Samurai Shodown NEOGEO Collection (Epic Games Store)- Review

Title: Samurai Shodown NEOGEO Collection
System: Epic Games Store (PC)
Price: $39.99
Release Date: 06/11/2020


Prelude

In 2018, I covered the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection. This was an awesome collection of hidden SNK gems, compiled into one satisfying package with tons of amazing history documents and the addition of even more obscure games through a free update. At the end of 2018, it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year, and when I heard the developers Digital Eclipse were planning a Samurai Shodown Collection, I had to check it out as my proper introduction to the franchise. (after starting on VI, which you should absolutely not do)

Thus, after some delays and tons of behind the scenes work, the collection has finally been completed, with the first version being on the Epic Games Store, one of many PC game launchers. After an installation and redeeming the game, (since it’s free until the 18th of June, so when this goes live, you can get it for free! But I’m reviewing this as if this was a paid product, since that’s what it’ll be on everything else) it’s time to see how the Samurai Shodown franchise holds up to a relative newcomer.

Presentation

Being a Digital Eclipse joint, the presentation in the menus and UI is a lot similar to the SNK 40th and Street Fighter 30th Collections, a bit more closer to the latter due to this being a fighting game franchise. Like before with SNK, the game starts with offering you either to jump into the lineup of games, or into the expansive museum. Since the game selection UI is almost a carbon copy of the SNK 40th one, I’ll be discussing the museum and all the changes/improvements to that feature.

Like before, there’s lots of images to go through in the gallery. Like with the prior DE compilations, not only are there images for the seven titles included in this compilation, but every single game in the franchise. Some have more artwork than others, and for some baffling reason, there aren’t any captions for images, which was a huge disappointment to see since reading the captions in SF30 and SNK40 were a really fun way to learn some trivia about titles not included in those compilations, while here there’s nothing indicating what anything is, and it seems to be because SNK didn’t approve of any captions that were planned: a baffling decision considering the glorious amount we got in 40th.

With that said, there ARE information for the seven included games, and when selecting their gallery entries you’ll get a cool mini-arcade cabinet view like in SF30th. There it’ll detail all the cheat codes, history, and obscure trivia that I live to see, and I just wish that sort of detail was given to the other games noted in the gallery like the NeoGeo 64 and Pocket titles, along with this one niche mobile phone title I had no idea existed before seeing it in the gallery: but with no captions, that’s all I know about it, is that it was a mobile game from 2005.

That’s not the entirety of the museum though, since there’s also a separate gallery for every character included in the seven titles, where you can read up on their bios, see their concept art for their design and stages, and even cycle through the games to see their sprites evolve over the decade, which is a really awesome touch. While some characters have more images than others, they all have something interesting to learn about, and thus it’s pretty cool that there’s something for everyone.

There’s also some cool concept art showing unused characters and behind the scenes info for each of the five main games, though like with the main gallery, there’s regrettably no captions, leaving most of this info unexplained and confusing. It’s really a bummer, since I was super intrigued by this weird cybernetic artwork found at the bottom of this section, but with no info I had no idea if it was a scrapped idea for a game, a reworked concept, or just a fun series of doodles, then I ended up learning it was a canceled game idea thanks to a video interview. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have zero idea what those images meant, and it kinda makes the lack of captions hurt a bit.

From that point onward, the gallery does start to look up. You have your standard music player, with the MVS soundtracks of every single game in the collection available for listening, (no CD, unfortunately) and you even have a variety of interview videos to watch, something that was only recently introduced in a Disney compilation DE put out last fall. These are pretty fun to watch, and are fully subtitled. My only minor gripe is that you can’t expand the videos to cover the full screen, but these videos are big enough that they’re easy to see nevertheless, and these showcase way more trivia about the series than the image gallery does.

Last but not least, the gallery ends with a section dedicated to the best tournament moments from each of the five main games, although they’re all from the last decade, so there’s sadly no old-school tournaments to see here. The cool part is that all these have in-depth descriptions like the ones accompanying the seven main games in the gallery, so you get in-depth explanations of all the crazy techniques and comebacks pulled off in these videos. However, the video size here is way too small, since they’re displayed in a tiny corner of the screen, and you can’t rewind or fast forward through these videos, or enlarge them. This makes watching these clips not nearly as practical as the interviews, but at least they’re very short matches.

With the Museum detailed, onto the main games! Being NeoGeo games, they sport that authentic sprite-scaling and colorful look, with top-quality animation and pixels for the time period, save for III: I do not know what happened here, but everything looks hideous with gritty shading and a horrible art style, one that was thankfully fixed for a gorgeous fourth installment, which was followed up by the fifth game with even better animations.

Like in prior compilations, you have three screen size options and several wallpapers and filters, with me preferring the full-screen option for my TV, and the original resolution for my laptop screen. Interestingly enough, the games have an extra visual feature exclusive to this compilation. By some sort of magic, the game allows you to properly scale the sprites when the camera zooms outward, making the scaling better than ever before, leading to the gorgeous sprites shining even brighter than before. This is only for offline matches however, and isn’t going to be in the Switch port at all, but it’s still one heck of an awesome addition.

Gameplay

Per the norm for my compilation reviews, I always look at these on a game by game basis, but before we start clashing swords, it should be noted that in terms of options and settings for these games, there aren’t that many: you do the very important option to adjust the difficulty level, but other options aren’t really available until V, where you can adjust the number of rounds. It’s limited compared to the Arcade Archives ports, which is pretty frustrating to see.

Outside of that gripe, all seven games run and emulate perfectly, with all visual effects retained and super tight controls with no noticeable input lag I could sense with my arcade stick. That’s great news, since these fighters are really input-heavy. With all that said, onto the games!

Samurai Shodown: The one that started it all, this is a pretty typical NeoGeo fighting game, with four attack buttons and special moves to pull off. This was made during the era where SNK tried to copy other games at every opportunity, and it shows here. The usual mechanics and parts of the UI feel similar to other fighters at the time, and Samurai Shodown only really has a few things to dub its own, mainly the addition of a Super meter, (cannot be used for a special attack, but rather it lets you deal more damage in general) and the heavy focus on weapon combat, where you can deflect and knock away your opponent’s weapon if you deal a huge hit to them, reducing their movepool.

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For the most part though, the controls are fine, and the characters introduced in this game are mostly excellent, consisting of a fun roster of characters and pretty good music. Unfortunately, this was early 90’s SNK, and that means along with feeling a bit like a clone, there’s tons of bullshit difficulty spikes, even on the lowest difficulty settings. CPUs will block your attacks very often, and by the third opponent they will not let up at doing whatever they can to react in an instant: this is in huge contrast to the few fights beforehand, where the CPUs will be dumb as rocks on difficulty levels 1-4. There’s also a really annoying guy who pops in and throws random items onto the stage, adding a sense of randomness that more often than not screws over the player, though you can get health restored if you managed to grab the rare healing item. It’s doable with enough persistence, but it’s unfortunately a bit too cheap to be fun, and the lack of a training mode (common for all of these games, I may add) makes this pretty tough to learn the mechanics of. A decent start, but a pretty poor game compared to other star fighters from the time like Fatal Fury and Street Fighter II.

Samurai Shodown II: The popular, well-loved sequel continues the trends from the original game, while adding several more mechanics to stand out more and not feel like a clone. With a bigger focus on story, usable super moves, new characters and techniques, this feels much better than the first game, although the super moves can be ridiculously difficult to pull off, and the cheap CPU is still there in full-force, along with that stupid judge and his items. It’s not nearly as bad as I, but it’s a pretty tough learning curve, leading to a more middle of the road experience that’s much more original and fun online, but not quite as refined as it could be.

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Samurai Shodown III: Blades of Blood: Some steps forward and backward here. I mentioned earlier that this game did an art style shift, and it looks absolutely horrendous, with gritty shading and ugly backgrounds. Not only that, but a bunch of characters were removed, and replaced with pretty generic looking or ugly ones, though a few mainstays remain. That being said, the combat got a bit better with the addition of a new “Bust” style, offering a new moveset for characters, along with the option to manually charge up your power meter for easier super moves, though the commands for these are still a pain to pull off. The combat is still decent and the cheapness has been reduced, despite that item guy being around still, even though he doesn’t feel nearly as intrusive here., and you can even choose from three combat options.

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Oddly enough, the one main aspect that bugs me the most about this game comes from how you can move around as before the round properly begins. It’s only possible in this game, and never happens before or since, and I can’t understand why they’d do it this way. It doesn’t lead to that many cheap situations, but it just feels strange, though this game is when the series began to not feel like a clone of anything at all, finally gaining an identity.

Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa’s Revenge: This is more like it! More characters come back, the presentation is better than ever, and the combat is more fluid and simplified, with simpler super move commands, and the removal of the stupid item guy. Combos are easier to pull off too, and this ended up being the first one to feel truly fair and balanced, with the exception of the final stage of the arcade mode.

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Depending on how fast you clear the game, you’ll either fight two bosses and your rival, or just your rival, who already stopped the bosses. This rival fight is obscenely hard, although the boss fights aren’t a laughing matter either. Still, I managed to clear the game after eight continues on the rival fight, and this is definitely the one I want to play online the most, as everything about it just feels so fun, and the time attack nature of the game makes for a good speedrunning effort for beating your best times and trying to 1CC the game.

Samurai Shodown V: One seven year hiatus later, this one is a bit strange, being a prequel to the franchise, it has a lot of the same polish of IV, with more new characters and moves, and is fairly fun. However, the balancing for the characters is all over the place: Some characters are way way stronger than others, and this really obnoxious hammer guy (named Sankuro) has the ability to summon random people to hold you in place as he refills his health as much as he desires. Utterly obnoxious and somehow brings back the cheapness factor due to this balancing, despite this game not being nearly as punishing as the first two. There’s also a lot of reused assets from III and IV, and this game definitely doesn’t feel like a game from 2003, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

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Even stranger, this game actually has a detailed story mode, but only when playing the Japanese version. Not that this matters much since the story hasn’t been a huge focus for a while now, but it is a strange decision for the US version to just remove it all.

Samurai Shodown V SPECIAL: This is what balance is like, as a lot of the characters from V are back, and the bosses are now playable! (though a secret character and some throwaway newcomers are absent as a result) The balancing has been completely fixed, with the single player feeling way more fair, even moreso than IV!

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There’s also this new finishing move that you can pull off when the CPU is at low health, though it’s oddly gory for a 2D game like this due to adding more detailed decapitations and exploding blood: so much so that rereleases of this game have gotten the M rating, including this collection. It’s a bit on the strange side to see so much sudden violence added, but this game is just so refined and fun to play, and it also has the fun time attack feel of IV! Definitely another I recommend you try to play online.

Samurai Shodown V Perfect: This one has a weird story. It was a bug-fixed version of Special that was location tested in late 2004 for only a few hours, before being pulled from the floor and SNK denying it ever existed, despite a few fan photographs surfacing that were noticed on a Neo-Geo fan forum. Discussed in passing for years, this cancelled Neo-Geo game was arguably more obscure than some of the more well-known ones, such as Sun Shine and Ninja Gaiden II, making the discovery of the sole rom in existence and the inclusion in this very collection all the more stunning. It even got a full translation into English here!

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But you may also be wondering, “Isn’t a full translation insanely easy since it’s nearly the same as V Special?” And while that’s a fair question, Perfect actually re-introduces a story mode to the game, completely different from the one in the original V. Unfortunately, being the last Neo-Geo game on a tight budget and development schedule, it’s a very barebones story, with each character’s arcade mode ending consisting of little more than a dull wall of text. Being that it’s nearly the same as Special, this is still a fun one to play online, and I’m happy it was preserved, but don’t go expecting something too revolutionary here. They also cut down on the excessive violence a bit, by swapping out the gory finishes with the story scenes due to ROM limitations, meaning that this game is at least more reasonable in the violence if you care about that, but if you liked the over-the-top nature of Special this could easily be a detractor.

With all the games covered, there’s only one final aspect to go over in the compilation, and that’s the online multiplayer. Promising rollback netcode for all seven games, Digital Eclipse has made this their most online-heavy game yet, so how does it hold up? Well, it’s unfortunately not as hot as you may hope. The best aspect comes from the fact that indeed, the netcode appears to be rollback based, as the input lag is minimal and can even be adjusted at will, and the wifi battles I took part in were all very smooth and enjoyable, if they worked.

But that’s the huge issue: if they worked. For some baffling reason, this game is ripe with horrific connection errors. I was actually on the verge of just dismissing this entire part of the game due to how until mere hours ago, you couldn’t get into a single match no matter how hard you tried, since the game would disconnect you right before you’d start a fight. It was unplayable, and unusable. Thanks to the very recent patch, the game actually lets you play online, but I’d reckon that 10% of the time it’ll still give you those obnoxious disconnects preventing you from playing online.

The online is still really shoddy and there are a number of other issues with the way the online is handled in this game in general: while the matches are still relatively smooth, with the occasional bit of lag quickly correcting itself and not being nearly as bad as the way the 2019 Samurai Shodown plays online, there’s really little options for online. You have a ranked mode, and can play with the CPU as you wait for a match, but besides that and the option to play with any random person on your friend list, there’s little else besides a leaderboard.

That means there are no lobbies for your friends, no spectator modes, no invite options, or really anything fancy that you’d hope from a modern fighting game. It’s barebones ranked matches or casual matches, along with the option to play with a roulette of your friends depending on who’s online, so good luck getting games with a specific buddy if you end up playing this on a platform with several playing online at once. It works, but it’s pretty damn disappointing, chalking up to another aspect of this compilation that feels half-baked from what it should have been.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Samurai Shodown Collection is a decent effort from Digital Eclipse, though it fails to live up to the heights of SNK 40th. The games all run fantastic offline, but the lack of some options from the MVS bios, the complete omission of captions from the museum, no Neo Geo CD music, and medicore online leaves this feeling a bit less impressive than the prior SNK loveletter. This is still an absolute blast for newcomers wanting an easy way to jump into the franchise, and I had tons of fun playing through IV-V Perfect, but the other games left a lot to be desired due to that classic arcade difficulty.

Thankfully the others would evolve the SamSho formula to develop a unique identity, and when online does work, it’s incredibly fun, but I can’t help but feel that the addition of crossplay, lobbies, and replays would make the online feel a lot more enjoyable. The score-chaser in me also laments the lack of an online leaderboard for high scores in the early SamSho games, and a time attack leaderboard in the latter titles. Still, for successfully preserving lost media, being a fantastic introduction and for awesome interview content, Digital Eclipse still worked their magic and I can’t wait to see what they do next, but I also hope their next project is fully realized to the max potential like with SNK 40th, instead of being sorta close to max.

I give Samurai Shodown NeoGeo Collection a 7 out of 10.

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