It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Samurai Shodown release. In a world full of air-combos, tag mechanics, and beam supers that fill the screen, SamSho was a holdout that stuck to fighting game fundamentals.

That means few combos, fewer gimmicks, simple systems, and a whole lot of neutral game. Samurai Shodown has always been about punishment, sitting there on block, staring at your opponent, waiting for them to make the first move and preparing a counterstrike that drains half their health bar with one blow. It really did feel like a Kurosawa-esque samurai… well… showdown, a tense battle of wits decided through steel.

Time moved on and the age of the samurai ended. Video games modernized and got more complex. Now we see fighting games that allow you to customize your characters’ move sets that hire big name actors for their story modes that feature cinematic finishers that look like they are straight out of an anime. Samurai Shodown isn’t interested in any of that. It wants to sell itself on the same thing it sold itself on back in the ‘90s, intense skill-based gameplay.

But can a game like that survive in this modern fighting game era?

The core game

Let’s start by talking about SamSho’s biggest selling point: its gameplay. If you are tired of learning 20-hit combos and a million interlocking systems, then SamSho is the game for you.

Here are the controls plain and simple. You have light, medium, and heavy slash buttons, and a kick button. Kicks are fastest followed by the three strengths of attacks. Nothing cancels into anything except some specials can cancel from normals. The only combos you’ll get are simple jump-ins. That means no links, no gatlings, no target combos, just single-strikes. You also get a spot-dodge that will allow you to avoid attacks, and a throw that does no damage but puts you at advantage.

To make up for the fact that there are few combos to speak of, individual attacks do a ton of damage. A single heavy slash can take off a quarter of a health bar or more.

As you take damage, your Rage Gauge fills. When it tops off, you get a huge damage bonus to your attacks, and you become capable of performing your “weapon flipping” technique. Weapon flipping techniques are basically super moves that deal about half a health bar’s worth of damage and disarm your opponent. When disarmed you take extra damage and your move-set is very limited. You’ll have to pick up your weapon to get back into the fight, but doing so leaves you open.

There are other ways to disarm your opponent as well. You can time a parry at the exact moment your opponent strikes to wrench their weapon out of their hand. You can also block at the last minute to gain some advantage and build some rage.

The most advanced system is the Rage Explosion system. You can sacrifice your Rage Gauge to enter Rage Explosion, which acts like a “burst” in other fighting games, putting you into neutral no matter what you are getting hit by. You then have a limited amount of time to fight in the Rage Explosion state, proportional to the amount of health you have lost. While in this state your attacks do even more damage, and you gain access to your weapon flipping technique and a new attack called a “lightning strike.”

Lightning strikes are, once again, basically super moves, except these execute very quickly and are invincible on start-up. They also do about half a health bar of damage, so they are perfect for closing out a match. The catch? After you use a lightning strike, or your Rage Explosion runs out, you lose your Rage Gauge for the rest of the match. So make it count.

“Make it count” seems to be the philosophy behind SamSho’s design. For example, every character has a special move they can only use once, and that removes 75 percent of the opponent’s health. Some characters have special gimmicks such a Yoshitora Tokugawa, who has to use all of his special moves before being able to use a final special move that, you guessed it, removes 75 percent of the opponent’s health. Everything you do is a risk reward gamble that will either destroy your opponent, or allow your opponent to destroy you.

And it feels great! Even Street Fighter, the slowest fighting game on the pro-circuit, has shifted dramatically toward aggressive gameplay in recent years. It’s easy to forget what it feels like to just sit on block and wait out your opponent’s strikes. That rush of adrenaline you get from reading an opponent so hard their entire life-bar melts is something you just don’t get as much in modern fighting games, because you are too busy focusing on not dropping your combo. This slow, deliberate, neutral based gameplay is a breath of fresh air in the current fighting game climate. It’s good to have variety and right now SamSho is the only game that fills this slow neutral-based niche.

An old-school gatekeeper

That being said, SamSho’s gameplay still has all the weaknesses it had back in the ‘90s. For one, it’s not inviting at all. New players will mash buttons and get absolutely destroyed by anyone who has the patience to block. It probably doesn’t feel good to watch your whole life bar drain in two or three hits and not know why.

It has a tutorial, but it’s not a very good one. It teaches you the basic controls and that’s about it. It doesn’t go into any skills, tactics, or concepts, and in a game that is this fundamental heavy it really should have.

Its training mode is functional but feature light. There are very few options to take advantage of, and you can’t see things like frame data or hit-boxes. Even your attack data is very sparse, basically just relating damage and nothing else.

Move-lists are also obtuse, filled with icons that the game doesn’t explain and that you just kind of have to figure out yourself. They also don’t explain what any of these moves are used for so, once again, you just have to fool around until you figure it out for yourself.

You might think that you can refine your skills in the Story mode, but that too is kind of a joke. It’s not so much a story mode as it is a basic arcade mode with a cutscene at the beginning and end. You fight through the cast before hitting a cheap hyper-armor boss at the end.

I personally hate final bosses like this. The whole game tells you to focus on neutral and play defensively and suddenly you have to be mindlessly aggressive to break this boss’s armor and deal damage. Also it has like 10 times the HP of any other character, you can’t time it out, its attacks are hard to see, and it doesn’t enter hit-stun, so even if it seems like you are safe to throw out an attack you never really are. Bosses like this are not fun to play against and they teach you nothing about playing the game, and I’m saying this as a fighting game veteran. This must be absolutely rage inducing for a newbie (which is hilarious because you can’t actually use your rage induced weapon flipping techniques against the boss).

Look, if you are new to SamSho, you are going to have a rough time. I know there are a lot of fighting game vets out there who will wave their pitchforks and torches, grumbling under their breath that “this is how fighting games used to be” and that scrubs should just “git gud,” but you can’t just ignore the great advances in teaching that have come out of fighting game modernization. Yeah, SamSho doesn’t need flashy combos or complex systems, but it should have at the very least a tutorial and practice mode that lives up to the standards of modern fighting games. It almost feels like it’s using its old-school identity as an excuse to keep itself feature light.

The dojo and other features

Actually, calling SamSho feature light isn’t entirely accurate. It has a lot of features, just not the features we have come to expect from modern day fighting games. For example, it has time attack and survival modes which were normal in the days of ‘90s arcades but I’m not entirely sure anyone cares these days. It also has a mode where you face off against every single member of the cast which is neat, but isn’t really all that different from story mode.

It has an online mode of course but once again we don’t see any of the features we would expect from a modern day fighting game. No lobbies, no method of communication, nothing other than a ranked match search and a casual match search. It makes it kind of hard to play with friends. At the very least you can search for matches while you are in training.

It’s most unique feature is its dojo mode. This mode crafts an A.I. ghost combatant based on your combat data and uploads it online. The idea is that it allows you to face off against facsimiles of other players without having to be online. It should also allow you to face off against your favorite fighting game personalities.

During the review period, SNK said that dojo mode would be restricted and wouldn’t function property till its ranking system went live on launch day because it had to share data through the ranking board system. I did have a little bit of fun playing against my own ghost offline though. I never had a major problem beating it, but I did see it slowly start to learn my strategies the more I played against it.

I did notice, however, that it seemed to be tracking data for not just me, but anyone who played on my console. This includes everyone who played against me in VS mode. Does that mean my ghost would end up as some sort of weird amalgam of me and my friends? I guess we won’t know until the game launches.

Will you embrace death?

I all too often find myself in the regrettable situation of finding a fighting game that is fun to play at its core, but that doesn’t stack up to other fighting game offerings when you go beyond VS mode. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a fighting game that better fits this example than SamSho and it’s disappointing to say the least.

As soon as I jumped into VS mode, I was addicted. I loved the pacing of every match. I loved feeling like I could die at any second. I loved mastering move-lists and throwing out the right counter at the right time. Matches themselves felt great.

If all you ever saw was a brief look at VS mode, you’d probably think this game was amazing. Its graphics have this amazing Japanese brush-stroke aesthetic, similar to Street Fighter IV. Its soundtrack is great, ranging from excited electric guitar riffs to soft ambient Japanese tunes featuring a koto and bamboo flute. The aesthetic is pure anime gold, with characters that carry seven swords, emo tengu boys prattling on about their misery, and Earthquake, who is just a giant fire-breathing fat-man and everyone likes that.

But if you stuck around to watch a little longer, you’d start to notice the cracks. Why does it take 30 seconds to load each match, even if you choose to rematch? Why does going into the pause menu require an extra button press after you pause the game? Why doesn’t your character model change when you choose their color and costume? Instead the background changes to a color that your character is themed around… but you still can’t see that costume before a match? Why!?

And the cracks just keep showing up when you consider the poor tutorial, the mediocre training mode, the laughable story mode, the barebones online suite, and so on. This is another fighting game whose only real draw is the fighting.

Since fighting games are supposed to be all about the fighting, I can’t give Samurai Shodown too low of a score. If all you want is another fighting game to square off against your friends with, then this is a wonderful throwback to a time when fighting games were slower and more deliberate, and that feels great. However, if you are looking for the whole package, from tutorial to story and everything in between, SamSho just doesn’t deliver like other fighting games do.