Review by Captain Stifu
"Special indeed (but not as much as it could have been)"
Before talking about Samurai Shodown V Special itself, here's some information... Samurai Shodown IV (released in 1996) was the last Samurai Shodown game on Neo-Geo made by the original SNK. Then SNK went bankrupt in 2001... but came back as Playmore the same year, now known as SNK Playmore (hereafter referred to as "SNKP"). SNKP has staff in common with the old SNK, but they're clearly not the old SNK the fans grew to love. It's obvious the quality of the Neo-Geo games went downhill since SNKP took over. Great and famous SNK series such as the King of Fighters and Metal Slug have had mediocre sequels under SNKP's reign. Did the Samurai Shodown series know the same sad fate as these two series? Let's see...
Samurai Shodown V came out in 2003, was an upgrade of Samurai Shodown IV, and was developed by a little team called Yuki, working for SNKP. It basically featured new characters and a different gameplay system. The game was decent, but had a couple of glaring flaws. It felt rushed and unfinished. Fans complained about balance issues between characters (some being much stronger than others), among other things, like the absence of "fatalities", that is to say the ability to kill your opponent, for the first time in a Samurai Shodown game. Despite all of that, Samurai Shodown V was still enjoyable and had potential. That's why Samurai Shodown V Special, also known as Samurai Spirits Zero Special in Japan, came to be in 2004 - to correct the problems introduced in Samurai Shodown V, and to add new things to the game.
ABOUT THE GAME
To begin with, this Special edition is a dream match, meaning it has no story, unlike the previous Samurai Shodown games. It's just an excuse to have a bunch of people gathering and slashing each other to death. Fine with me... So, what's new? This upgrade adds 4 characters, making the roster grow to a total of 28 characters. Those 4 characters are all the big bosses of the series: Amakusa, Zankuro, Gaoh and Mizuki. Amakusa and Zankuro were in Samurai Shodown IV (Zankuro wasn't playable though), and were the only characters from this game who didn't make the cut to the 5th episode. Gaoh was the last boss in Samurai Shodown V. As for Mizuki, she was the boss in Samurai Shodown II. All 4 of them are now back as playable characters, and Mizuki has been nicely redrawn. On the other hand, Sankuro (not to mistake with *Z*ankuro) and Yumeji, sub-bosses of Samurai Shodown V, are missing in action this time. The same goes for Poppy, Galford's dog, who was playable alone with a code in that game. Those 2 sub-bosses were just "sprite clones" of existing characters of the game, and weren't all that interesting either. As for Poppy, she was just there as a comical extra. Kind of fun, but not for long... Good riddance.
Another nice thing the game has to offer is a good balance. Yuki paid attention to the fans' complaints and made all the characters have a fair balance between them, so that no one would stand out or dominate in the cast. The more numerous the characters, the harder it is to maintain a good balance. In order to achieve this, Yuki did several public beta tests while the game was in development, where players would give them feedback, tweaking the game beta tests after beta tests. The balance is not quite perfect though, as some characters are still either a bit too weak or too strong, but this is nowhere near as bad as in its predecessor. The fatalities are back in full force as well. There's never been that many way to kill someone in a Samurai Shodown game... especially with the inclusion of the Zetsumei Ougi (Near-Death Secret), move that can be performed in certain situations and that will directly kill your opponent if you can connect it. Each character has their own, and some look especially cool. It is interesting to note fatalities and Zetsumei Ougi were meant to be featured in the original Samurai Shodown V, as there are sprites and sounds related to them stored in the game ROMs, but that don't appear while playing the game.
Samurai Shodown V Special fixes many bugs that were in the original as well. Also, the game is a bit darker than Samurai Shodown V, and looks better as well. The presentation is more polished, the colors are well used and the backgrounds are nice... A step up from the original. The gameplay is deeper than ever, with all the great features inherited from the previous episodes, such as Rage Explosion, Issen, Mu no Kyouchi (rebalanced) and now Zetsumei Ougi. The controls are great, as usual, and the game is a little faster. Every little change done to the game system or to the characters seems to be for the better. Almost everything that made the success of the Samurai Shodown series is there... So, is this game "perfect"? Obviously not...
Unfortunately, a couple of cool things were left out from Samurai Shodown V to the Special one. My biggest grief is that many backgrounds were removed... maybe because many people complained about the fact Samurai Shodown V had a lot of backgrounds ripped (sometime in an inferior / lifeless version) from Samurai Shodown III and IV... Samurai Shodown V Special adds a few nice original stages, but they're still not as numerous as in Samurai Shodown V. 17 backgrounds (2 of which being boss ones, so don't appear in versus mode) as opposed to 12. That's unfortunate. Had they kept all of the Samurai Shodown V ones and made (or borrowed) a few more, they could have made it so each character had their own. Moreover, the overall presentation can't match the one of older titles like Samurai Shodown II or III. It lacks random details and animations, and other things like (cuttable) foreground and background elements. Making things worse, none of the classic themes are there anymore, like Galford's or Nakoruru's... although there are still some nice musics, like Yoshitora's or Mizuki's.
The animation in the game is good overall, although the new characters introduced in the 5th episode are a bit below the standards set by Samurai Shodown III and IV. This isn't too notice-able in general... unlike in certain cases, such as Kusaregedo's first win pose (2 frames looping, ouch). This hasn't been improved at all, which is too bad. Additionally, a couple of sprites are directly ripped from Samurai Shodown II... namely: Cham Cham (appearing at the end of Tam Tam's Zetsumei), Haon (Mizuki's pet monster), and the pig Mizuki turns you into... That's not a big problem, but it would have been better if they had been redrawn. Not only to make them look better, but also because the sprites of Samurai Shodown II are a tad smaller than the ones from Samurai Shodown III and above... So all those sprites *should* be bigger. Cham Cham has an excuse though, as she is supposed to be younger at that time (like Nakoruru and Rimururu), so it's okay for her to be smaller... Haon and the pig don't, however. Here's an example of how they could have made things better: first, the pig oughts to be bigger. Also, since it's levitating and about to get smashed on the ground, I don't think making it stand still is appropriate. They could have given it a kind of funny animation instead, like making it run in place, struggling against Mizuki's spell... that's it. And about Mizuki's monster, it would have been cool if he had more actions, like he did in Samurai Shodown II... just like Poppy, doing something different depending on which button you press.
Another thing that could have been improved are the Zetsumei Ougi. Some are very nice, such as Hanzo's bone-breaking techniques, or Suija's blood rain... A couple of them are inspired from the Samurai Shodown 64 games, which is a nice touch, and shows Yuki know their stuff. However, some Zetsumei leave a lot to be desired. Galford's is my least favorite, he just lets Poppy do everything as he stays behind, moving like a moron to tell her what to do. Furthermore, fatalities are more frequent than in the previous Samurai Shodown games, which makes them lose a bit of their savor, as you end up cutting your opponent in two without even trying.
Making the game a bit farther from being perfect are the little bugs that occur occasionally... They are rare, and most don't affect gameplay in any way, but they are still a nuisance. For instance, if Suija is weaponless and does the only move he can do without them, the "Shizuki", his "shackles" will magically reappear around his wrists as he throws his opponent... then disappear. This bug was already there in the original, but they apparently missed it. Another bug I came across occurs when Enja does his Zetsumei Ougi on Kusaregedo. As Enja grabs Gedo's head, Gedo's body will magically disappear with the first explosion. One last example: if Gaoh, armed with his weapon, runs and kicks, a little part of his weapon will appear at the bottom of the screen very briefly, in front of his foot.
On a side note, be aware that fighting against the computer may be frustrating sometimes, especially for beginners. Indeed, the AI is "cheating", and will do things that aren't human and require an extremely tight timing. Like, for example, being able to disarm you whenever it wants to, do Enja's full "Rikudou Rekka" combo whenever it can, or simply dodge most of your grabs and close attacks... Yet, the computer has major flaws, like being predictable and terrible at button mashing clashes. Anyway, if you have someone to play against, there's no reason you'd want to play the game alone, as in fighting games, versus games are where the fun resides. Talking about that, it wouldn't have cost them much to add a versus mode in the console version of the game, but there's none... just like in all the Samurai Shodown games, as well as many other Neo-Geo games. Which means if you play against someone else, the one who wins can't select another character, and has to keep playing with the same one until he loses...
The large roster and the great gameplay of Samurai Shodown V Special make it the best of the series to date, nostalgia aside, making it a suitable end for the Neo-Geo. However, fans still miss the presence of old characters who haven't returned since Samurai Shodown II, like Cham Cham, Gen-An, Earthquake and Kuroko, whose inclusion would have made the game really Special. I'd have given the game an 8.5 score, but decided to lower it to 8 since fractions aren't allowed here. Those who already own the original may not want to buy this one if they aren't fans of the series, but those who are should definitely give it a shot, at least. Lastly, be aware that unlike the arcade version, the console version of the game is censored (there is a way around it though: the Universe BIOS).
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 11/02/04, Updated 10/16/06
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