-eyed master of the two-sword style of katana and wakizashi as well as the game’s one true samurai. Most of the characters are far less serious, such as the young nature-loving Ainu girl Nakoruru and her hawk Mamahaha, or burly Chinese warrior-king Wan Fu. The French noblewoman Charlotte tours Japan with her epee, breastplate, and a smug smile at the ready; flame-haired kabuki actor Senryo Kyoshiro makes the world his stage with nagitana in hand and a few tricks up his sleeve. Others are outright unbelievable, from the cackling green-skinned oni Shiranui Gen-An to the masked warrior from South America known as Tam Tam, and a pair of fighters from the young United States - the blond-haired, blue-eyed Galford fights for justice with his Koga-ninja skills and faithful dog Poppy, while Earthquake is a bald tattooed behemoth looking for quick cash after graduating from a ninja correspondence school.

These warriors, while graphically simplistic compared to the animation-laden sprites yet to come, evoke both imagination and style. Gen-An spews a venomous purple cloud at Galford, but it dissipates before reaching the fleet-footed ninja – Poppy, following her master’s command, charges into the enemy with a howl followed by a crash; a victorious Galford tosses the enthusiastically barking husky a well-earned bone. Haohmaru spits a mouthful of sake onto his blade in the time-honored tradition of samurai . . . Ukyo stands perfectly still, back turned to his rival until tossing the warrior an apple, only to slash them both into even slices and sheath his blade in one continuous motion. The massive Earthquake is nearly as tall as the screen, yet launches himself across the landscape without sacrificing any of the game’s speed or animation; moments before being squashed by a half-ton of flab, Hanzo vanishes in a cloud of smoke, leaving naught but an inanimate log in his place. A black-garbed kuroko (masked puppeteer or stagehand from kabuki and bunraku theater) darts about the background, awarding each successful hit with the raising of that character’s flag. Like many early Neo*Geo titles, the normally close up view of the action will pan out far into the distance whenever the two fighters are separated by a great distance, only to return as they renew their melee.

The passage of time has perhaps left them dated, but the still-beautiful visuals and traditional Japanese instruments of Samurai Spirits’ environments invite players on a romanticized tour of pre-modern Japan and the foreign lands of the West. Haohmaru trains amid the sunny Gairyu isle, whose rocks silently listen to shamisen and taiko drums as waves lick the windy shore. Ukyo and the ghostly company of the shakuhachi flute can be found there at night, the sea calming beneath the moonlight as fireworks explode in the midnight blue sky. A pastoral village blanketed by snow may be followed by urbane crowds of men cheering the excitement at a kabuki theater, or the ruddy haze of an ancient battlefield and its sorrowful tune will be broken by the electric guitars filling a dusty mountain range in what would become Texas. Stages are frequently interactive, wild swipes sundering the towering shoots of bamboo in a tranquil forest or dropping opulent chandeliers to the floor in a thunderous crash amid the wealth of Versailles.

An actual story progresses between every few battles to chronicle the rebirth of Shiro Tokisada Amakusa, practitioner of a heretical (Christian) religion, leader of a rebellion against the government before his death, and incredibly cheap final boss; possessing the body of Hanzo’s son, he now conspires with the demons of the underworld to rule the world and make life miserable for easily frustrated players. For those with a non-Japanese system, the translation is . . . interesting, highlighting SNK’s unique interpretation of the English language. Unintentionally (we can only hope) hilarious, it nevertheless seems out of place with such memorable lines as “I awake from 100 years of sleep to kick some butt!” and “Die, you crazy funster!” Hailing from an era in which fighting games were seemingly required to have bonus rounds, the story scenes are followed by training sessions in which your character must slice apart a set number of straw dummies before time expires. Unfortunately, the real fighters will not be quite as easy to defeat.

Battle in Samurai Spirits is deceptively simple, yet fairly bursts with fresh ideas and exciting gameplay. The addition of weapons for each character places the emphasis firmly on the speed and range of a fighter’s style rather than solely on his array of special moves; additionally, characters may quickly run towards their opponent or quickly hop backwards out of harm’s way. Two of the joystick’s four buttons are used for light and medium slashes, while the remaining two correspond to kicks. Press the two slash buttons together and the character will unleash a fierce blow that can severely damage an opponent. If blocked, this powerful strike will leave the attacker momentarily wide open, enforcing that it be reserved for a moment of opportunity or your target will respond in kind; likewise, a missed special move is an open invitation to be struck by such a blow. Rather than complicated button mashing, duels are defined by a flurry of blocks, feints, and precise timing in order to break through an opponent’s defenses.

This isn’t to say that button mashing doesn’t have its place - the combatants may find themselves locked up in a tangle of steel, at which time you must repeatedly assault the controller in the hopes of dislodging an opponent’s weapon while retaining your own. A lost weapon will fly out of its owners hands and land across the screen; your character is severely hampered without his chosen blade, so it is recommend that you retrieve it as soon as it is safely possible. Battles will also be frequently intruded upon by a man running across the background to throw various items that include gold ryo for points, life replenishing food, or a short-fused bomb that will trip up anyone caught in the blast.

Spirits’ final major innovation comes in the form of its anger (POW) meter which fills up as your character takes damage, gradually changing his skin tone to a darker shade until the gauge is filled and his strength temporarily enhanced. The rate at which the meter fills, amount of strength added, and duration of this effect vary from fighter to fighter; Ukyo is the slowest of the characters to max out, presumably due to his placid nature, yet inflicts greater damage than any other and does so for a medium length of time.

Like many SNK games, this samurai swordfest never shies away from the shedding of blood and goes so far as to include fatalities; unlike Mortal Kombat this violence is restrained and believable rather than employing fountains of over-the-top gore. Every strike is punctuated with a satisfyingly deep slicing sound and a splash of crimson blood; depending on the final blow, your opponents will occasionally spray blood from the jugular or split asunder as they fall through the air. Finishing the match with an armed attack is to be reminded of the nature of a weapons-based tournament . . . beneath a litter of straw, your lifeless foe is silently carried away by the emotionless kuroko.

Thankfully, Samurai Spirits never takes itself too seriously - traditional Japanese aesthetics exist side by side with colorfully stylized wackiness pulled directly from the fantastic worlds of animation and manga. Accordingly, the (import) manual is filled with black & white illustrations that include amusing strips demonstrating game concepts such as dropped items with Galford and Nakoruru or the anger meter with Ukyo and Haohmaru (pages 11 and 12,) while the inside of the back cover sports a cutesy super-deformed picture of the assembled cast in bright colors. This series began a world apart from the dark beauty it would one day come to embody.

While eclipsed by its own masterful follow-up, the unique vision of this first showdown allowed SNK to decisively step out from Street Fighter’s shadow. Samurai Spirits remains as playable today as it was in 1993. With age comes, one would hope, well-deserved respect.

. . . ARIGATOU!

natsukusa ya / tsuwamonodomo ga / yume no ato

Summer grasses
where stalwart soldiers
once dreamed dreams

(Matsuo Bashou, Makoto Ueda trans.)


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 04/04/03, Updated 04/04/03


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