In a massive 2019 interview with Polygon, Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky reflected on his nearly 20-year journey with the Jack character, and the bittersweet resolution he’d illustrated in the series’ fifth and final season. The end was the actual end for his time-traveling warrior — that was the story. That was it. The end.
Considering the creator’s sense of finality, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time, a new hack-and-slash action RPG out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Apple Arcade, is artistic sacrilege. But with the potential of chopping up robot bugs as a time-traveling samurai stuck in a never-ending battle against a magical shape-shifting demon ... well, you can understand why Adult Swim Games and Japan’s Soleil Games teamed up to bring Jack back to life yet again.
What fan could resist the dopamine hit of maneuvering the warrior through the odd worlds of Tartakovsky’s imagination? And having played James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game and the notorious Legend of Korra in my lifetime, I feel confident in saying Battle Through Time is on the high end of the awful-to-good-enough tie-in spectrum. The game is pedestrian ... while also being a nice, warm return to a property I love. I can’t quit Jack.
The writers of Battle Through Time found the least offensive way to expand Tartakovsky’s story. Those familiar with the final episode of the series will recall that Jack and Ashi, Aku’s daughter, escape from the demon’s clutches by jumping through a time portal that drops them off at the beginning of the show.
It turns out the trip lasted longer than we thought: Opening on the finalé, Battle Through Time becomes a clever “mid-quel” as Jack retraces his steps through past locations and waves of familiar enemies.
Three-dimensional models don’t hew perfectly to Tartakovsky’s kinetic artwork, but the basic designs are all intact — jagged, graphic, and prismatic. The enemies still look like pure nightmares, while Jack’s allies retain their Rocky and Bullwinkle-like cartoonery.
Da Samurai shows up to sell Jack items and repair his weapons. The Scotsman and his daughters handout upgrade jewels. There are alligator robots and beetle drones and Demongo to hit with big-ass weapons. Later in the game, you can even get the machine gun from season 5 to take down other gun-toting enemies.
I can see why Tartakovsky approved the making of this conceptual offense to his art, then went back to work while the kids played in the sandbox. People who care about Samurai Jack made this game.
A number of the founders of Soleil Games were behind the Ninja Gaiden series, which makes sense, as Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is basically a Ninja Gaiden-like release with Samurai Jack in it. The gameplay is straightforward — hack, slash, hack, slash, combo, combo, hack, hack, hack — and the background environments keep players on the rails. There are corners of the levels to discover and upgrades to be found, but for the most part, the joy of the game is encountering increasingly difficult and recognizable foes from the series and fucking them up, Jack-style.
There’s a certain zippiness missing from Game Jack’s acrobatics, due to the limited physics holding the gameplay back from going full Tartakovsky, but the character’s documented abilities are a perfect match for the relentlessness of the fights, and the powerhouse moves that come with pairing the right spiky mallet with the right Huntor’s face.
There’s no better emulation of the cartoon series than running into a room full of too many enemies, and imagining whether Jack is fit enough to survive. The game is, thankfully, merciless, and at times, Jack takes a pounding and a half. In a neat design choice, battle shreds clothing, Jack loses his tied hair, and transitions from season 1 to season 5 Jack as he takes more and more damage. In a not-neat design choice, a death will send players back to who-knows-where, as the save points are variable, but always farther back than you’d like to go.
I thought Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time might add a layer of puzzles to the platforming to give the action a twist, and tap Jack’s meditative mind, but nah, it’s really just about ripping people to bits. There are lots to things to collect in Soleil’s adventure, from coins to Skill Fire to health-enhancing Dama and Bushido Spirit used to upgrade Jack’s combos. But even I, a student of the Smash Every Urn and Wooden Box for Goodies school of gameplay, got a little burned out grinding for the upgrades it takes to beat the ballistic bosses lurking at the milestones of each level. Collecting coins to constantly repair my favorite mace is, after hours of play, a bit of a chore. And I don’t like chores! C’mon, ma, I’m gaming right now!
Playing Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time tapped the part of my brain reserved for mobile games. There’s little to celebrate, and yet I found myself with an insatiable desire to keep slicing and dicing through levels to see which cameos might pop up and what other exaggerated weaponry I could wield in my pursuit of Ashi and Aku.
Story and character do not drive the action like in Tartakovsky’s series — air flips and fist punches do. A sense of exhaustion sets in almost immediately, while a hunger to get just a little more Samurai Jack in my life kept me soldiering on. By the standards of tie-in games, that feels like a success.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is out now. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Adult Swim Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.