Samurai Shodown Anthology (PS2)
Developer: SNK (Parts 1 through 4), Yuki Enterprise (5) and SNK Playmore (6). Opening sequence and navigation shell by SNK Playmore.
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Genre: 2D Fighting
Release Date: 3/24/2009
When I first turned on Samurai Shodown Anthology (henceforth abbreviated as SSA) – something I’ve been enthusiastically waiting to do since it was announced – I noticed a rather delightful caricature of Haomaru that read, “Samurai Shodown: 15th Anniversary.” After a gut reaction of,”Aww, that’s synthetically sentimental.” I then sat there, jaw half agape, reflecting on what I had just seen. “Has it really been 15 years since the first Shodown title was released?” Indeed it has. Over a period of time this long, many things have come and gone: going through high school, college, a few jobs and an MA program, two pairs of Clinton and Bush presidencies, the birth and neglect of the Oslo Accords, the Geo/Chevy Prism and Crystal Pepsi. Fifteen years is also a very, very long time to allow nostalgia to accumulate. Now that I finally have this disc – this deceptively exciting review build – taunting me as I dare to press the start button, I found myself in a rather peculiar position from which I write this review.
As I sat there, navigating the flashy, space-aged honeycombed menu system that SNK Playmore has made to greet players, I realized that the nostalgia I have for this franchise might seem insurmountable. “SSA could very well amount to the best collection of games ever compiled on a single disc,” I thought, possibly surpassing the nigh immaculate Mega Man Collection. After all, this is the first time a US audience has ever had the chance to play Samurai Shodown 2 on ANY console via a physical medium, as well as Samurai Shodown 4 for the same reason. Sure, you could find the first Samurai Shodown on almost every console available in the early 1990s (the Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Boy*, Game Gear, Sega CD and 3DO, for those with pedantic tendencies) but there was a unique drawback to whatever version you chose; i.e. Earthquake was only to be found in the 3DO version, there were missing voice samples on many ports, etc. Then Samurai Shodown 3 only made it to the US as a launch Playstation title. Also complicating the situation is the video game industry’s hesitance to embrace anything that resembles a back catalog. And aside from owning a Neo Geo AES, an arcade cabinet machine or a “supergun” (An arcade motherboard adapted to work on a stock TV.), playing many of these games in any way close to their intended form was – and arguably still is – prohibitively expensive. No longer. Time may move slowly between developers, publishers and lawyers, but SNK Playmore decided to finally strike the iron, even if it isn’t as hot as it was earlier. And in doing so, they might just have made my dream of an affordable Shodown library come true.
On the other hand, SNK Playmore could simply be using my nostalgia as a free ride into my wallet, like Michael Bay did with the live-action remake of the 80’s cartoon, Transformers. There’s a prime difference here, and that is that Hattori Hanzo is no Optimus Prime. Without assigning fault to promotions or to the relative marketing strength of SNK, the SS franchise never enjoyed the momentum that it had in the early 1990s with SS1 and SS2‘s releases, probably due to the latter game’s absence of any home ports. By the time that SS3 was released and found a home on the Playstation, many fighting game aficionados had moved onto many of Capcom’s offerings, which enjoyed a much wider market share, and would receive largely enjoyable ports. With the franchise going into such a low profile, it became increasingly frustrating to follow. Sure, the “diehards” might find themselves importing the ports from Japan to play on their Playstations or Saturns, as well as owning three different versions of SS1 across home consoles before finding an “affordable” Neo Geo to finally play a flawless match on, but many did not. They moved onto other 2D fighting franchises from Capcom, and then Arksys, or perhaps onto 3D franchises from Namco or Sega. Again, the idea of “15 years” is as prominent here as it was on the disc’s start-up. Either way, thanks to events that may forever remain behind closed doors, the SS franchise holds a dubious place among many gamers because of its relative absence in what might be called, “the public gaming eye.” While the franchise may be iconic for some (myself included), it might be seen as something else by today’s audience – a vestige of a more vibrant time at best, or perhaps a footnote at worst.
SSA is finally available. For the first time, generations old and new can play what has been considered the first competent weapon-based fighting game, as well as a franchise with one of the most unique presentations that you’ll find on any platform in the entirety of post-NES gaming. For those keeping score, Anthology includes Samurai Shodown parts 1-5, as well as a localization of Samurai Spirits: Tenkaichi Kenkakuden bearing the name Samurai Shodown 6. For the retail asking price (As of this typing, Amazon is offering it for a debatable steal at $14.99 USD), you get six games total: three of which have never been released on a physical format in the US (parts 2, 4 and 6), and three of which have been released on varying platforms which have been previously mentioned. (Samurai Shodown 5 was released on the original X-Box) Unfortunately, Samurai Shodown 5 Special is not included on the disc, and with it, any expectation of an English story mode or cleverly animated fatalities.
At this point, I would like to mention that I will not review each constituent game in depth. As they are a part of a collection, this review will concern how they play within the context of the collection, as well as accounting for any glaring deficiencies or notable enhancements – if any – along the way. An effort will be made to review Samurai Shodown 6, as it has not been previously released in the US. In addition, I invite those readers who know about the Samurai Shodown franchise to skip past the following paragraph, as it is written for those who have not played any of the games to date.
For the uninitiated – and I applaud your patience for reading up until this point if this category is for you – the Samurai Shodown series is a 2D fighting game from the original SNK company that was originally released in 1993. It was one of the first 2D fighting games to include a successful implementation of weapon-based gameplay, and also introduced a slower game play style that placed an emphasis on timing, as opposed to the quicker action found in, for instance, Street Fighter II. Its motif is one set around feudal Japan, and features many characters that bare likeness and resemblance to figures including “re-imaginings” like that of sword smith Hattori Hanzo and samurai Jubei Yagyu. Should you want more information on the constituent games, the series’ Wikipedia entry is an excellent starting point.
As previously mentioned, SSA includes all of the original 2D installments in the Samurai Shodown franchise, save for 5 Special, as well as part 6. Parts 1-5 appear to be very well emulated from the source Neo Geo ROM files. As soon as you choose a game, you’ll be greeted with the same introductory animation/vocal file you’ve come to know and love from each of the respective titles. From my time with the games, it appears that all of the animations and sound effects are intact in each of the games. In addition, you’ll find all of your SNK Engrish in top form. Anyone who has spent time in front of a Neo Geo AES or arcade unit will feel right at home with the presentation, and will feel their wills tested against the balance of any of the computer opponents. (SNK boss syndrome? Any takers?) I was also delighted to see that there was no real synthetic slowdown or any game play that was abnormal to any normal Shodown match. The load times are also quite short, and the longest instances are usually limited to the initial loading of the ROM.
Graphically, each of the original 5 games look exactly like they should. In some cases, they looked better than I had remembered. For instance: on some displays – especially home hardware that runs through regular composite cables (RCA) – I can remember seeing the mesh portion on the arms of Galford and Hanzo’s uniforms exhibiting a rainbow effect. This rainbow effect was usually attributed to the low quality video output that the home AES hardware. On each of the games, Galford’s arm appears with no color distortion whatsoever. This might be due to the S-Video cable from the PS2, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see this over regular composite cables. While not explicitly related to graphics, there’s also a Character Edit mode in the options, which allows you to edit the colors of any character in any of the first 5 games. While it looks kind of neat, I didn’t spend much time tinkering with it; there were too many other things to do and see… and hear.
As for the music, I would have been happy with just the stock audio, which in each of the original games sounds great. However, SNK Playmore decided to dig into the old vault and give the old time fans – and those that never owned a working Neo Geo CD system with the CD versions of the games – some new renditions of your old favorites. If that syntax comes off as convoluted, then let me clarify: for Shodown parts 1 through 5, you can chose the Arrange soundtrack that was found on the Neo Geo CD versions of the games (!). As someone who has not heard these particular renditions before, I was blown away by how much more natural and absolutely beautiful they sound. While this might not hold true for some of the level/music combinations, like Galford’s or any level where it is simply atmospheric sound effects, the difference between the renditions on pieces for Seiger’s stage or Charlotte’s stage is night and day. They sounded great before in their original format, but the arrange versions are almost sublime. And probably the most refreshing surprise was finding the “BGM CHECK” option in the “Sound Setting” menu. That means you can cue up any track you like, select either NORMAL or ARRANGE, and get nostalgic with it. This is even available for part SSV, which never recieved a Neo Geo CD release. Curiously, and perhaps placed there in the interest of arcade purists, you can also choose to output all of the sound in monaural sound if you prefer. This might be useful if you’re thinking about putting your PS2 in an arcade cabinet, but you’d be losing out on a whole other channel of wonderfully sounding arranged soundtracks. It’s your choice, I suppose, but it’s my opinion that anything outside of the Arrange stereo soundtrack is sacrilege.
Game play holds up well enough on the Playstation 2 controller. That is, not remarkably good or remarkably bad. SNK Playmore did the right thing and did their best to keep the Neo Geo button layout work as best it could on the Dual Shock 2. Square is A, X is B, Triangle is C and O is D. The shoulder buttons are all set to different button combinations, which might simplify things like making a Strong Slash in the first Samurai Shodown or using the “enlightenment” feature in part 5. You’re free to change the button assignment to your liking, just in case you’ve got an arcade stick lying around with the off-L2 button in between your X and O. In an effort to get with the times and help those that didn’t read EGM or Diehard GameFAN magazines cover to cover in the mid 1990s, SNK Playmore has also added a move list menu for each game, which you can check at any time during at mach- a list that I found myself checking constantly, as I tried to remember how to do simple things like make Earthquake fart or Ukyo toss out an apple.
Additionally, a Practice Mode is included for each title, and appears to be robust enough with regards to automating your CPU opponent. This is a handy option if you’re curious about taking a certain fighting style for a test drive without the preoccupation of an actual match, or if you want to practice special moves.
Now, while I can comfortably sign off on parts 1-5, I found Samurai Shodown 6 to be… well, how do I phrase this lightly… an earnest train wreck?
SS6 probably began as an honest and earnest idea somewhere in the recesses of the SNK Playmore offices. “Let’s make another Samurai Spirits game!” They must have thought, “It’ll be grand! With every character playable! And 3D backgrounds! And little bonuses to pick up!” Well, I can’t fault them for ambition. It does indeed have all of that and a slick new introduction sequence. There are also a few new characters to choose from and the wildest soundtrack put in any fighting game in the past decade. Even all of that charm can’t save it from the reality I loaded from the disc.
In a word, the game is “inconsistent.” For instance: sprites and animations appear to be pulled from any and every source that SNK Playmore had at their disposal, regardless to whether it would look good in motion or not. Seiger’s sprite next to Yoshitora? If they had hired a few artists to standardize the sprites across the game, then yes- they would have looked awesome. But no. Not here. Couple the inconsistency on character design with the pretty nice-looking backgrounds, and I kind of got the impression that they might have given up on the development halfway through the cycle.
This also pertains to the different fighting styles, labeled through roman numerals I through VI. I’m sure if I could commit a week to trying each one out, I might be able to make sense of it. And maybe you have, or can make time to do so. Although after playing with each of them at least once, their nuances are lost in a sea of confusion.
Take those two together and then apply them to the character selection. Yes, you can play as anyone in the entire series. Zankuro vs. Poppy? Bring it. Blond-haired Galford vs. White-haired Galford? Fo’ sho. Tam Tam in human form vs Tam Tam in monkey form? Yes. Although when you’re forced to pull a fighting style out of a hat, as well as endure how odd the animation might come up as well, you might want to ask yourself if the experience is all worth it.
Truth be told, aside from the odd – almost contextually silly – elements like fighting in front of the White House (Yes, the one in Washington DC.) and having a soundtrack that has everything from bluegrass to techno to Chinese soap opera tunes, Samurai Shodown 6 is not very satisfying at all. At best, it’s an academic curiosity or perhaps a proof of concept of what happens when you throw money at MUGEN. I really, really wanted to like it, but came away disillusioned.
But after that, and after going back to it’s title menu – and then selecting the option to go back to Anthology‘s main menu, all that disillusion went away, because I went back to the reasons why I wanted to play this collection in the first place.
So if you’re wondering if Samurai Shodown Anthology is worth your money, I guess the strength of my recommendation will depend on your familiarity with the franchise to begin with. If you wasted days of your youth in front of a Neo Geo cabinet in the heyday of the mid-1990s arcade scene and don’t have any Neo Geo hardware at home, you’ll really appreciate this collection. If you’re new to the franchise and want to get a glimpse into Capcom’s competent competition of the day, as well as immerse yourself in one of the most historically unique 2D fighting franchises, you could do much worse with your $14.99. As for the Neo Geo collector that has everything? Well, if you can live without arranged soundtracks, you’re a stronger fan than I. While it doesn’t bring anything revolutionary or flashy to the table, Samurai Shodown Anthology is a solid collection, and a great experience for fans old and new, even 15 years after the fact.
Final Score: VERY GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Samurai Shodown Anthology is exactly as the title implies – and that’s all it needs to be. For the price, you get five great fighting games from the arguably golden age of 2D fighting from a classic developer. Come for the classic experience, stay for the arranged soundtracks. You also get Samurai Shodown 6, which is kind of the benign tumor of the group. (* In the words of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy. “Best Soundtrack Ever.”)