A great fighting game with lots of personality.
The company SNK is most well-known for their wealth of fighting games. Going hand-in-hand with this is their first video game console, the Neo-Geo (both a game system and an arcade cabinet format), which was saturated with fighters and shooters. Some notable examples include Fatal Fury, known for its dual-plane fighting system, King of Fighters, a product of the former, and Samurai Shodown, which set itself apart by combining the zooming camera system of the earlier Art of Fighting and its own weapon-based gameplay. Perhaps Samurai Shodown gained the best footing of the three, being both easy to play and incredibly fun.
The game is set in the late 18th century, mainly in Japan. The semi-fictional Amakusa has come back from the dead to destroy the Tokugawa for killing him, and makes a deal with the devil in the process. Although you eventually face him as the final combatant, your main goal isn't always to destroy him. In fact, fighting him seems to be incidental. Unlike many other fighting games where one has to win some type of tournament and become the best fighter in all the land, each character in this game has their own unique motivation, often times not tied to becoming a better fighter at all. The ambiguous ninja Hanzo, for example, merely wants to find his long lost son, while Nakoruru, an Ainu girl from Japan, wishes to restore the tranquility of nature, which seems to have been disturbed by Amakusa. The only character that doesn't seem to fit into all of this is Earthquake, the giant punk biker from Texas who seems like he'd fit in better in Hell's Angels. And the translation doesn't seem to help convey the story nicely. Amakusa will refer to his enemies as "crazy funsters" and his cohort, the devil, is just referred to by the painfully simplistic moniker of "the dark guy". Regardless, Samurai Shodown has a better story than your average fighting game.
However, story is rarely the entire focus of a game, especially a fighting game, where fast paced action and awesome special moves rule the landscape. Fortunately, Samurai Shodown has this base covered as well. Like just about every fighting game, you pick from a wide cast of characters (yourself included) and fight against the other characters in their respective homelands. You swipe at them with your weapons and kick them until their life bar empties. As is the unspoken rule for this genre, you can pull off special moves that vary from character to character by inputting a short sequence or tapping a button rapidly, often times more powerful or useful than your typical move-set. The techniques often set themselves up for some fairly good combos, which adds a bit of variety to the game and generally quickens the pace. Speaking of variety, many of the game's features distinctly set itself apart from the competition.
Perhaps the most famous of the features is the extensive use of weapons, each character having their own specific weapon. However, this feature does create a bit of imbalance between the characters, as the ones with the longest reach will have a bit of an advantage. In fact, the final boss, Amakusa, is incredibly overpowered, able to teleport around the stage at will, launch attacks after said teleportation, and generally dodge your attacks at the last minute. This advantage can be taken away by a duel where each character tries to knock the other character's weapon away from them, something that can heavily change the tide of battle. Actually, much of the game has features which can drastically alter the match quickly. A ninja in the back will randomly throw items onto the battlefield, which can range from gold that increases the frivolous point count, food that heals a fighter, and a bomb that will deal some heavy damage. Suddenly, the winner will be on their toes, or suddenly backed into a corner. The only major problem with the gameplay is the hit detection, which can completely ignore your hits from close up. This isn't a common occurrence, though, so it's nothing to worry about.
The game's presentation is just as good as the gameplay, using the Neo Geo to its fullest capabilities of the time. The graphics are stellar, with detailed characters and backgrounds that are usually more active than your typical fighting game. The game prides itself on the small details, like how citizens will cheer you on, animals will scurry about from time to time and elaborate waterfalls will run in the background. But one feature in particular sets it apart from the droves of Street Fighter clones. The camera zooms out to allow more battle space (like Art of Fighting before it). The zoom transition is seamless, the sprites shrinking fairly well. Overall, the game's graphics are among the best on the platform (at least for 1993). The music is just as good, ranging from traditional Japanese flute music to more modern rock. None of it feels out of place or awkward, each rendition fitting the theme the stages demands.
Overall, Samurai Shodown is a great game, and the Neo Geo version is ultimately the best. Each port has something wrong with it, like the Genesis's bad sound and compromised presentation, and the SNES permanently zoomed out, but the Neo Geo feels exactly like the arcade game (which isn't surprising, given that the Neo Geo has the same makeup as the SNK arcade cabinets). With detailed graphics and an easy to use fighting system, Samurai Shodown is easily among the best of SNK's fighters.