Samurai Shodown [Samurai Spirits in Japan] - My favorite fighting game series. In 1993, Street Fighter II and its various incarnations, was king of the arcade fighting scene. SNK had Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting; both were good games, but felt stiff in their gameplay by comparison and lacked that certain something that Street Fighter II possessed; World Heroes was a flop, and King of Fighters wouldn’t exist for another year. SNK decided to play a risk with something completely out of left field, and it paid off.
Samurai Shodown differs from other fighting games of the time. For one thing, it isn’t set in any modern era, taking place instead during the late 1700s, mostly in feudal Japan. Many of the characters use historical figures as their inspiration. Unlike Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat or even SNK’s own fighting games, every character has a weapon to fight with; these weapons can be disarmed, leaving the weaponless combatant at a disadvantage. Blood is common in the game (you can even slice enemies in half as a death blow) but not gratuitous as in Mortal Kombat. There’s even a background character who will run in and throw food (healing), money (points) or bombs (damage) into the match.
The characters in Samurai Shodown are colorful and varied, with different looks as well as different play styles. The environments likewise run the gamut, from bamboo forests to French palaces. While the graphics are excellent, they’re not quite as smooth looking as Street Fighter II’s, but they do have a more fluid “feel” to them, where Street Fighter II (outside of some “turbo” settings) can feel sticky or slow by comparison. The music mostly carries an authentic feel with Japanese instruments aplenty (some stages like Galford’s throw in a more rock feel.)
The game’s cover art, featured up top here, is probably the only piece by popular artist Shinkiro that I like; I generally find his characters look too similar to each other and feel “flat,” but in this art Haohmaru isn’t really the showpiece so much as the environment itself is, overflowing with the ambience of a personal duel between two swordsmen in 18th century Japan.