The sho must go on.
In a culture where emo
is manly and enjoying booth babes
makes you a wanker, macho geeks can find solace in 2D fighters. It's a great way to get out your aggressive instincts, and if you've mastered the quarter-circle fireball, you can pretty much pwn
in any of them. After all, the 2D franchises have evolved about an inch over the last decade.
But that doesn't make 2D fighting fans morons, a fact apparently lost on SNK. The fifth Samurai Shodown features lower production values, few gameplay tweaks and cheap character additions, effectively nullifying what little progress this series has made over the past, oh, nine years or so.
Samurai Shodown V has a whopping 26 fighters. All the old favorites like Haohmaru, Ukyo, Genjuro, Tam Tam, Charlotte and Hanzo return, but some of the new characters are nothing more than slightly upgraded versions of Samurai Shodown IV's alter-ego fighters. Rasetsumaru (Haohmaru's evil twin) is more fleshed out, as are Suija and Enja, the water and fire elemental forms of Sogetsu and Kazuki. Yoshitora, one of the new fighters most worthy of mention, is well developed. While his attacks are extremely powerful and fast, they have a long recovery time, so you'll have to play with or against him using careful, controlled timing.
The rest of the new characters are comparatively cheesy, boring, or both. Mina, an archer whose normal moves are projectiles fired at different angles, is a poor man's Dhalsim. She also comes with a Pokemon reject for a sidekick who proves more irritating than useful. Kusaregedo, a slow demon with wide sweeping moves that take up most of the screen, possesses some of stiffest controls in the genre. Then there's Sankuro, a wildly cheesy fighter who summons onscreen allies. The worst of these rushes in from off-screen and stuns you from behind, which is hard to see coming if your back is up against the screen's edge. Once you're stunned, Sankuro can replenish his health, a pattern he'll loop indefinitely (or at least until you turn off your Xbox.)
Samurai Shodown V inherits the timeless yet dated gameplay you'd expect. The Rage meter from IV works just as it used to: activate it to break out of a combo you're in and enter Rage, where you can use super special moves to disarm your opponent and cause massive damage. Rage also increases the length of the new Sword Gauge, which decreases whenever you attack; the lower the meter, the weaker your strike. Its intention is to dissuade button-mashing, but it regenerates too quickly to have any tangible strategic effect, just an annoying one. Besides, adding 'stamina' to a game featuring mythical samurai warriors with a billion magical moves seems a little lame. It's an unnecessary and unwelcome addition.
Concentration One is the last gameplay tweak, which can turn a bout of absolute ownership into a real nail biter. In the rare event that you have a tiny sliver of life left, you can slow down your opponent's speed and go for a monster finishing strike that lops off most of your enemy's life. However cool it is to deliver one of these last second saves, though, is countered by its shameless, cheap nature.
None of these additions are as good as the simple pair of life bars in Samurai Shodown IV. Instead of adding to the series' classic gameplay - specifically, opening up your opponent while keeping yourself guarded - we get one extraneous meter and a cheap comeback move. The omission of satisfying slash kills also takes away from the drama, though the somewhat boring ability to commit suicide remains intact.
So does the game's small list of modes. Arcade mode presents each fighter with some vague story snippets worthy of Dragonball Z's recycling bin. Such classic dialogue as "You're so rude… let's fight!" and "Well I like your jokes too, but now you can joke about death" are so badly written, they almost deserve Zero Wing props. You'll face a random assortment of challengers, but always get grilled by that Hercule derivative Sankuro. The A.I. ramps up in difficulty right when you meet his nigh unbeatable ass, making it a frustrating pit stop on the way to confused success. Basic Versus mode is the only way to play against a friend since the game forgets staples like Team Battle or Survival Mode. Practice mode is odd since the character selection interface doesn't show you a picture of who you're choosing, so you have to remember 26 culturally esoteric Japanese names with a lot more syllables than "Ryu" or "Ken."
Xbox Live is by far the game's best feature, mostly because we've been starving for 2D fighter online play and Samurai Shodown V finally comes through. Like the game itself, the options are rudimentary. The rematch option is very funky sometimes; even if you select it, there's no guarantee that your challenger will, too, so you'll be launched back to the main menu a lot. That's fine, since you'll have little problem finding lag-free competition via decent OptiMatch. A noticeable load gap between rounds is odd considering how light Samurai Shodown's graphics are compared to many other Xbox Live titles.
The character models for the old-school fighters are jaggy and washed out, while the new fighters look rushed with few animations per move and some awkwardly drawn proportions, especially Sankuro. The framerate is smooth throughout, though, and the control is thankfully very tight. The background music is in the traditional Samurai minimalist style, with a couple of well-timed vocal accents here and there, but the sound effects for the new characters are so annoying, it's hard to not mute the whole thing.
Rumors about a U.S. release of Samurai Shodown V Special, a more complete version of this game with more fully-realized fighters, have been making rounds at some forums. That might be worth waiting for, because this version certainly isn't. If you own Samurai Shodown IV, this deserves no more than a rental.