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Words: Alexander Chatziioannou
You might assume that samurai-themed games are simple offshoots, riffs on already popular templates, repackaged with elegant single-edged swords and badly animated ponytails. You'd be wrong. Rather than mindlessly adopting the superficial trappings of martial-arts iconography, such titles have often attempted to delve deep in the history of feudal Japan as well as innovate in a variety of genres, from action adventure to grand strategy. They were experimenting with complex fighting techniques prior to Karate Champ introducing the one-on-one fighting genre in 1984; incorporating nuanced morality systems before Mass Effect bluntly forced you to choose between a Paragon and a Renegade playthrough; and musing on the dying days of a distinct way of life earlier than Red Dead Redemption. The following ten titles are among the most accomplished, groundbreaking, or otherwise memorable examples in four decades of samurai-games history.
Conventional brawling-genre wisdom dictates you should position all enemies to one side, right? Not an option in this obscure SEGA gem pitting your katana-wielding hero against wave upon wave of intruders to your daimyo's estate. Aside from the swordsmen crowding the courtyard, inching forward with weapons raised, the ninjas on the surrounding walls shower you with shurikens and grappling hooks, an ingenious way to frustrate your attempts at tactical manoeuvring. Featuring a surprisingly complex three-stance combat system that combined parrying with striking (replicated by the best fencing game of all time, indie sensation Nidhogg), this is a compelling action title that's been unfairly overlooked.
A late 1980s marvel in all aspects, from the bold characters oozing with personality to the branching paths of your pilgrimage, Usagi Yojimbo's most memorable feature, nevertheless, is the way it incorporates the bushido code into its basic gameplay. Respectfully greet the passing monks and they'll impart their wisdom to help you on your quest; forget to sheath your blade and - aside from losing valuable karma - you'll get your backside handed to you from those masters of the bō stick. Stay alert, though: not every situation calls for pacifism. That starving peasant you just donated a hard-earned ryo to may yet shed his tattered garb to reveal a dark uniform and the glint of a shuriken the moment you turn your back.
Strategy games set in feudal Japan were nothing new by the end of the 1980s when Cinemaware and MicroProse started supplementing highbrow tactical planning with more conventional action sequences. Released alongside the similarly structured Lords of the Rising Sun, Sword of the Samurai was the superior hybrid, allowing you to direct armies in the battlefield, engage in one-on-one duels with aspiring assassins, sneak into rivals' castles in overhead Gauntlet-style sections, and court potential brides on the way to becoming the supreme ruler of 12th century Japan. Wonderfully stylised visuals only add to the charm of a game still as playable as ever, one that has paved the way for the Total War series.
Designed by renowned 8-bit coder Rafaelle Cecco, this action platformer is a decidedly trippy experience taking you from the picturesque countryside of Edo-period Japan to the rooftops of contemporary Tokyo and beyond. Exacting revenge against the Demon King that assassinated your master necessitates embarking upon a mystical train that travels through time and facing animated statues, robotic guards, and tentacled monstrosities before cornering the villain inside his 23rd century castle. Creative use of magic abilities, colourful visuals, and, most of all, a sense of ineffable weirdness elevate First Samurai above its generic peers, so it's a shame that Cecco's recent Kickstarter bid to reboot the series didn't attract enough interest to fund more of his psychedelic visions.
A moment of rage channelled - in true bushido spirit - into silent contemplation gave birth to Samurai Shodown's most memorable feature, and one of the fighting genre's most influential ideas. After losing a Street Fighter II match to background artist Tomoaki Fukui, series creator Yasushi Adachi came up with the concept of the 'Ikari gauge' (or 'rage gauge'), a bar that would fill as you received damage and enhance your chances for a comeback. Just one among its numerous innovations (which included a focus on weapon-based combat and substituting combos with single, powerful strikes), history came full circle 15 years later when the revenge gauge emerged as the defining mechanic of Street Fighter IV.
Taking over Japan via political machinations and military guile sounds just about right, as does duking it out with honourless rōnin - but what about some samurai-inspired... survival horror? Originally conceived as a "ninja version of Resident Evil"", Onimusha: Warlords adopts all the trademark features of its venerated Capcom stablemate, albeit with a heavier emphasis on combat: fixed cameras, slotting puzzles, awkward tank controls, and frugally dispensed healing herbs. When the great unifier Oda Nobunaga himself is resurrected as a zombie general in the game's outrageous introduction you know you're not keeping notes for history class, but you can still enjoy this early PS2 hit as a refreshing change of pace from all the tactics and sword fighting.
In a just world, Way of the Samurai's groundbreaking approach to open-world design would have been critically celebrated and developed rather than superseded by Ubisoft's map-scrounging template. Your rōnin, wandering the modestly-sized environs around Rokkotsu Pass, has only three days to make a mark in Japanese history but numerous ways to go about it, with early decisions radically altering the course of the narrative. An unusually succinct and replayable example of its genre, Acquire's game was criticised for unimpressive visuals, but it explored Japan's troubled transition from feudalism to modernity years before Red Dead Redemption tried something similar and remains full of fresh ideas even two decades onward.
The second comic book-inspired title on this list is all about the presentation. Adapted from Takashi Okazaki's manga (and subsequent anime) series, combat in Namco Bandai's action slasher is too reliant on button mashing to satisfy; but the game's strengths lie elsewhere, in the non-stop directorial flourishes and gorgeous cel-shaded visuals, liberally splattered with bucketfuls of cartoony gore. A cast of A-list voice actors including Samuel L. Jackson in the main role, as well as Wu-Tang Clan frontman RZA's involvement with the soundtrack, ensure things are just as polished in the audio department. A classic case of style over substance, one might say, but who cares when Afro Samurai looks and sounds so good?
It's impressive enough that, in a genre so obsessed with the intricacies of melee combat, Nioh's various stances, weapons, and skills imbue its skirmishes with a depth unparalleled by its peers. But what makes Team Ninja's achievement truly remarkable, is the fact its development started back in 2004, long before the term 'Soulslike' was a gleam in FromSoftware executives' eyes, with years of work being scrapped (repeatedly!) before delivering such a pristine experience. At least it fared better than a planned companion film: Nioh's story is loosely based on an unfinished Akira Kurosawa script that was scheduled to be filmed by the Japanese director's son before also getting cancelled shortly after its announcement.
Speaking of the legendary filmmaker, Ghost of Tsushima may have received somewhat mixed reviews with critics reacting against repetitive quest structure and a rigid storyline that barely acknowledges your character's choices, but on the subject of its widely vaunted 'Kurosawa mode' the praise was near universal: it looks absolutely stunning. Opting for an austere monochrome look and adding some suitably cinematic grain, the filter enhances the already breathtaking vistas of the game's titular island. Even if the traditional open-world approach adopted by Sucker Punch has started showing its age, there's little doubt that the developer's final PS4 exclusive is both a spectacular swan song for the platform and a tantalilsing prelude to the visual wonders awaiting us in the next generation.
Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment, SNK Corporation
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