In 1993, SNK released Samurai Shodown, a pioneering weapons-based 2D fighting game set in 18th-century Japan, featuring iconic characters like Haohmaru the wandering ronin, Galford the ninja from California and Nakoruru the Ainu falconer. A bona fide fighting game legend, the game in its heyday was renowned for intense swordplay and large, beautifully-animated 2D sprites.
While the series has lost momentum over time, in part due to not keeping up with increasingly advanced hardware, few would dispute it still sits — especially in its first two entries — at the table of hallowed 2D fighters like Street Fighter, The King of Fighters and Guilty Gear.
Yet despite being one of SNK’s most-respected properties, little is known about the original Samurai Shodown development team, Samurai gumi. While teams like Sega AM2 maintained a high profile through the ‘90s, always showcasing their latest games in public demonstrations and regularly appearing in press interviews, the Samurai gumi team toiled away in obscurity. To most Samurai Shodown fans, the only recognizable contributor to the series has been artist Shinkiro, who provided many of SNK’s most memorable illustrations in that era.
With SNK in a bit of a revival at the moment, we went on a quest to track down some of the original Samurai gumi team members and learn more about the origins of the Samurai Shodown series. A chance conversation at Tokyo Game Show 2016 put us in touch with Yasushi Adachi, the original series creator, planner, producer and director who guided the franchise up until SNK’s merger with Playmore several years later. The end result of this good fortune is the story of one of gaming’s most enigmatic franchises: Samurai Shodown.
King of the monsters
We gathered together nearly 7,000 miles apart on a video conference with Adachi, Samurai Shodown background designer Tomoki Fukui and composer Norio Tate.
While Tate is now an independent music composer, Adachi is the CEO of a successful but little-known (in the West) studio called Engines, which develops games for a variety of clients — perhaps most notably, it worked on Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Fukui now works at Engines as well, continuing the relationship with his former boss from SNK.
Over the course of our conversation we covered a lot of territory, including the series’ origins (it wasn’t originally a fighting game), whether or not anyone was dismembered in the recording of the game’s sound effects and an unexpected appreciation for Genan Shiranui, the hunchbacked claw-handed creature who helped kick off the entire series.
James Mielke: Samurai Shodown is one of the fighting genre’s most iconic franchises. The characters are so memorable, and the fighting systems are top notch. Was the original goal to simply create a Street Fighter-like 2D fighting game featuring weapons, or was it something else entirely?
Yasushi Adachi: I’m probably the only one from SNK that knows this, but the idea originally started as an action game with various monsters. As the concept evolved, the “survivor” of those monsters was Genan.
JM: Why did you change the design?
YA: When I was creating the concept for a monster game, I was contemplating what would sell to a global audience. I ultimately felt that a fighting game with ninjas and samurais, which represented distinctly Japanese characters, would do better than just monsters, so I changed the concept accordingly.
JM: So when you were originally thinking of a monster fighting game, you were thinking of a 2D, side-scrolling beat-em-up like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage?
YA: Yes! Exactly. You’re so smart.
JM: Just so I make sure I’m getting this straight: Samurai Shodown originally started as a side-scrolling action game like Double Dragon where Genan was the main character, fighting monsters?
YA: No, there were initially a lot of different monsters in the game. Genan was just one of many.
JM: But he was the only one that remained from the original game concept that carried over to what ultimately became Samurai Shodown?
YA: Yeah. I’m a huge fan of the idea of “scissor hands” and the inspiration for Genan’s hands comes from that. He is a very important character to me.
JM: In this original game concept, was Genan one of the playable characters, or was he a monster that you fought against?
YA: He was a hero. I love dark heros.
JM: You said he was inspired by “scissor hands.” You mean he was inspired by Edward Scissorhands or Freddy from Nightmare on Elmstreet?
YA: Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
JM: Then why did you turn him into a green hunchback character instead of making him handsome like Johnny Depp?
YA: I think you’ll agree with me on this, but Genan is more handsome than Johnny Depp. [Laughs]
JM: I agree with you. He is more handsome than Johnny Depp.
YA: Because of that, I’ll give you an additional hour for the interview.
Narrowing it down
JM: OK so Fatal Fury was the Street Fighter equivalent at SNK, and Fatal Fury was hand-to-hand combat, but Samurai Shodown was weapons-based. [Why did you choose that approach?]
YA: We wanted to illustrate the terror of fighting weapon-to-weapon, the impact of fighting with a sword in the game. That’s why the damage of being cut by Haohmaru’s sword is significant in the game. The player loses over half of their life gauge when successfully cut by a sword. There was a lot of internal criticism about deducting so much life gauge with one attack. SNK management said this design had to be changed, but I thought it was very interesting to have players fight under the risk and fear of fighting with weapons and feel the destructive force of the sword, so I ignored them and kept it in the game.
JM: It actually makes sense to lose that much life. If someone hits me tomorrow with the business end of a samurai sword, I can tell you with confidence that my personal lifebar is going to go down by at least half.
YA: Right, but it probably wouldn’t pass in today’s industry. As you know, today’s game developers create the game, but then there’s a QA division that tweaks that game based on market research and focus groups. The dev teams today have to take the market research into consideration when finalizing the game. We can’t make a game today that is so inconsistent and unbalanced in the distribution of damage. Basically, it was a controversial design decision that probably wouldn’t happen today.
JM: There’s something cool about the earlier days of game development where you could have that purity of design before it gets hammered out by focus group testing and market research, right?
YA: The industry was growing and there was a lot of freedom for the developers. It was a very exciting and fun time.
JM: Did you get your feedback primarily from arcades?
YA: Fundamentally, yes. We would watch and record people playing the game at the arcades, and then take it back to the office and analyze the footage. But honestly I didn’t care.
JM: That’s honest. … The game was of course set in a feudal era Japan at the point where Japan began to interact with foreigners, because you have French characters, etc. What was the overall vision for Samurai Shodown's setting?
Tomoki Fukui: Adachi gave the creative direction, so he can provide more details about the overall design, but his direction was to create stages that would appeal to the foreign market. By creating Japanese and foreign characters, we hoped the game would appeal to a wider, global audience. The stages were dependent on the characters. For example, Charlotte is a French knight, so we designed her stage inside a French palace.
JM: Are there details in the stage backgrounds that are special to you?
TF: In Nakoruru’s stage there are a lot of different animals in the background, and among them there’s a monkey. Nakoruru is from Hokkaido, but as it turns out there are no monkeys in Hokkaido. I didn’t know this and put the monkey in, and then after the game released we had fans asking us why we put it there. I had to respond, so I told them that because Nakoruru is so popular with animals wild monkeys swam across the Tsugaru Straits to support her. [Laughs]
JM: The continuity of the series jumps around quite a bit. For example, the original Samurai Shodown falls into the second chronological slot in the timeline, while Samurai Shodown 2 is technically fifth, etc. Did you have to make any adjustments based on the dates of the settings?
TF: I remember that Adachi regularly instructed us to be aware of maintaining a sense of reality, especially around characters like Jubei Yagyu or the boss character, Shiro Amakusa, and other characters based on real people. He wanted to make sure that the game wasn’t all fantasy and stayed true to some real-life events and people. So we weren’t too concerned about the timeline of the series, but more in staying true to each character’s real world environment and maintaining a continuity between the games within the series rather than having isolated, unrelated games.
JM: What are some standout memories of the series for you, not limited to the background art or development?
TF: I have a story that’s quite popular when I’m asked about Samurai Shodown. There’s a power gauge in Samurai Shodown called the ‘Ikari gauge.’ [Editor's note: This is known as the ‘Rage gauge’ or ‘POW bar’ in the West.] It’s basically a sub-gauge and I think Samurai Shodown was the first fighting game to have a sub-gauge. Adachi came up with the idea, but the inspiration for the Ikari gauge came when the dev team was all playing Street Fighter 2 together for research purposes. Adachi and I were playing against each other and I frustrated him because I won. Adachi was so mad because he lost that he was silent for a minute. Then, he suddenly got up and shouted “Ikari gauge!” So we took that frustration, that anger and rage that players feel when they lose a battle, and decided to incorporate it into the game. That was where the inspiration for the Ikari gauge came from.
JM: So everyone can indirectly thank the Street Fighter team for that.
TF: Yes, that’s right.
JM: As you alluded to before, there was a rivalry between SNK and Capcom. Because Capcom had its CPS-2 hardware and SNK had the Neo-Geo, was limited technology ever a factor in development? Did you have any strong feelings about the situation or frustration with the hardware?
YA: The engineers felt frustrated, yes. [Turns to Tate] How about for the sound engineers?
Norio Tate: Not really. We didn’t feel there were limitations to creating the sounds that we wanted. I think less so than with the consumer hardware.
YA: Yeah, at the time, the consumer hardware had more limitations than the arcade.
NT: But, if we’re just comparing the CPS-2 and Neo-Geo, no, we didn’t feel limited in our ability to create the necessary sounds for the game.
JM: Throughout most of SNK’s history, up until when SNK started making console-specific games for PS1, Sega Saturn, etc., the company was basically tied to the Neo-Geo hardware. The Neo-Geo didn’t ever really evolve, while the rest of the industry did.
YA: We were young and stupid back then, so we didn’t really think of it like that, but looking back, there are two good things that came out of that. One is that working under those limitations forced us to be creative and pushed us to think of new ways to make the game fun and enjoyable for players. We probably wouldn’t have come up with some of the things we did if there was limitless capacity within the hardware. Secondly, because we were forced to maximize our creativity while working under those limitations, when the industry later shifted to mobile games and those started off with very limited specs, our engineers were prepared and comfortable working under those kinds of limitations.
JM: Speaking of the tight specs, let’s focus on Tate’s work on the series. I presume that you were in charge of all the sound effects, in addition to the BGM?
JM: How was it working to the Neo-Geo’s audio capabilities?
NT: During development for the original Samurai Shodown, in comparison to competitors, our system used the PCM [Editor's note: Pulse-Code Modulation] audio format, which was considered superior. Compared to what’s possible now there were certainly limitations, but using the PCM format we were able to produce and attempt to create higher-quality sound effects in our games.
For example, if we take the sounds for damage effects, one character was assigned 10 different sounds when they were hit. When we were making the first Samurai Shodown, our focus was on how to make the effects sound the most realistic. Games up to that point were limited to only a few obvious sounds, like “arggh” or “gwaaa.” We were able to add more subtle effects, like heavy sighs or breathing between attacks. We programmed for these sounds to play randomly during matches, which made the games feel a lot more realistic. For attack effects, as well, we were able to add multiple, consecutive sounds during sequenced attacks which made the battle more realistic. We were actually able to try new things with the Neo-Geo.
JM: Back in the days when game development was less sophisticated, and you didn’t have top-tier Hollywood talent doing voice-over work for games, you’d often have the office secretary to do the voice of one character, and an animator perform another character’s voice, etc. Who did you cast for Samurai Shodown’s voices?
NT: For projects prior to Samurai Shodown, I remember using on-hand staff members to do the voice recording. I, myself, did the voice of a monster once. But for Samurai Shodown we used proper voice actors for all the characters. They came to a recording studio and I gave them direction on the different sounds that we would need.
JM: Are there any interesting stories behind the recording sessions?
NT: It was only for a short time, but I actually once aspired to be an actor, so I’m pretty peculiar when it comes to acting. So if I felt the actor wasn’t doing it quite right, I would get into the studio and act out exactly how I wanted it to sound.
YA: What an ass. [Laughs]
JM: So the soundtrack uses a lot of traditional Japanese instruments like shamisen, koto and taiko. Later soundtracks even have some enka in them. Obviously, this makes sense since it is called Samurai Shodown. But, since you were targeting a global market, was it ever a concern that the music would not be as appreciated overseas?
NT: Hmmm. We must have been just stupid. [Laughs] We didn’t really think about the risk of using Japanese instruments or the audience's’ reaction toward the music. We wanted to attempt to do something fun that hadn’t been done before, something that fit the intensity of Samurai Shodown and conveyed the Japanese artistic sense. I was only concerned with how to portray these things in the game.
YA: I remember I was blown away and praised Tate at the time when he made the decision in one scene to not use sound, to totally omit sound and music. It made me really happy.
JM: Does that mean that you [Adachi] left it up to him [Tate] to completely decide the musical direction of the game?
YA: We of course discussed the general direction, and when there were places where I felt strongly about a certain thing I would ask him to make adjustments. But, in general, he’s very talented in both sound effects and musical sense, so I left a lot of it up to Tate.
JM: Did you [Tate] have a lot of experience in sound effects and traditional Japanese music, or did you have to learn it for the game?
NT: I studied Japanese music after I started working on the Samurai Shodown project. I didn’t have any formal training prior.
JM: Which of the Samurai Shodown soundtracks that you worked on were your favorites?
NT: I personally like the music from Samurai Shodown 3 the most. Specifically, Basara Kubikiri’s music. I feel that the music fits well with the character’s madness and background color from the stage where the song was used. The first song I wrote for Samurai Shodown was Haohmaru and Ukyo Tachibana’s song. It's actually the same song. The characters were originally the two main characters of the game and they represented sort of the yin and yang of Samurai Shodown. In order to place a spotlight on them and distinguish them from the others, I used the same melody. Haohmaru has the same melody with an aggressive shamisen and drums, but Ukyo’s song, in contrast, is a much more quiet and peaceful arrangement. The music reflects the contrast in their personality.
Another pair that shares the same song using the same concept is Hattori Hanzo and Galford: The Japanese ninja versus the foreign Ninja. Hattori Hanzo’s arrangement sounds very Japanese, but I took the melody and arranged it to sound like a rock ‘n roll song for Galford.
JM: It’s cool that the music has this level of conceptual depth. In regards to sound effects, I’m always interested in what people use to create certain sounds. Samurai Shodown has a lot of different weapons of varying shapes, materials and sizes clashing. I always think of Star Wars sound designer, Ben Burtt, who did very innovative things, like smash watermelons and slow the audio down or speed it up to create distinctive sounds. How did you create the sound for the weapon effects?
NT: We did all sorts of things. For example, for the sound of swords grinding together, we used the office sink and variety of metallic items and rubbed them against each other. This technique is used a lot in Japan, but we took the sound of cutting cabbage and tweaked it to create the sound of a successful sword attack hitting flesh.
JM: You never gave two actors Japanese swords and had them hack away at each other, though, right?
NT: [Laughs] No, we never did that. But, once when we were recording voice effects, we were trying to push the actor to give us realistic reactions to getting cut by a sword. I asked the actor to make consecutive verbal sound effects of being attacked — whatever came to mind and for as long as he could do them. The voice actor was rather young and took it very seriously but always ended up creating vomiting sounds. It got to the point where we left a bucket next to him in case he actually threw up.
JM: Is there anything you would do differently knowing what you know now?
NT: If we were to redo it again with the specs that we have today, it would be a completely different process. It would be Blu-ray quality.
YA: You would have them fight for real with a Japanese sword, right?
JM: Are you interested in doing something like what Nobuo Uematsu does with Final Fantasy and go on tour with a band or an orchestra and perform your compositions live? It could just be the Samurai Shodown Show.
NT: I know of someone who plays Samurai Shodown music in concert …
YA: We released an orchestral version of the music on CD. SNK also released an album for Fatal Fury.
NT: Including the Symphony version, three Samurai Shodown CDs have been released. One album each of three different titles.
Gumi, not gummy
JM: Jumping into other topics, at least in the West there was never much information on the Samurai Shodown development team, whereas some other similar teams had quite a bit of fame over the years. Did the Samurai Shodown team have a name?
YA: Yes, we were called the “Samurai gumi” (gumi = “team” in Japanese), and we were actually probably the first development team to have an official website.
JM: Does it still exist?
YA: I think the site is still around. I think if you search under Samurai gumi in kanji characters ... actually ... [checks online] yeah, it’s still there.
JM: Wow. It really is still up. The original Samurai Shodown developer site. Was it used to share information with fans?
YA: I would post comic strips and stuff. It was unofficial and I didn’t get SNK’s permission.
JM: That’s surprising. Didn’t you get in trouble?
YA: I don’t think they knew about it at first. [Laughs]
JM: That’s really cool, because Japanese developers are usually very reluctant to do anything that the company doesn’t approve of first.
YA: I don’t listen to what other people say. [Laughs] I became a game designer to avoid becoming a company man, so I try to do things that businessmen don’t do.
JM: You’re a rock ‘n roller.
YA: Add that to the article.
JM: How big was the original Samurai gumi team, and did it grow significantly between Samurai Shodown and Samurai Shodown 3?
YA: Early Samurai gumi was about 20 people. Later Samurai gumi was about 50 people.
JM: Was there any rivalry between the Samurai gumi team and any of the other internal teams at SNK?
YA: Personally, I didn’t have any rivals. But there was a certain sense of competition or tension between the teams. And as a side note, I have a former member of the King of Fighters team as a director at my current company, Engines.
JM: So you obviously get along.
YA: Hmm ... I’m his boss so he probably hates me, but I like him.
JM: Were you also involved in the Samurai Shodown RPG?
YA: I wish I could say we weren’t, but we were.
JM: Throughout the course of the series, you used numerous artists for your cover art. Is there a reason why you switched between them?
YA: There was a design marketing team that was separate from our development team that was in charge of promoting the game, and it was responsible for the boxes. That’s why the in-game visuals are different from the packaging visuals.
However, in the latter games there was an artist called Kita Senji who was on the dev team, and she designed the visual art for both in-game and marketing. So that’s why the visuals in the later games are more consistent. “Kita Senji” is the name of the area where the designer lived. That’s her pen name.
JM: Let’s talk about Galford. Have you seen the movie American Ninja? American ninjas are lame. But Galford is cool because he has a dog.
YA: I originally created Hanzo Hattori first, and was thinking about creating another, similar ninja character. At the time, my wife was reading a manga called Animal Doctor, where the main character has a Siberian Husky, and I wanted to make Galford a character that would be popular with the female market. So the inspiration for Galford came from that manga.
JM: So why’s “Shodown” spelled funny?
YA: This was suggested to us by SNK’s U.S. distributor. They said that “Spirits” [from the Japanese title Samurai Spirits] doesn’t really tell the consumer what the game is about, so they suggested replacing it with the word “Showdown.” And the movie Shogun was popular at the time so they suggested the spelling of “Shodown” as a reference to Shogun.
JM: Did Samurai gumi develop Samurai Shodown 2 for Neo-Geo Pocket Color?
YA: Hmm ... I don’t remember. I’ll have to check and get back to you about that. [Laughs] What I remember is that I don’t have any memories of it. This ties back to your questions about whether there was any stress working on the Neo-Geo. There wasn’t much stress working with the Neo-Geo, but it was very stressful working on the Pocket Color. It was stressful because of the low specs, and the Game Boy Color was selling really well at the time so we were competing with that while working on inferior hardware.
I think we would have gotten along really well with the WonderSwan team. ... We probably had very similar experiences working on inferior hardware, and probably would have bonded very quickly while having a few drinks.
The promotional copy text for the Neo-Geo Pocket Color was “I’m not boy!,” in reference to Nintendo’s Game Boy. The Neo-Geo PR team went and directly picked a fight with Nintendo through its marketing, so it was so stressful for us developers.
JM: Have you seen the anime Ninja Scroll?
JM: There was an official Samurai Shodown anime that was released about a year after Ninja Scroll, but it always felt, to me, like the Ninja Scroll animation team took a lot of inspiration from Samurai Shodown. What do you think?
YA: Yes. I’ve always felt that Ninja Scroll and Rurouni Kenshin were both influenced by Samurai Shodown. It was a lot of fun because while we were making Samurai Shodown, we could see that Watsuki-sensei, the creator of Rurouni Kenshin, was being influenced by our work, and we were simultaneously also inspired by his work. I’ve never met him personally but it was fun working in parallel, in manga and games, on Japanese historical fiction.
JM: Did you have any strong feelings about Samurai Shodown's blood being censored in Western markets?
YA: The switch from red to green blood felt really strange. Maybe it was the curse of the original monsters-themed concept. [Laughs]
JM: “Nicotine Caffeine” is one of the most memorable characters in fighting game history. Where did his name come from? I assume this was your idea? He’s very similar to Dakuan from the animation Ninja Scroll that we discussed. Is this just some weird coincidence?
YA: Samurai gumi were big fans of [Japanese animation studio] Madhouse, creators of Ninja Scroll, which was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. So we were influenced by the work of Madhouse. It was a fun time when anime, manga and the video game industry were all going through a stage of growth and were influencing each other.
I came up with the name "Nicotine Caffeine" because I was addicted to coffee and cigarettes when we were developing the game. I took the words "caffeine" and "nicotine" and changed them to kanji characters. I no longer smoke cigarettes.
JM: Here’s to your health!
Getting down to business
JM: Besides when SNK was merged into SNK Playmore, were there any other major events at SNK that affected the development of the Samurai Shodown series? Like changes in hardware or business model?
YA: As a business, video game companies naturally all revolve around budgets, right? Back around the time when Samurai Shodown was released, the industry was growing exponentially and gaming was extremely profitable. So developers and the creative side of the business were creating games with no consideration to the amount of money it was costing the company to make the games. There was no budget or deadline on our projects up until about Samurai Shodown 4. This applied to all SNK titles, not just Samurai Shodown. That probably had the biggest effect on the series from a development standpoint.
JM: Was it because SNK started losing money?
YA: No, that’s just when the company brought in business compliance and budget management specialists and decided to start monitoring financial budgets. The concept of budgets didn’t exist in the industry as a whole until around that time. ...
Up to that point, I put every idea we came up with into the game. It didn’t matter if it would take $10,000 or a million dollars. But, with a budget and a deadline, I had to choose what would be put into the game. It put a damper on the innovative side of game development.
JM: So the development structure changed.
YA: Yeah. This is, of course, the obvious thing for a company to do when it grows rapidly and to the extent that the game industry grew. Another thing that changed earlier was — I was at SNK before [Street Fighter creator and current president of Dimps, Takashi] Nishiyama joined the company, but when Nishiyama and his team came from Capcom, he brought a new development cycle and style into the company. That really changed things. ...
He came around the time I was working on the monster game concept that eventually became Samurai Shodown. He brought the Capcom business model into SNK and slowly incorporated it into the company.
JM: Would you say you’re a more organized game developer because of Nishiyama?
YA: There are three people in the industry who have influenced me. Nishiyama is one of them. Another is [Capcom veteran and, later, Game Republic founder] Yoshiki Okamoto, who I worked for at Capcom. The third is Masahiro Sakurai, who created Smash Bros. and Kirby. Nishiyama is one of the three people who had a strong influence on me as a creator. I don’t think Nishiyama feels that way at all, but he's had a huge influence on me. [Laughs]
JM: There are rumors that a new Samurai Shodown is in the works. Is your company Engines involved?
YA: No, we're not involved. However, one reason why we decided to do this interview is that the original Samurai Shodown team would like to get back together to make a new game. We wanted to get the word out that we're interested in re-grouping. The 25th and 30th anniversaries of Samurai Shodown are approaching, so we expect that people will be reaching out to us in some form or another. We don’t want to make another Samurai Shodown game, but a new game with the original members of the Samurai Shodown team.
JM: That’s cool. Is this something you want to work with SNK on, or are you just trying to drum up general interest in this idea?
YA: No, we’re not in talks with SNK. We just want to stimulate an interest.
JM: Aren’t a lot of the original Samurai Shodown members at Engines now?
YA: Yes, there are many of us here. Engines is a mix of former Samurai Shodown, King of Fighters and Mega Man team members.
JM: And you want to bring them all back?
YA: Yes. Many of them are already here at Engines. It’s my company, but I care more about the project and bringing all the members back together than about working with the company. I’d like to develop the project as “the former developers of Samurai Shodown.”
The former Samurai gumi members still keep in touch and are still close friends. We would like reunite the original Samurai Shodown development team and make a new game together again. We imagine the game to be a combination of an action game, with swords and martial arts, and a spiritual theme that incorporates Buddhist and Shinto ideologies. We look forward to celebrating the 25th and 30th anniversaries [2018 and 2023 respectively] of the release of Samurai Shodown. It gives me a lot of pleasure to think that Samurai Shodown might have played a part in introducing Japanese culture to the world.
[Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]