Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Samurai Shodown Anthology

Through the first two installments, SNK's Samurai Shodown series was the only Street Fighter II clone to seriously challenge the king of 2-D fighting. The same year that it released Samurai Shodown II, however, SNK debuted their King of Fighters series, and thereafter the developer went on to focus more on KoF as its would-be rival to Capcom's Street Fighter, with Samurai Shodown relegated, a few 3-D experiments notwithstanding, to B-series status, becoming more SNK's version of Darkstalkers. The series enjoyed an unexpected revival late in the Neo-Geo's life, however, when SNK Playmore contracted Yuki Enterprise to develop Samurai Shodown V. (Yuki later went on to become Examu, the developer of Arcana Heart and now, alongside Arc System Works, one of the super-hardcore 2-D fighter developers still keeping the genre alive in Japanese arcades.)

Announced over a year ago, but released only two weeks ago, Samurai Shodown Anthology for the PS2 now collects almost the complete series of mostly 16-bit oldies on one disc. Despite initial promises that the compilation would contain seven titles, including the rarely seen Samurai Shodown V Special, the final retail package, merely a straight localization of Japan's Samurai Spirits Rokuban Shoubu released last July, features only six games and no V Special, begging the question, "What the hell took so long?" Perhaps it's for the best that they didn't try to add anything to the Japanese version, considering that, when SNK Playmore hired Terminal Reality to add buggy emulations of KoF '94 and '98 to the North American release of The King of Fighters: Orochi Saga, the additions came at the expense of the option to turn on the arranged soundtracks for any of the included games. Still, it's disappointing that, yet again, SNK Playmore just can't get it quite right.

Setting aside what's missing, what's there is still easily worth the budget price. Most of these games have never been available in the U.S. on any platforms of consequence. It's fun to relive the glories of the first two classic installments, to sample the experimental oddities of the middle two entries, and to try out the critically acclaimed but underdistributed SSV. But the real draw is the first North American console release of Samurai Spirits Tenkaichi Kenkakuden, included in the anthology as Samurai Shodown VI.

Again designed by Yuki, SSVI was one of the first post-Neo-Geo SNK titles, developed on Sammy's Atomiswave hardware and originally released to Japanese arcades in 2005, which is maybe why the wait for Samurai Shodown Anthology has felt so much longer for me than it actually has been. Clearly designed to be the definitive 2-D installment, it includes every character from the previous five titles. That's right, all your favorites are there: Haohmaru, Nakoruru, Rimururu, Tam Tam, Cham Cham, Nicotine, Genan, etc. Yes, even Neinhalt Sieger! When I first heard about this game back in 2005, it went straight to the top of my most-wanted list. Keep in mind, this was at a time when Capcom had all but given up on fighting games, with their lone new release of the craptacular Capcom Fighting Evolution only worsening the starvation for a new title to relieve 2001's exhausted Capcom vs. SNK 2. With its strong heritage, comprehensive forty-character roster, and six-style system clearly modeled after CvS2, SSVI could have been that game, and I would have happily forked over fifty dollars for a domestic release. Unfortunately, this was also at a time when SCEA was refusing to approve releases of full-price 2-D fighting games with 16-bit graphics, and after SNK Playmore had given up trying to sell their games to Xbox owners (not that I would have bought an Xbox just for this game). Thus, the original PS2 release never made its way to North America, and the years ticked by as the 2-D fighter drought continued with only intermittent KoF releases to occasionally ameliorate the cravings.

Now that it's finally here, I wish I could say that it was worth the wait. But the reality is that, in the four years since when the game should have come out, the situation has changed. As with KoF '98: Ultimate Match, it just feels far too late for this game to matter. Capcom already announced and released the big one, Street Fighter IV, and I have it and play it regularly. As much as I may like Samurai Shodown, no other fighting game would have stood a chance against a new Street Fighter.

It's additionally unfortunate that the look of SSVI has aged rapidly as a direct result of SFIV (and the upcoming KoF XII) finally giving the genre the considerable visual update that it has long needed. In fact, it's actually harder on the eyes than any of the earlier installments in the collection, due to an uncomfortable mix of 16-bit characters against hi-res backgrounds. Separately, the sprites and stages would make for admirable works of pop art, full of fine details that go unnoticed while playing. Put it all together, however, and it's simply a mess. The boldly colored sprites, lacking distinct outlines, get lost in the overly busy backgrounds. The sound is even worse, with the voices sounding muffled and unintelligible, robbing the characters and their moves of much personality.

At least the actual fighting is solid, and the argument could even be made that this is the best and deepest SNK fighter yet. It's absolutely massive, on a par with CvS2 in terms of quantity, which was originally one of the selling points for SSVI, though frankly, now next to the more streamlined SFIV, it feels overwhelming. Down the line, of course, that will definitely lend the game legs and provide good reasons to come back to it after flashier but less substantial titles fall by the wayside. One point definitely in the game's favor over SFIV: literally everything is unlocked right off the bat--bonus characters, styles, even the complete endings gallery (and there are some crazy endings for sure!).

It didn't bring back the 2-D fighting game genre. It didn't fill the void for starving enthusiasts like me. It couldn't even help me pass the time while waiting for SFIV. But eventually I will need a break from SFIV, and while I've mentioned looking forward to BlazBlue and KoF XII, I don't realistically expect either of those to steal my attention for very long. It will be at that point that SSVI may have its time.

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