It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it’s actually been a little over three years since I reviewed the last game in the Samurai Shodown series. In the genre of arcade fighting games, Samurai Shodown has always been one of the underdogs here in the west. At first glance, it may be difficult to determine why. After all, the games in the series are gorgeous to look at and they also feature some really good music and sound effects. Even when looking a little closer, most gamers are likely to be intrigued by some of the unique gameplay elements included in these titles. Yet, when compared side-by-side with other more popular games (ex: Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter), Samurai Shodown always seems to fall a bit short for one reason or another. But, this didn’t stop SNK and NeoGeo from releasing a fifth entry in the series. Today, I’m going to take an in-depth look at Samurai Shodown V.
This game saw its debut as an arcade cabinet in 2003. This is notable because the arcade scene was well on its way to death in the west by that time. However, in Japan, players were still flocking to local arcades to play competitive fighting games. Samurai Shodown V did see a western arcade release, but it’s difficult to gauge just how popular the game actually was with the American audience. In many ways, it seems that the western release was really nothing more than an afterthought. For example, to save time and money on localization, the western arcade release had nearly all of the story-related cutscenes removed from the game. To be honest, this did little to phase players. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder in an arcade, most players in the US experienced the game at home via the 2006 Xbox port. For the most part, this home release is nearly identical to the original arcade version. But, the Xbox port did restore the missing story-based dialogue as well as added two new additional characters to the roster (more on this later).
As had become a trend in the genre, there was an update released to the original Samurai Shodown V. This second version is known as Samurai Shodown V Special and it includes a number of balance changes, additional characters, and new levels. This revision to the original game stayed as an arcade exclusive until 2017 when a port was released on the Playstation Network.
Of course, no discussion of Samurai Shodown V would be complete without mentioning the mythical second update – Samurai Shodown V Perfect. This version of the game was created in secret by the director of the development team. Upon its completion, a single arcade cabinet was released in the wild but it was quickly pulled and decommissioned after being discovered by SNK. Until recently, there was no official way to experience this version of the game. But, it has finally seen the light of day with its inclusion as part of the Samurai Shodown NeoGeo Collection.
That brings me to my next point. In the past, when I have reviewed the other games in this series, players on modern systems had to seek out and purchase each entry individually. Thankfully, since my review of Samurai Shodown IV, fans have been blessed with a new compilation featuring the first five games in the series. That’s right, Samurai Shodown NeoGeo Collection features the original arcade releases of all five Samurai Shodown games (including SSV Special and SSV Perfect). Not only that, but this collection also features online play and matchmaking. If you’ve ever wanted to own these classic arcade fighters, this collection is your ticket. It is available on PS4/PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/S/X and the PC. Some time ago, this collection was made available as a free download on the Epic Game Store. So naturally, I snapped it up. I played this PC version for my review of this game.
In terms of the game’s storyline, only the original release of Samurai Shodown V is considered to be canon. This game serves as a prequel to the entire series and focuses on a time of strife and struggle in feudal Japan. During a great famine, one of the kingdom’s greatest generals, Gaoh Kyogoku Hinowanokai, calls upon demonic forces in order to find the strength to overthrow what he sees as a useless government. Standing against him is his former student, Yoshitora. What ensures next is an epic battle between warriors who either side with good or with evil.
On the surface, the storyline above seems pretty solid. However, the problem comes in when you look at the cast of characters included in the game. Virtually every fighter from the first four Samurai Shodown games is playable in this entry. From a lore perspective, this doesn’t make a lick of sense. However, if we’re being honest, people don’t play these kind of games for storyline. So if you elect to play either Samurai Shodown V Special or even Samurai Shodown V Perfect – you shouldn’t worry if the games are considered “canon” or not – because at this point, does it even matter?
With that in mind, let’s go ahead and take a look at the cast of playable characters. Every single character from Samurai Shodown IV (with the exception of Amakusa) returns for this entry in the series. The following new characters are also introduced:
Yoshitora – The main “hero” of SS5. Despite being the next in line to the shogunate, Yoshitora prefers to live a carefree life. However, he is forced into defending his clan when his former master sides with demonic forces and launches a rebellion
Enja – An ancient fire demon seeking to meet up with it’s demonic companion Suija, in hopes that together they can master an ancient forbidden magic.
Suija – An ancient water seeking to find it’s fiery companion in hopes of mastering a powerful magic.
Kusaregedo – A giant monstrous being who finds its way into the fight by following another character who previously stumbled into its lair.
Mina – A young lady and master of ranged attacks who joins the fight hoping to defeat the demonic force that destroyed her village.
Rasetsumaru – A mysterious traveler who is search of an opponent of equal skill.
Rera – A dark and mysterious shadow of Nakoruru.
Yunfei – A wise old master. Yunfei seeks to defeat an ancient evil that he unwittingly released many years ago.
A hidden character Poppy (canine companion of Galford) is playable by entering a secret code on the character select screen.
The Xbox release of the game also adds the normally unplayable bosses, Sankuro and Yumeji to the playable roster of the original game as well.
Samurai Shodown V Special replaced the characters of Sankuro, Yumeji, and Poppy with Amakusa, Zankuro, and Mizuki.
Finally, Samurai Shodown V Perfect has a total of twenty-eight playable characters, adding every boss from the series to the roster.
Now that all that is out of the way, let’s take a close look at the actual gameplay mechanics. Fans of the series are going to notice quite a few changes right of the bat. For starters, there’s no dedicated button for a “strong” attack anymore. Instead, there’s now a “Special” button that executes a dodge (the specific move will vary depending on the character). Holding this button allows players to Meditate – a move that leads up to the execution of a Fatal Flash (super special move). Strong attacks are still possible by pressing both the light and medium attack buttons at the same time. In a rather controversial move, the popular Slash/Bust system has been removed. To make up for this, SNK added characters like Rasetsumaru and Rera to the roster to simulate the classic “alignment system” that players of SS3 and SS4 have come to enjoy.
Aside from these changes, the gameplay is largely similar to other games in the series. Having played the other Samurai Shodown games to completion, it didn’t take me long to adjust to the new controls. That being said, I found the original SS5 to be very unbalanced. It seems that the developers didn’t exactly take their time in playtesting all of the different characters against each other. This fact is more obvious when playing against an equally skilled human opponent. When playing against the CPU, the difficulty scaling does a pretty good job of hiding this issue most of the time.
Thankfully, the balancing issues present in the original version of SS5 seem to have been largely corrected with the release of SS5 Special. Mechanics-wise, the gameplay is mostly unchanged. Other than the previously mentioned balance corrections, most of the changes focus on artwork and graphical updates – with one big exception: the new Overkill mechanic. Overkill is name of a new special move, that when executed, will result in instant defeat for the opponent. Of course, pulling this off is easier said than done.
All of this may leave a new player wondering what version of the game they should devote their attention to. The answer is complicated. If you’re main goal is to go for a single player/storyline experience, then perhaps the vanilla release is for you. If you’re wanting to compete online against other players, Samurai Shodown V Special is the clear winner. But, if you’re looking for an all-out, side-by-side slugfest with a friend, you can’t go wrong with Samurai Showdown V Perfect.
When it’s all said and done, the bottom line is that any version of SS5 is a pretty solid fighting game with some really unique mechanics. Yet, it somehow still doesn’t manage to capture the same magic as the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat titles of the era. I can’t really put my finger on the exact reason. Perhaps its the fact that the series simply hasn’t changed that much in terms of art direction or gameplay mechanics. Yes, there’s some new ideas tossed into the mix here. But more often than not, they seem overly complicated and tend to hinder the action a bit.
Version Reviewed: Arcade (PC)
Difficulty: Medium – Right out of the gate, this game seems a little bit tougher than the previous entries in the series (but only by a bit). This is mostly true for the vanilla version. But even the two updates were just a tad tougher than I was expecting. Naturally, the difficulty ramps up as you work your way through the single player roster. The final couple of fights are downright hard at times. This is true even if you “cheat” and change the challenge level in the settings. But even so, the game never feels completely unfair and I was able to complete the single player scenario with several characters with little difficulty. As always, when playing against other players the difficultly level will vary depending on the skill of your opponent.
Multiplayer: Local, Online
Story: This is a mixed bag. On the surface, the base story outline seems a little weak. But when you take into account the storyline for each individual character, there’s a lot of potential here. The developers really dropped the ball though by trying to make this game a prequel to the whole series and including young characters from later games. It just doesn’t make sense. On top of that, localization issues butchered the story of the point where most English speaking players have no idea what is going.
Originality: This entry in the series tries to break new ground by making some pretty radical changes to the gameplay mechanics. This all sounds good on paper, but in practice it still ends up feeling very much like all of the other entries in the series despite its tweaks and revisions.
Soundtrack: This game continues the tradition of providing atmospheric background music using traditional Japanese instruments. It sounds very similar to all of the other Samurai Shodown games. Which, at this point, has become a staple of the series.
Fun: If you like arcade fighters, or especially if you like Samurai Shodown, there’s plenty to enjoy with SS5. Personally, I think SS5 Special is the shining jewel among the three versions of the game. Still, fans of the genre will likely get bored of before long. There’s just not enough new conceptual material here to really make the game outshine all the competition.
Graphics: The graphics in Samurai Shodown V are probably the most impressive in the series. All three versions of the game are similar in terms of graphic quality. But SS5 Perfect does have a bit of an edge.
Playcontrol: The playcontrol in this title is probably the best out of all the games in the series, with one exception – the loss of the Strong attack button. Having to press two buttons to execute a strong attack is a bit awkward. Aside from that, the new control scheme is very fluid and responsive. It doesn’t take long to get used to and I found myself favoring these new control scheme in comparison to the older games in the series.
Downloadable Content: No.
Mature Content: Violence and blood.
Value: The best way to enjoy this game (and the other four games in the series) is through the Samurai Shodown NeoGeo Collection. This compilation sell for around $30 and features a total of seven games. Occasionally, the PC version goes on sale for around $10. At that price, it’s a no brainer. But even at the full $30, it’s a heck of a deal.
Overall score (1-100): 70 – I found Samurai Shodown V is be a very middle-of-the-road experience. This is true regardless of the version played. For all the innovations it brings to the series, and even to the fighting genre as a whole, there’s just as many backwards steps taken. The balance issues in the vanilla release are a prime example. Fighting games should be more than just trying to shoe-horn as many characters in the roster as possible. Each character should have their own strengths and weaknesses – their own reason to be played. This is true for several of the characters in this game, but there’s just as many characters that seem completely pointless. In my opinion, all of this holds SS5 back from being a serious contender. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with these games. But there’s certainly better options out there as well.
Original System: Neo Geo
Available today on: Xbox One/X/S, Switch, PS4/PS5, PC – (Updated as of Spring 2023)
Best Experience: PS4/PS5, Xbox One/X/S, PC – (Updated as of Spring 2023)
Other Reviews In This Series:
Samurai Shodown (2019)