Samurai Shodown is a 2D fighter steeped in Japanese history and culture
When SNK announced the resurgence of Samurai Shodown in 2019, many were excited for the storied fighting franchise’s return to the limelight. Haohmaru, Nakoruru, and the rest of the roster had been dormant for years, so for longtime fans, seeing them in a new light—along with a new state-of-the-art graphics package—was an exciting prospect.
The game lives up to its name through its intense one-on-one sword battles. Each fighter’s unique style is capable of taking over a match very quickly, with devastating combos hitting for massive damage. The roster is the largest in franchise history—including characters from other series like Guilty Gear, For Honor, and Honor of Kings—so there are plenty of options for first-time players as well.
However, thanks to design choices made by SNK, this weapon-based fighter also offers a glimpse into the real-world culture of the developer’s home country of Japan, from the weapons being used to the characters wielding them. Legendary stories, iconic locations, and more from Japan’s robust history are all faithfully represented here, which offers players a history lesson alongside the action.
The game’s main rivals, Haohmaru and Ukyo, are designed after Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro respectively, two swordsmen who famously dueled at Ganryu-jima in 1611. Meanwhile, Kyoshiro Senryo, the spear-wielding warrior covered in red and white paint, is a practitioner of Kabuki, or the ancient Japanese art of theater and dance. His look implements the colored paint and hakama (pleated pants) of the traditional Kabuki, while his moveset is broad and flashy, as if he were performing for a crowd.
The game’s villain, Shizuka Gozen, is based on one of the most famous characters in Japanese literature, Lady Shizuka. As the story goes, Lady Shizuka was a shirabyoshi (“court dancer”) in the 12th century who became a mistress for a military officer. In the game, she pursues the main hero Yashamaru Kurama because she mistook him for her beloved Yoshitsune, which is a direct reference to the folk tale. She’s given some extra abilities to hold her own against the other fighters, like being able to float above the ground and summon floating ethereal fans to attack her foes.
Even the stages are inspired by real-world locations, whether it’s the Mikatagahara stage directly referencing a famous battle or it’s Kumano Kodo, a network of pilgrimage routes with the same name in Japan’s Kii Peninsula. The franchise’s most iconic stage, Gairyu Isle, is a mixture of the aforementioned Ganryu-jima—where Musashi and Kojiro staged their duel—and Itsukushima Shrine, the real-world home to the massive red torii gate in the stage’s background.
While the main feature of Samurai Shodown is the one-on-one clashes, dig below the surface and you’ll see there’s more on offer here than meets the eye. The game is a crash course on the history, culture, and folklore of a nation steeped in all three, providing enough references to teach players something while leaving room for further research into their real-world inspirations. If you’re a Japan buff, or you want to start somewhere, Samurai Shodown is a great place to do so…and you’ll even get a fun game to boot