OK, so this post is cheating a little, as it’s actually a modern game on modern hardware. However, there is a strong retro connection which hopefully will become clear over time, and it’s yet another example of how older games often prove superior to modern ways (or maybe I’m just stuck in the past!
Back in the twilight of the Commodore 64’s lifetime, an innovative game called Samurai Warrior: the Battles of Usagi Yojimbo was released by Firebird and based on the adventures of the Samurai rabbit that appeared in the Dark Horse comics. Essentially a side-scrolling adventure with fighting elements, this late gem added some previously unseen gameplay innovations and strategic elements which set it apart from its competitors. So, when I saw that a new Usagi Yojimbo game (Way of the Ronin) had been released for iOS, I really hoped it was an updated version.
Sadly, I was to be disappointed. The combat elements and characters might be similar, but the innovations that made the C64 version so good are nowhere to be seen. Usagi Yojimbo (iOS) shows only a tenth of the imagination of the Commodore game, The strategy elements and moral decisions the player faced in the C64 game are replaced by a generic side-scrolling fighting game in which the titular rabbit has to fight a series of increasingly tough animal opponents. Compared with the original, it really only surpasses it in terms of presentation – which you’d kind of expect
Still, let’s not be too harsh and consider it in its own right. The gameplay might have been simplified, but there’s still a strong narrative attached and the combat element remains fun. Once I got over my initial disappointment and accepted Way of the Ronin for what it is, I did begin to enjoy it.
Graphics are simply stunning. It’s clear that the game pays plenty of homage to the original comic books, with lots of characters appearing to either help or hinder Usagi. The graphics for both the characters and the backdrops look brilliant, full of vibrant colours, big and bold they could have been scanned directly from the pages of the comic. There are also some nice little touches, such as Yojimbo’s face becoming angry when in fight mode (also a feature of the original game) which adds to the overall sensation of “playing” a comic book.
Sound is serviceable, if nothing to write home about. The obligatory oriental inspired tunes accompany the action and are atmospheric enough, although other sounds – grunts of pain as characters are hit, the clink of sword metal – are more generic.
Sadly, there are a number of fundamental weaknesses which stop this from being anywhere near as good its 25 year old C64 cousin. The biggest issue is that it’s too repetitive. You fight some bad guys, watch a cut scene, fight some more bad guys, and occasionally fight a boss battle. Thanks to the strong story, it never exactly becomes boring, but you do wish a bit more thought had gone into introducing some more variety to the playable sections.
The game can also be rather too easy, thanks to some poor enemy AI. All your enemies apparently have a death wish: they will happily throw themselves onto your sword; they trap themselves in a corner and stand there with their back turned whilst you hack them to death; or they stand and face you but fail to launch a single blow in your direction. Initially I assumed the game was being kind in the early levels, but whilst it did get slightly trickier, I never broke too much of a sweat (and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the world’s greatest gamer).
There are problems with the controls, too. Although quite simple (two buttons to control attacks, press finger on screen to move), they are not always responsive. If you’re in the middle of a fight and want to move to a new position, it’s actually quite difficult as the movement controls seem to seize up, which is not helpful.
Superb though this game looks, I feel that it’s something of a missed opportunity. There is a fun game there and I don’t for one minute regret downloading it. However, with a bit more thought it could have been so much better. If it had tried to imitate some of the C64’s more thoughtful, strategic elements (which actually would have been well-suited to an iOS game), it could have been one of the iPad’s must-have titles. As it is, it’s a fun, but generic and slightly repetitive game that just about gets away with it thanks to stunning graphics and a strong story.
Usagi Yojimbo costs £2.29 From the App Store.