When I was a lad the highlight of every month was the games magazines. And apart from the actual writing inside, they all came with adverts at the back which were every bit as delicious to drool over. The ones from importers especially: games you'd never heard of, even consoles you'd never heard of, along with the early stirrings of the merchandise mountain the industry now sits atop of. And then, in the early 90s, one brand came to rule them all.
SNK was founded in the 1970s and, for its first decade or so, was a relatively undistinguished developer for arcades and NES. Its breakout hit was Ikari Warriors and, come the late 80s, its focus moved towards arcades and in particular the company's development of a cabinet which could, using cartridges, swap between up to six games. Needless to say arcade operators in 1988 quite liked this idea, and the Neo-Geo MVS (multi-video system) was a smash. And in an era where the home offerings were still transitioning towards 16-bit, it turned out there was a home market for this awesomely powerful kit: in 1990, the Neo-Geo Advanced Entertainment System arrived.
What's important to understand about SNK is that the success or otherwise of the Neo-Geo AES depended pretty much entirely on the company's own software. And not just that: the nature of the hardware meant it sold for a then-outrageous £499 in the UK, and that's not even the eye-watering part. Every single game cost £200 or more. SNK's games couldn't just be good; they had to be best-in-class experiences that the less powerful platforms simply could not compete with.
So we return to those import adverts in the back of magazines. For over a decade this was what Neo-Geo meant to me. I had consoles, sure, but the idea of a Neo-Geo was out of the question unless your dad was Rupert Murdoch. Oh, I was happy with my SNES and Mega Drive, more than happy, but every month in CVG or Super Play or GamesMaster you'd come to the back and see what you could be playing. For a long time in this industry 'just like in the arcades' was a key marketing term for home console conversions: the arcade experience was considered the aspiration, the dream. Neo-Geo wasn't like the arcades; it was literally an arcade machine.
Perhaps on some level it was those ludicrous prices that made the games look even more special than they were. After all, to a 10 year-old boy, if you're going to price a game at £300 then it could equally well be £3,000 or £30,000 for all the chance they have of getting it. I fantasised about these games long before I could ever play one and the roll-call of names still fills my mind with a kind of awed reverence: Fatal Fury, King of Fighters '94, Metal Slug, Sengoku, King of the Monsters... and the daddy of them all, for me anyway, Samurai Shodown.
The fact it had weapons and gory violence was one thing. The fact that it looked absolutely stunning was another. And then there's just the fact that samurai are cool. Many of the above games would eventually be ported to the 16-bit consoles, including Samurai Shodown, but of course it wasn't the same. Those garish adverts showed you the real deal, in tiny stamp-sized screenshots that you'd squint over, nose eventually touching the page as you gawped over Haohmaru's gi definition.
The story of the Neo-Geo and SNK's various troubles as a company is too involved to get into, but suffice to say that the mid-90s was a golden era of creativity for the company and, as it gradually exited the hardware business in the late 90s, its games became increasingly available on home consoles like PlayStation which could also produce more-or-less 'arcade perfect' ports. The days when SNK and Neo-Geo were the aspiration, the gold standard for home consoles, were over.
Since which time, and in various corporate forms, SNK has steadily produced new entries and updates to its classic series across various platforms. I have especially fond memories of the DS Metal Slugs and the Samurai Shodown compilation on Wii. Two years ago a re-invigorated SNK released The King of Fighters XIV and, while those in the know reckon it's pretty good, it also contains about 60 characters and has the number 14 in the title. To me it encapsulated this sense of SNK re-hashing its past a little much.
Why is Samurai Shodown any different? First it's not got a number, marking this as a fresh start. But the most important thing is that, outside of its predecessors, this is like nothing else in the genre. It's the slowest-paced fighting game you'll ever play. It lacks the huge rosters and long combo strings of modern competition like Street Fighter V or Tekken 8. Some of the key mechanics work over the course of matches rather than rounds. And with the right move at the right time, you can pretty much KO a full-health opponent.
In a strange way, a good comparison to Samurai Shodown's fighting style is Monster Hunter. What bounces a lot of early players away from Monster Hunter is the (general) lack of animation-cancelling: when you execute a move, your hunter performs that move and is committed until it ends. Exactly the same here. Whichever of the 16 characters you pick, they're carrying a weapon. There are four attack buttons and only one (kick) doesn't use this tool. You can do a little poke that's relatively quick but swinging these things with any kind of heft means a multiple-second animation.
Slow-paced doesn't mean the attacks are slow: you can swing a blade fairly quickly. It means that, if the attack misses, your opponent has a big window in which to counter. Whiff a heavy attack and the seconds until the recovery is over can feel like hours. Atop this is layered an ingenious blocking mechanic, whereby you take chip damage but can also 'bounce' an over-ambitious opponent back (so for example, blocking a heavy attack means a little damage to you, but a guaranteed window in which you can hit home with a medium attack). You can also parry by blocking at the right time, creating another window and filling your rage gauge.
What this creates is a fighting game that's still like no other, one where mind games are paramount. What combos there are tend to be short 2-3 hitters that do big damage, and executing your ultimate move (one per match) or Rage special is easy (in the latter case, two laps of the left trigger). In other games you have tiny windows in which to punish opponents, and to maximise damage you need to be able to pull out dexterous button combinations at a split-second's notice. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but in Samurai Shodown that window feels huge: as a mate observed while we were playing a few rounds, "it feels like you've got time to think about how to punish them." I won my first five online matches through the simple combo of careful blocking and heavy attack punishes.
The emphasis placed on defence is what gives a Samurai Shodown match such tension. Players strike and block and deflect each other constantly, the clang of the blades becoming a metronome over the soundtrack. You will soon have matches where almost all of the damage done is through chip, players' weapons bouncing off resolute defence, neither willing to give an inch, until one little misjudgement proves fatal. I said this game was slow-paced, and that's true, but the moment-to-moment interplay can become blistering.
The size of the roster and the slimline nature of the package has come in for some criticism. I'm obviously in the position of being time-poor and game-rich, so take this with a pinch of salt, but I find this a major selling point for Samurai Shodown. 16 characters (and more are coming via DLC) is a roster that you can get a handle on: enjoying a fighting game isn't about just learning your own characters, but knowing what the various opponents can throw at you. Even more importantly, every one of these 16 fighters is distinct; there's not one example of the usual Ryu/Ken palette swap common to the genre.
With regard to the modes, it just has everything you need and no more: training, a campaign, online and local multiplayer, a dojo where you can download ghost data and have the CPU mimic that fighting style, a gauntlet (fight everyone) and survival (one lifebar). I mean... what else are we looking for here, exactly? A figurine-collecting minigame? An online shop packed with costumes and an in-game currency to grind? And who honestly watches fighting game cutscenes anyway, nevermind enjoys them?
I am fine with something that has this level of confidence and purity. Samurai Shodown is a brilliant fighting game and pulls in the opposite direction to nearly everything else in the genre. It is constructed around weapons in a meaningful way, basing every aspect on both their power and their downsides. The controls are stuffed with endless little kinks, and the potential of any given character slowly unfolds in a sequence of mini-eureka moments.
That probably won't be news to long-term fans. But maybe it's time SNK found some new ones. What's thrilling about Samurai Shodown is that it's so confident in its own style. You bet your life that SNK's developers know the obvious competition inside-out, but on this evidence they just don't care what Capcom and Namco are up to. Now that's what made SNK aspirational, back in the day. That's why you'd salivate over the review and screenshots of the latest production from this Willy Wonka of 90s game developers. In modern times the graphics don't matter so much. The idea of arcade perfect is nothing more than a baseline.
But an attitude, a culture, and an unbreakable confidence that what you're offering up is the best? That never dies. And it's why, while playing Samurai Shodown, and for the first time in decades, I felt like SNK was back. Scratching the parts others can't quite reach. Different, ornery, and beautiful. I'll tell you what the SNK factor is, and it's pretty simple. There are plenty of great fighting games out there. But you won't find another quite like this.