Deep Cuts – Why Samurai Shodown V Special is the Best Fighting Game You’ve Never Played

By on February 25, 2014 at 8:23 am
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Street Fighter IV. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Popular, modern titles with established communities. But what of the lesser-knowns, the hidden gems, the fighting games with great ideas that never found a foothold in the West, or at all? This article series aims to find those games, talk to the players who love them, and figure out what makes them worth playing competitively, even today.

If there’s a game you want to see featured or have in-depth knowledge on a game that you’d like to share for future installments, let us know on twitter at @mosesplan (Jason Moses) and @garciaincident (Luis H. Garcia).

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Twenty years ago, Samurai Shodown sliced its way into our hearts. Thanks to the title’s character and atmosphere, SS received four numbered releases on the legendary Neo Geo arcade hardware before developer SNK succumbed to bankruptcy in 2001. A few years later, the franchise came under the stewardship of strategy game developer Yuki Enterprise, who made Samurai Shodown V in 2003 and Samurai Shodown V Special in 2004 — the latter of which was considered by series fans to be the deepest, most competitively balanced entry in series history.

Why is V Special so highly regarded? Which characters and tactics define high level play, and how do they fit into the game’s ecosystem as a whole? What makes SSV Special so… special? I spoke to SamSho specialists Patrick “Mauve” McCarthy and Uesugi Kengou to find out.

Expert Bio: Patrick McCarthy, also known as mauve, is an aspiring independent game developer. He made a name for himself in certain circles of the fighting game community after developing the RollCaster netplay client in 2010, which grafted GGPO-like silky-smooth netplay onto cult-favorite PC fighting game Immaterial and Missing Power. He’s also a very skilled and knowledgeable Samurai Shodown V Special player, and helped write much of the Mizuumi wiki dedicated to the game. You can follow him on twitter at @mauvecow.

Jason Moses: The Samurai Shodown series never quite seemed to settle into a niche, design-wise. Some entries were very traditional and footsies-based, while others were much more combo-focused and experimental. Where does Samurai Shodown V fit in the series history, design-wise?

Patrick McCarthy: SSV as a whole leans towards being about careful, aggressive movement. Between the short timer (60 seconds flat) forcing the players’ hands and the distribution of damage being heavily slanted towards taking advantage of the opponent’s decision-making, there really isn’t much downtime in the footsies. Poking may be strong, but a well-placed fierce slash will ruin anyone’s day more than most combos will!

To put it in context with the rest of the series, it’s a cross between SS2, which is very much a footsies game above everything else, and SS3, which tried to spice things up a bit with greater movement and defensive options.

JM: When did you start playing Samurai Shodown V Special?

PM: Probably back in 2006 or so. My friend Pockets (not to be confused with Hellpockets) and I were checking out various fighting games at the time and we both got hooked on it from the nice, crunchy way it felt and the really diverse cast.

JM: Before we go any further, where should interested new players go to get matches or find information about the game?

PM: People still play the game on GGPO, and the Mizuumi wiki has a lot of info. Movelists, strategy, frame data, etc.

JM: Sounds good. So, what are some of the biggest mechanical quirks in SSV for players coming from other fighting games?

PM: There are quite a few mechanical oddities. I’ll cover the biggest ones.

Normal attacks can be freely canceled on whiff or hit, but if they’re blocked, the character goes into a recoil animation where it looks like his weapon has bounced off the opponent’s. Outside of a few minor exceptions, these are all special-cancelable! This itself is a Samurai Shodown staple.

Blockstun is insanely, bafflingly short. No matter how strong the attack is, the blockstun for every hit is only 5 frames. You can almost never rely on frame advantage because there basically isn’t any, so you’re forced to rely on range and spacing to keep you away from quick counters to many pokes.

The most problematic quirk is most likely the throw system. Normal throws have a 3-frame startup, but you can only do them when the opponent is in a throwable state. If they’re jumping or out of range, the game will option select it to a hop, one of the game’s defensive actions. This generally limits the usage of throws, as getting an accidental hop instead can be fatal.

JM: What’s the button layout like?

PM: Four buttons in a row, ABCD, like all Neo Geo games. A & B are weak and medium slash attacks, pressing A & B together is fierce slash, and C is kick. D is used for various movement options. You get hops and rolls depending on the direction you use with it, and neutral D meditates, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

JM: Can you explain what the different meters on the screen do?

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A few of the more important parts of the screen in SSV: 1) The Sword Meter 2) The Rage Meter 3) Concentration Level

PM: One of the game’s core and unique mechanics is the Kenki Meter, also known as the Sword Meter. This is just below the health bar, and it directly affects how much damage you do. When you do attacks, even if you whiff or are blocked, this meter is reduced. When you’re at neutral, it slowly regenerates up to maximum. So it’s sort of like a footsie-focused move proration system.

There’s also the rage meter, which has been around since Samurai Shodown 1. It fills up when you take damage. When it’s full, you go into raged state for a fixed length of time, and the length of the Kenki Meter grows by roughly 40%. This increases the damage of all attacks until it runs out. Because the proration of multi-hit attacks is fixed, this even further increases the damage of characters that are normally low on damage but combo heavy, making them much more terrifying.

Rage bonus can turn some pretty simple-looking moves into insane damage. If you let yourself get hit by them, anyway.

This actually ties into the game’s suicide mechanic, which forfeits the current round. If you become raged, you can suicide out (4632 + start) and begin the next round with a full length rage timer, putting you at a damage advantage if you can press forward before it runs out. Good to use if you’re going to lose the current round.

Finally, there’s Rage Explosion, which is a little like the burst mechanic you see in Arc System Works games. If you press ABC at neutral or when being hit on the ground, you will cause an unblockable explosion and push the opponent away from you, and then for a limited time your Kenki Meter will be extended by a whopping 80%. After this, your rage meter is permanently consumed and can’t be used again.

JM: Can we go back and talk about the suicide mechanic real quick? Beyond the sheer novelty of having suicide as a mechanic, how often does it factor into competitive play?

PM: It definitely sees use in real matches, even at top level. I used it last night in a match on GGPO, actually. I lost 70% of my life in about 20 seconds, went into rage, and decided, “Okay, I’m going to give up this round to go into the next at advantage while I still have rage left.”

Basically, it lets you control your own meter and the opponent’s. In the previous example, I got to start the next round with a full rage meter, and my opponent started with none. Rage is on a timer, too, so managing yours and your opponent’s is pretty important, and being able to deny it is important in its own way.

JM: What is State of Nothingness? How important is it to master, and can you rely on it to make comebacks?

PM: State of Nothingness and Issens are two mechanics in one.

Firstly, the meter for this is the small triangle above the life bar, and it starts at roughly 20% life. When your rage meter is partially filled but not maxed, you can press neutral D to Meditate, which will sacrifice your rage meter to shift the triangle further up your life bar. You can then activate this by pressing BCD when you are on your last round, your life is below the marker, and you still have your rage meter. Like Rage Explosion, doing this will permanently consume your rage meter, even if there’s another round afterwards.

When activated, time is slowed to 1/4 normal speed, and the length of this time slow is affected by how much meter you’ve stored up. This lets you do normally impossible combos and blockstrings, and is effectively free 50%+ damage if you catch them jumping! If the opponent is grounded and still has his meter, though, he can burst out of any hits you get, so it’s not completely free.

If you press BCD again while time is slowed, your character finishes with an Issen attack which is a very fast — but blockable — dashing move that does unscaled damage.

So you have a choice between charging this meter up and aiming for comebacks at your pace, SFIV Ultra-style, or letting yourself rage and have the chance to take huge chunks of damage out of the opponents’ life bar. Pacing your meter usage properly to rage when you want to is a really important part of the game!

JM: What are weapon deflects/catches about, and how important are they in high-level play?

PM: Like SS3 and SS4, there’s a limited parry available, which we call a deflect, that’s done by inputting 216D. This will only catch normal mid slashes, and not kicks, punches, specials, most lows, or overheads. There’s a short recovery animation on whiff, but if it connects it stuns the opponent enough for a heavy counter. If you deflect a fierce slash, it will actually disarm the opponent too, which is a huge momentum shift!

When you’re unarmed, that same input makes you do a weapon catch instead, which will always disarm and hard knockdown the opponent, giving you enough time to pick up your weapon. Also a big deal.

This mechanic is essential at high level and puts a huge check on poking mindlessly, because a single good read is 40% or more of your life in an instant.

JM: In the Mizuumi wiki for the game I notice the term “WFT” getting thrown around a lot. What is that?

PM: That stands for Weapon Flipping Technique, which is just a given character’s Super, basically. You need a full rage gauge to use it, and it varies in usefulness by character.

JM: What are the biggest differences between vanilla SSV and SSV Special? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that they fleshed out a few of the broken or unfinished characters between the two versions, but are there are any other notable changes?

PM: Think of Special like a balance patch that adds a few characters and fixes a number of crash bugs. The most notable balance changes were that they fixed Yunfei’s infinite fly glitch and Yoshitora was all-around nerfed but still strong.

Mechanically, there were two major changes. The first was to the State of Nothingness and Issen systems — In Vanilla, the triangle starts right next to the timer, while in Special, it starts farther away but charges up slower when you meditate, meaning it’s more viable to play without spending most of the match building it up.

NSFW. While most of the fatalities are more silly than horrific, some of them are graphic enough to give anyone pause, particularly when performed on some of the younger members of the cast. Following the Sasebo slashings, SNK heavily censored the AES cart release, removing fatalities entirely. They’re not included on any of the other console ports, either.

The other is the addition of the Zetsumei Ougi system, which is effectively an instant kill complete with (sometimes Mortal Kombat-level violent) fatality animations. To do these, you have to do a Rage Explosion, and the opponent has to be on his last round and close to death. It’s a one-shot universally invincible attack that is unaffected by time slow, making it a counter mechanic.

JM: Yeah speaking of Yoshitora, there’s this match video from Super Battle Opera 2004, between two top players, Kuroda and Mugiwara, and they’re both playing him. Why was Yoshitora broken in vanilla SSV, and what did they do to fix him for Special?

This character is such a jerk.

PM: By far the biggest problem was that he had a universal backhit infinite that was basically 2A, 236B, repeat until they die from it. Plus he had plenty of ways of starting it up.

JM: Backhit infinite? What determines if something’s a backhit or not?

Yoshitora jumps out of the corner and lands behind Gaira, who’s stuck in the recovery animation from a whiffed move. This is going to hurt.
Yoshitora jumps out of the corner and lands behind Gaira, who’s stuck in the recovery animation from a whiffed move. This is going to hurt.

PM: Basically like a crossup. If someone does a move with a lot of recovery, jumping over them will give you a free backhit, for example. Or if you run under them during a jump and hit them from the opposite direction during landing recovery. If you hit someone from behind like that, there’s a special stun animation that allows for more combo potential.

Besides that, Yosh had too much combo potential overall. For Special they made his nadeshiko moves — which functioned kind of like Dictator’s scissor kicks in Street Fighter — have slower startup and recovery overall, and they knock down now instead of giving frame advantage. They also made it more difficult to combo from most of his normals.

JM: What are the glitches like in vanilla SSV? You mentioned Yunfei’s infinite fly glitch. What was that about?

PM: If he footstomped someone while unarmed, he’d go flying off the screen. Most of the rest of the bugs just crashed the game or put characters into invalid states.

For the console release that along with all the crash bugs were fixed, but they left the infinites and general balance problems.

JM: So did they fix all the glitches for Special? No new ones popped up in the transition?

PM: All the game breaking bugs have been fixed, but a lot of minor stuff is still lying around. For example, using your rage explosion before the opponent uses his Issen will reduce his Issen’s damage for no apparent reason. People still occasionally just fall out of throws. And so on.

JM: Is there any reason to play vanilla V over its successor, then?

PM: For laughs. Also, there’s a playable character that doesn’t exist in Special: Poppy, Galford’s dog. She can’t block, but she has an invincible dodge move and is really fast. If you have a Nico Nico Douga account, you can see a tournament match featuring a Poppy player here (starts at around the 9 minute mark).

JM: Who would you say the three strongest characters in V Special are, and why?

PM: First, I need to say that it is not so much a tiers game as it is a matchups game. The top third of the cast or so all have at least some counters to each other to some degree, but there’s a few that really stand out to me.

Genjuro is my pick for the best in the game at this time, because he has great normals, great movement, good rage balance, a command grab, and plenty of forced setups off his cards, some of which are unblockable!

Kusaregedo, the big red demon grappler, is also up top. While his normals are good, it’s mainly because his front roll goes most of the screen with an insane 15 frames of invincibility and cancels immediately into his 1-frame command grab. You are essentially never safe on the ground against him.

Excellent match between Gedo and Shizumaru, featuring what mauve describes as the “best weapon catch of all time” around the 2:40 mark.

For a third it’s a tossup for me between Ukyo and Shizumaru. Ukyo is very fast with hard-to-blockable setups and a strong poking game, whereas Shizumaru has pretty much every movement tool you could ask for.

JM: And some of the weakest characters?

PM: Nakoruru suffers from “slightly too low damage syndrome,” in which she is an otherwise solid character but the damage shortfall leaves her 4:6 against pretty much the entire cast.

Mizuki is a new character to Special and is, unfortunately, effectively unfinished. There are a lot of angles she can’t cover and many attacks leave her wide open.

JM: Would you say the game is fairly well-balanced overall, then?

PM: Yeah, definitely. I’d say it’s balanced enough that at least half of its cast is viable for competitive play, and there’s almost no matchups that are really unwinnable even outside of that.

JM: What are some of the stranger or less orthodox characters?

PM: Yunfei was a new character to SSV and he’s really creatively put together. He has four airdashes, and you can use any three of them before landing, as long as you don’t use the same one twice. So if you use the forward airdash, you can’t use that one again until you land. This gives him some serious wire-fu action without also being overpowering.

Mina was another newcomer, and she’s unique in that all of her weapon normals fire projectiles instead. Her extremely low life and high damage/mixup potential tend to make her a very aggressive character when good players use her.

Suija is basically Bust Sogetsu from SS4, and all of his specials can only be done in the air. Leads to a lot of kara-canceled launchers to set up low air shenanigans.

Likewise, Rera is Bust Nakoruru, the wolf rider. The wolf functions like a stance, but if you get hit you’re knocked off.

JM: Who do you play?

PM: I tend to play zoning characters with a lot of utility options, so I gravitated towards Yoshitora as my main. He has great poking range and most every option you need, but his damage is fairly average and he lacks a good fierce slash.

When I last played I’d also be using Yunfei and Jubei frequently, mostly because I just think they’re fun to play.

JM: What’s your least favorite matchup?

PM: I think probably Charlotte gave me the most headaches. She’s a defensive tank and likely the closest the game has to a Guile archetype, so she tends to shut down a lot of characters’ main tools.

JM: What do you like the most about SSV? The least?

PM: I really like the thick, crunchy atmosphere, the focus on aggressive footsies, and the relatively low execution barrier. Rounds are ridiculously short but they feel like they take forever when you’re playing them!

What I dislike the most is the throw system. It’s somewhat buggy/broken in its current state and doesn’t feel like it was completely finished in design.

JM: As a thought experiment, is there anything you think you could confidently change in V Special design-wise that would be a net positive to the game as a whole?

PM: Proper throw inputs and throw breaks would go a long way towards making them a more reliable option, so that’s probably what I would start with.

There’s a number of matchups that tend to lean towards whoever is in the lead at the time turtling up or running away, and I think I would try to make it easier to deal with that.

JM: Thanks for your time, mauve.

PM: Thanks for having me!

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This was the grand prize for Capcom's official X-Men: Children of the Atom tournament. I know. I'm speechless too.
This was the grand prize for Capcom’s official X-Men: Children of the Atom tournament. I know. I’m speechless too.

Expert Bio: Uesugi Kengou, alias watakun, is a true OG of the Japanese fighting game scene. He’s been competing in fighting game tournaments since the early 1990s, and has been a fierce competitor in multiple Samurai Shodown titles. In what I hope will be a sign of things to come, he graciously offered to answer my questions about the game for the purposes of this article.

JM: Can you talk a little about your history playing fighting games?

Watakun: Originally, I was a big fan of Capcom games like Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Trojan — they had this really gritty feel to them, and great graphics. When I was in grade school I discovered Capcom’s arcade games, and the rest is history. I started playing fighting games with the arcade version of Street Fighter, and I happily bought the home version Fighting Street when it came out for PC-Engine CD-ROM.

As for my tournament history, I won the official X-Men: Children of the Atom tournament back in 1994, and I did really well in the Samurai Shodown V tournament they held at Super Battle Opera 2004. I ended up beating several of the favorites who were favored to win the whole thing, and Arcadia magazine mentioned me in their coverage of the event.

Watakun (right) faces off against tournament favorite Corotan at Super Battle Opera 2004. The State of Nothingness time-slow combo seen around the 3-minute mark is a good example of the kind of things they fixed in SSV Special.

More recently, I won a national tournament for Samurai Shodown 3, and I’ve also won all of the recent regional tournaments for Samurai Shodown V Special.

JM: Have you been with this series since the beginning? Did you play the early Samurai Shodowns at all?

W: I did, but I grew up in Niigata in the middle of nowhere, so it was almost impossible to get actual competitive matches in anything other than Street Fighter II. It wasn’t until after Samurai Shodown 2 that I started playing seriously.

JM: What’s your favorite fighting game? Samurai Shodown, or…?

UK: X-Men: Children of the Atom, which I won the first Capcom official tournament for. There’s a lot of freedom in the game system, and I loved how easy it was to create your own tactics and play style from scratch. It also got me interested in American comic books. It’s pretty old and I haven’t played it in a while, but it’s still one of my favorite games.

JM: Were Samurai Shodown V and Special popular in Japan? Compared to previous entries in the series?

W: Vanilla SSV was really popular, in large part due to the influence of Super Battle Opera — the 2004 SBO tournament for the game had something like over 1,000 entrants.

Yoshitora, Gedo, Suija, Yunfei, Genjuro, Hanzo, and Shizumaru were the stand-out strong characters in that game, and being able to make strong reads when it came to State of Nothingness was even more important than it is in Special. The low-tier characters in Vanilla are really bad, and the game as a whole is considered to have awful balance, but it’s still extremely fun.

Special was really popular when it came out in late 2004 and had a lot of tournaments, but after Samurai Shodown VI came out everything kind of died down as people moved on to the new game.

That said, Special is so well-designed and has such good game balance that people are still playing it, and it’s definitely seen an uptick in popularity as of late. Among hardcore Japanese fighting game players, it’s considered one of the best-balanced games ever made.

JM: Who do you think the three strongest characters in Special are?

W: Kusaregedo’s the best character in the game. Doing forward roll (3D) cancelled into his command grab, Rakuin (6428 + C) is insanely fast, and the rest of Gedo’s tools can make it incredibly hard to escape from. It’s really risky to throw moves out against players who have that setup down. If he gets you in the corner, he can go for Rakuin and do 2AB to anti-air any attempts to jump out, and to top it all off he gets a lot of mileage out of both rage and State of Nothingness.

I’d put Ukyo at #2. His dash fierce slash comes out fast and is really useful for punishes, and it completely dominates some matchups. Haohmaru can’t even throw out a fierce slash against him! Tsubame Gaeshi (j. 1236 + S) is an unseeable instant overhead that makes breaking the opponent’s defenses a simple affair, and his ability to stuff attacks and limit the opponent’s options with pokes is some of the best in the game.

Number 3’s Shizumaru. He has a glitchy move — Kyourakuzan — that you’re supposed to charge by holding down any button. If you charge it for 80 seconds (you can hold a charge between rounds), it becomes fully invincible (including against throws) and deals incredible damage. Due to a glitch, you can press start to use the move and retain charge even if it’s blocked. The end result is a move you can throw out when your opponent goes for a throw, dealing 80% damage just by pressing the start button. He also has generally good pokes and normals and small hurtboxes compared to the rest of the cast. Very strong overall.

JM: Which character do you use, and why?

Watakun’s Yunfei figures prominently in this SSV Special tournament video (starts around the 2:15 mark).

W: I use Yunfei. If you really learn to use his seven airdashes (called Tenchi Shichiyou), you get access to the highest freedom of movement out of any character in the game. He’s top-tier, and his mobility options also give him the best matchup against Kusaragedo.

JM: What do you like the most about SSV Special? The least?

W: My favorite thing about the game is that it offers the best opportunity for serious, balanced matches out of the entire Samurai Shodown series.

Samurai Shodown was designed to approximate the feeling of being in a duel to the death. If you were actually fighting someone with your life on the line, you would try to minimize unnecessary movements and actions, just like you would in the game. As such, SS is a game where waiting is good, where turtling isn’t cheap.

Along the same lines, SSV is a game where okizeme and wakeup setups aren’t particularly strong, and the emphasis is instead placed primarily on spacing and positioning. It’s a game where you have to read your opponent’s movements, carefully manage your spacing, and wait for just the right moment to throw out a move. That’s Samurai Showdown.

It’s that kind of purity of concept that earned the original Samurai Shodown Gamest Magazine’s Grand Prize when it came out, and I think V Special is the most fully realized version of what SS1 was striving for.

As for things I don’t like? Nothing really stands out.

JM: If you had the chance to make any changes to the game, what would you do?

W: The four boss characters are really weak, so I’d want to buff them up, make them properly threatening and boss-like. I’d want to improve Gaoh’s pressure options and make him about as strong as Ukyo. Zankuro loses way too much sword meter from his fierce slash, so I’d fix that, and also make his moves less punishable in general and give him a usable overhead. Finally, Mizuki had this serious aura as a final boss in the SS2 era, and I’d want to bring that back. I’d start by making her imposing-looking in general graphically, like she was in SS2. Make her moves better in general and less punishable, and increase her attack power in general, too.

What else. I’d up the number of consecutive airdashes Yunfei could do from 3 to 4.

I’d leave the startup on Kusaregedo’s forward roll the same, but increase the recovery, so you’d have to think more about when to use it. I’d also make doing his command grab drain a large amount of his sword meter, and I’d weaken his fierce attacks across the board.

Finally, for Shizumaru, I’d add a lot of recovery to his level 5 Kyourakuzan on block, fix the whole start button bug, and make his hurtboxes bigger.

JM: What do you think about the game’s balance overall?

28 characters, and they can all win. That's good game balance.
28 characters, and they can all win. That’s good game balance.

W: I think it has extremely good balance. There are 28 characters in the game, and every character can be played competitively. There aren’t a lot of crippling deficiencies throughout the cast. Like I mentioned above, it’s considered one of the best balanced fighting games ever by Japanese fighting game fans. I think it deserves to be played at Evo. I’d be extremely happy if fighting game players from America and the rest of the world started playing this game.

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Be sure to let us know what you think of the Samurai Shodown series in the comments below.

(Videos courtesy of mauvecow, KnightMysterio, horou9, Ars Magna, mike k, and kouhatsu)