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Samurai Shodown RPG is like Final Fantasy with fighting game inputs

An iconic retro gem finally has an English fan translation

A young samurai girl with long, black hair stands with her blade ready in a snowy, wooded environment. Image: SNK via Polygon

Over two decades after its debut, a unique, turn-based RPG based on the Samurai Shodown fighting game series (known as Samurai Spirits in Japan) is finally playable in English thanks to a group of dedicated translators and hackers.

The late 1990s were truly a magical time for fighting games. Not only were some of the most historically beloved genre entries being released, but they were also so popular at the time that developers started to experiment with established franchises outside the head-to-head competitive format. Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits: Bushidō Retsuden, initially released by SNK for the Neo Geo CD in 1997, was one such exercise, and now even fans who don’t speak Japanese can play the game in full.

“My white whale has finally been slain,” said project lead and self-styled SNK historian Jeff “MoriyaMug” Nussbaum on classic game mod repository ROMhacking.net.

Nussbaum’s journey to this moment, at least according to the README bundled with the translation, began all the way back in 2007 when an unnamed benefactor provided him with the tools to dump the Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits script.

“In essence, I was told, ‘Have fun figuring the rest out,’” Nussbaum said. “And since I’m more than a little Samurai Shodown-obsessed, I immediately set to work.”

After several setbacks and negative experiences — including, Nussbaum said, “being accosted online by people who felt like the mere existence of my work meant that they were personally entitled to it” — Nussbaum paused development on the project before being inspired to pick it up again in 2022.

Samurai Shodown: Tales of the Bushido, as the translation renames the game for English-speaking audiences, adheres to RPG tropes of the era while also introducing several wrinkles inspired by its roots.

The player is given the choice of six classic Samurai Shodown characters — Haohmaru, Genjuro Kibagami, Nakoruru, Cham Cham, Ukyo Tachibana, and Galford D. Weller — with which to start the game, each with their own openings as well as unique dialogue and cutscenes (the basic narrative remains the same no matter who you choose at the outset).

A pixelated character select screen with a samurai named Haohmaru selected.
Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits lets you choose between six starting characters with different stats and moves, much like a fighting game.
Image: SNK

Additionally, powerful skills analogous to magic spells in other RPGs have instead been modeled after party members’ special moves from the fighting games, and these moves can even be performed using traditional fighting game inputs like quarter-circles. This mechanic can be changed with simple menu selections, but come on, that’d be like turning off timed hits in Super Mario RPG. Samurai up and learn your Shoryuken motions.

A pixelated RPG screen showing a special move menu.
A menu shows exactly how to perform Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits’ special moves, but it’s up to you to execute those inputs properly.
Image: SNK

Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits: Bushidō Retsuden was eventually ported to more popular platforms like the Sega Saturn and PlayStation, but it’s widely accepted that the Neo Geo CD version is the best thanks to its more complex animations. The translation does make some improvements, however, including more potent stat-boosting items and the ability to select alternate color palettes for the playable characters, which were present in the original’s code but not used.

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” Nussbaum said. “And it’s finally done, barring any bug fixes. Thanks for being here at the end of it.”

The next level of puzzles.

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