When SNK and Hamster started bringing the Arcade Archives line of NEOGEO ports to mobile platforms, it wasn’t particularly surprising to see the Samurai Shodown series represented among the opening salvo of titles. Historically, it’s been one of SNK’s most popular IPs, only coming in behind The King of Fighters and Metal Slug. With Samurai Shodown II ported by Dotemu a solid decade ago, SNK opted to open with Samurai Shodown IV. Little by little, it has been filling in the rest of the series. Samurai Shodown III ($3.99) is the last NEOGEO mainline entry in the franchise to make the hop. Does it live up to its siblings? Is there any compelling reason to pick it up if you’ve grabbed one of the others? Is Shaun really doing that thing where the opening paragraph of the review ends with a question?
Sort of, yes, and absolutely. I don’t like leaving questions unsettled for too long. When I wrote my review of Samurai Shodown IV ACA NEOGEO, I mentioned that it’s rare to find anyone that loves every entry in the Samurai Shodown series due to how inconsistent the games are in their mechanics and aesthetics. I think if you polled the masses, you’d see a lot of people citing Samurai Shodown II as their favorite, followed by a near-equal number of votes for IV and V Special. As far as the NEOGEO entries go, you’ll probably see the least number of people pulling for the original game and Samurai Shodown III.
Yet I think if you asked those same people what their second-favorite game in the series is, you’d see a lot more support for Samurai Shodown III. It’s a weird game by the standards of the series, one that its sequels largely set out to walk back from. That weirdness, however, is precisely what makes it stand out among its peers. Samurai Shodown III has a lot of ideas. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and some of them are good but badly implemented. But there’s something to it. A charming flavor that calls to mind the likes of Bushido Blade, cutting down to the essence of pop samurai media. Samurai Shodown has always been characterized by how swift and brutal rounds can be, but Samurai Shodown III is perhaps the epitome of that ethos. It’s entirely possible for matches to be over in two or three strikes.
The character line-up is one of the reasons why a lot of fans tend to shy away from Samurai Shodown III. The roster is smaller than the previous game, with just twelve characters to choose from. It introduces a few new characters but cuts tons of fan favorites like Charlotte, Cham Cham, and Earthquake. Some of those new characters are a lot of fun to use, and they fit the game’s grittier, more realistic aesthetic better in some ways. It’s a bit hard to hash everything with the greater timeline of the series, and the game doesn’t seem particularly interested in storytelling relative to the other entries. Indeed, one of the things I don’t care for in Samurai Shodown III is in how few chances the characters get to show off their personalities compared to the other games. Story isn’t the biggest thing in fighting games, but in these ACA NEOGEO releases we’re largely relegated to single player so it does take on a slightly greater importance.
There are a lot of gameplay changes here from Samurai Shodown II, and some of them ended up sticking around in the series. There are more buttons dedicated to your weapon attacks, with just one serving as the kick. Throws are out in favor of shoves that leave the enemy open to a good slash or two. After picking your character, you can choose a grade that determines, roughly speaking, how balanced your offense and defense are. Pick the advanced grade and you won’t even be able to guard, with a permanently full Rage Gauge as a consolation prize. Notably, this game brings in the Bust and Slash system that gives you light and dark versions of each character, with slight differences in the movesets between them.
As I mentioned before, matches in Samurai Shodown III can be quick and nasty. You can sidestep attacks, counter-attack, and whip out unblockable slashes. Your Rage Gauge fills up like a shot glass under a Slurpee spout. You can block in the air now, which provides more incentive to take to the skies without fear. Some of these elements didn’t return for the next go-around, and it’s not hard to see why. Even a pair of evenly-matched expert players can feel cheated by how fast things finish, and if you’re up against the CPU your quarters can disappear so fast you’d think your wallet was the dimensional space from which all the uncles of the world pull the coins they pluck from behind children’s ears. And in true SNK fashion, the last boss is a complete and utter… holy smokes, is that Dick Van Dyke?! Sorry, I thought I saw something there.
That being said, we don’t have to worry about blowing all our quarters, do we? Through the magic of the Arcade Archives line, we only need to worry about the sixteen quarters needed to buy the app itself. After that, we can help ourselves to an endless supply of credits. Better still, we have access to those coveted difficulty options. Turn it all the way down and the CPU is only mildly rude. It’s okay, Shaun said you could do it. Go learn the ropes that way and then turn it up again as needed. ACA NEOGEO options are lovely things, and you’ve got the full suite of them here as usual. Not just difficulty, but also all sorts of other things. Tweak as you like.
Also similar to other ACA NEOGEO games, you can play the game with an external controller if you wish. I highly advise it as the motions you need to pull off in this game can be a real bear with the touch controls. You can still have some fun with virtual button bashing without a controller, but there are probably better games to play if that’s all you’ve got. External controllers are also the only way to play multiplayer in this version, and that’s a real shame because I think the particular charms of Samurai Shodown III are best brought out with endless credits and another human. I know I keep banging this drum, but I wish some other option could be figured out for multiplayer in these releases. Most players will have to get by with the CPU opponent, and I just don’t know that I would call that very enjoyable in this game.
Samurai Shodown III probably shouldn’t be anyone’s first Samurai Shodown game, especially in the ACA NEOGEO mobile line with its limited multiplayer options. But its quirky qualities do make it an interesting choice for a second Samurai Shodown game. Because of how much it divided the fandom, Samurai Shodown III saw a lot of its rough edges sanded down or completely cut away in successive entries in the series. That makes it rather unique, and I think there’s something to be said for that. Make sure you pack an external controller of some sort and a lot of patience if you decide to pick this one up, though.