Hidden Gems is an occasional series that looks at some great games that deserve to be more widely known.
A while back I posted a review of the new Usagi Yojimbo game – Way of the Ronin – available for iOS devices. Whilst a decent enough game, I lamented it wasn’t a patch on the old Commodore 64 title released by Firebird in 1988.
To make sure this wasn’t me looking back through rose-tinted retro glasses, I took some time over Christmas to go back and replay the original (any old excuse!) and I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as good as I remember.
Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo (to give the game its proper title) arrived fairly late in the Commodore 64’s life. Sadly, because it arrived when people were starting to migrate to the 16 bit machines it remained relatively unknown to many gamers. This was a real shame because veteran developers Beam Software used all their knowledge and experience to produce a stunning game that, in many ways, was ahead of its time.
Everything about Samurai Warrior oozes quality. The large, cartoon-like graphics still look good today and perfectly capture the feel of the comic book source material. Characters look fantastic and are well animated, with each one having a real sense of character and individuality.
Sound is equally good, with appropriate, atmospheric sound effects and some great music from Neil Brennan. It’s full of nice little touches too: when Usagi is in fighting mode, the music changes to become faster, louder and more aggressive sounding, whilst the little portrait of Usagi Yojimbo in the top left of the screen takes on an angry face; once out of fighting mode, the music and the face become calmer again. These days we might be used to music that changes to suit the action, but back in 1988, this was pretty revolutionary stuff.
However, decent graphics and sound are great, but it’s the gameplay which still stands out. Ostensibly, Samurai Warrior is a beat ‘em up. You walk on a pre-set path from left to right (occasionally making a decision on which branching path to take) and fight hostile characters along the way. Yet, to describe the game in this way is to do it a massive injustice: Samurai Warrior has hidden depths.
Some characters are obviously hostile and you can fight these with a clear conscience. However, the player who progresses with his sword permanently drawn or attacks everything will not get very far. Some battles can be avoided simply by showing a little respect or doing a good deed – bowing to priests or giving alms to peasants. However, if you draw your sword on them, they will attack (and priests are swines to kill!). As you progress in the game, some enemies will disguise themselves as priests or peasants, removing their disguise at the last minute to attack you. This introduces a whole new dimension. Every time you move to a new screen, you have to sheath your sword, see who walks into view and make a split second decision on whether or not to launch a pre-emptive attack on someone you think might be an enemy, but who might genuinely turn out to be an innocent peasant. This makes the later levels surprisingly tense and adds a more strategic element.
Samurai Warrior was unusual for its time in not having a score system. Instead, it used a Karma rating. Doing good deeds (killing bad guys, bowing to priests, giving alms to peasants) increased your Karma rating, doing bad stuff (attacking innocent characters) reduced it. If your Karma drops below 0, Usagi can’t stand the shame and commits honourable suicide, ending the game. All these elements make the game so much more than just a beat ‘em up and demonstrate how much thought and attention went into delivering a game that was massively playable and addictive, yet also innovative and new.
When I first got Samurai Warrior, I played it endlessly because it was such massive fun. I can’t recall if I ever beat it (probably not, given my general ineptness when it comes to playing games), but I had a lot of fun trying. It’s one of just a handful of games that I can honestly say I became addicted to in the truest sense: I spent every spare moment playing it, to the exclusion of everything else and when I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about playing it. The game still stands up well today and when I re-visited it over Christmas, I could feel that old addiction kicking in again.
Samurai Warrior is an object lesson in how to make a good game. On the surface, the gameplay is simple, but it has hidden depths that will suck you in. It looks and sounds good and makes good use of a licensed property, but is just as playable as a standalone game. It’s fun to play and is packed with little touches and innovative features that make the game feel very different.
It’s as good today as it was 27 years ago. It’s a shame that so few people are familiar with the game as it deserves to be much better known: its release late in the lifespan of the C64, combined with a different approach to gameplay that put some gamers off, meant it passed many people by at the time. If you’re one of those people, you owe it to yourself to track it down and play it. It won’t appear on many “Best of” lists, simply because of its relative obscurity, but it would certainly get my vote as one of the C64’s best games.