The calm chaos of Samurai Shodown

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Knife-y Wifey, by Irene Koh

There is a moment in this video from an a-cho Samurai Shodown V Special tournament set that I think is one of the most beautiful moments in fighting games. Ukyo and Yoshitora are running around a candle-lit dojo. The only sounds you can hear are footsteps, battle cries, and swords clashing. They trade hits here and there, and then Yoshitora decides to sit in the corner and wait, prompting Ukyo to meditate briefly and then wait with him, just outside poking range. The two stare at each other for entire agonizing seconds before one flinches and breaks the staredown, and the battle continues anew.

I talk a lot at how fighting games recreate various aspects of being a martial artist — the attitude towards personal growth and cultivation of discipline, the desire to seek out stronger fighters to train with and test against, the joy of bringing one’s body and mind in deeper union. To me, the Samurai Shodown series has stood out as a remarkable example of fighting game design because when people play it, they routinely recreate moments that look like they were ripped out of a classic samurai drama, not because they’re landing elaborately animated cutscene supers, but because the game’s core combat rules are designed in ways that make fights feel like cinematic samurai duels. As fighting game players, we ooh and ahh at the things that look the most video-gamey — ambiguous crossups and nigh-invisible high-low mixups, for example — and so it’s incredibly cool to see a fighting game that occasionally just looks like a stylish swordfight.

There is a new Samurai Shodown out. It has been over fifteen years since Samurai Shodown V Special — the most recent version with any notable competitive community behind it — and the fighting game community has changed a lot since then. The Daigo Parry happened! Street Fighter 4 introduced fighting games to a new generation of players and sparked a genre revival! Street Fighter V introduced the realization that Street Fighter games are pretty hit or miss to a new generation of players and sparked a Tekken revival! Evo is now in Mandalay Bay! Hundreds of thousands of people watch fighting games over broadband Internet connections — often on their phones! Too bad netplay still sucks!

If you came to fighting games at the release of Street Fighter IV — an “09er” — you’re a hardened ten-year veteran who was still five years too late to catch Samurai Shodown V Special on release. Most folks have heard that it’s “got no combos” and “is all about footsies”. That’s kind of true, if an oversimplification. Samurai Shodown isn’t just “Street Fighter with no combos and big buttons”. Samurai Shodown is about Getting The Hit. So how on earth does Samurai Shodown create those staredown moments?

Samurai Shodown does have combos; however, it is not a game about combos. Modern fighting game characters typically have combos off of just about everything, which means that the risk/reward of any given attack is mostly based off of what you can get after it, not just the hit itself, and when you land that hit, you often have a little bit of time while doing the next attack or two in the combo to decide how you want to end it. Samurai Shodown says: Fuck your combo routes. If you want to get that big boy damage you’re going to have to use some big boy buttons, and if you want that Super Special Move punish on a DP you better be ready to do that SSM motion at a moment’s notice.

The net effect of de-emphasizing combos in Samurai Shodown is that your mental stack is going to be far more heavily taxed in neutral than it is in most other fighting games, because your tools do not neatly lead into convenient damaging patterns. Both you and your opponent have to keep track of a whole bunch of things all the time in neutral with few opportunities to relax your attention, and as you play someone, you’ll have to apply your pattern-recognition skills to read the cues that tell you what they’re prioritizing in their stack and why.

Blocking is strong. Most fighting games do not have many attacks that are punishable on block, and if a move is negative on block it might still be cancelable into something to make the defender think twice about taking their turn. In Samurai Shodown, just about everything is negative on block, often punishably so, thanks to a recoil animation. You don’t want your sword normals to be blocked in this game.

But: The recoil is cancelable into special moves, including the universal weapon deflect move. So your standing heavy slash that’s -20 on block invites the opponent to punish it, and that’s when you spring upon them by canceling your recoil into a DP/deflect/other powerful move. Other fighting games have blockstrings; in Samurai Shodown, every block situation is more like a Soul Calibur Guard Impact or a Guilty Gear Blitz Shield exchange, with both players capable of betting a lot more to go a lot bigger. If you like hard reads with big payoffs, Samurai Shodown will give you lots of them.

Throws are good. Since most normal attacks don’t lead to big combo damage and are negative on block, experienced fighting game players are reluctant to press too many buttons, and will instead check to see when the opponent is committed to blocking and go in for a run up throw. Throws are strong in Samurai Shodown, as they usually lead to a decently damaging followup with a knockdown; if the attacker has rage, they’ll probably be able to land their Weapon Flipping Technique, which gives good damage and disarms the defender. The main downside to throws is that their recovery is long as hell on whiff, so if your throw gets called out you’re likely to eat some shit.

Jumps are instant. Other fighting games usually make you wait through a couple frames of jump startup between when you press up and when your character is considered airborne; Samurai Shodown says you are airborne the moment you wish it. This is important for a couple reasons:

  • Throws are very good, but instant-airborne jumps beat throws (because you can’t throw someone who’s airborne)

This means that stuff like wakeup neutral jump is actually not a bad idea, since it’ll beat throws (which are good) and only loses to meaties (which aren’t great in Samurai Shodown, because everything is negative on block). Even stuff like jumping in, landing, and immediately jumping in again is a viable play because blocked jump-ins don’t give you many useful blockstrings when you land. And since jumping is good, anti-airing becomes even more important — another thing to wait and think about in neutral instead of just swinging and praying.

Running is risky. In most fighting games, running and dashing are basically just better versions of walking. In Samurai Shodown, you can’t stop and block instantly, and your attack options out of a run are usually punishably negative on block, so you don’t want to be wildly running in and swinging for fear of getting blocked. Instead, patient players are going to be walking into range to try to block a poke.

Taken individually, each of these Samurai Shodown “rules” is a slightly weird inversion to how Fighting Games Usually Do It. Taken together, they create a game where players have to be vigilant and attentive for every single second. There are few breaks for one’s brain to relax; few opportunities to force the opponent into lab-grown setups; just slow, simmering tension, punctuated by quick bursts of rapid-fire decisions. You cannot pay attention to everything at once; you cannot lab away your panic with the safety blanket of oppressive setplay. Think hard and you will be slow; think little and you will be predictable; so empty your mind, let it crash and flow.

Thanks for reading!

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-patrick miller

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