This troubled Neo Geo CD release of Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits: Bushido Retsuden marks one of the too-few occasions SNK’s well-intentioned stab at creating a more mainstream sort of home consumer hardware didn’t receive an inferior (if vastly more affordable) port of a pre-existing AES game and have to pretend it was grateful for the second-hand attention. Instead this 1997 title has been designed from the ground up around their once new hardware, a text-heavy RPG based on the plot of the first two entries in the long-running Samurai Spirits series of fighting games.
Bushido Retsuden makes a wonderful first impression: Whether they’re transferred from the arcade games or a brand new addition to this world of souls and swords, character and enemy designs are consistently nothing short of absolutely stunning, thick pixelled brush strokes enhancing strong poses and stylish costumes, monsters and demons made mostly of bone and blades deftly avoiding the usual clichés of both Western and Japanese mythology without completely casting them aside. What’s on display here is clearly result of the hard work and refined skill of pixel artists at the height of their powers, working on hardware well-suited to showcasing their talents: Watch as tiny yet still easily discernible ingredients float in a bubbling pot of stew as it hangs over the animated fire underneath, and then head outside that detailed little home and notice the individual blades of grass that can be clearly seen in small uneven tufts around the edges of the dusty paths that run through every village. In battle even generic enemies have smooth idle animations and visibly recoil when hit, both of which are different movements from the actions that play out when they fall over when killed or lunge forward to land a deadly blow (which again will look different depending on whether they’re performing a normal or special attack). Your own party will show defeated characters sitting out the rest of the battle in the background, hunched over from their injuries, and when you win they’ll have specific and separate motions for celebrating a victory and levelling up. Accompanying this buffet of visual delights is a wonderful soundtrack, as hauntingly atmospheric as anything found in the arcade games.
Because of all those reasons and more it’s easy to see why this game’s been on fan translation wishlists for so long: Samurai Spirits fans want it, RPG fans want it, and every last screenshot and single second of video footage makes it look like the most beautiful 2D adventure most people will never get to play. It’s virtually guaranteed to make people wistfully sigh before saying “I wish I could read Japanese” when they learn of its existence, and exactly the sort of game to regularly draw “How on Earth was this never translated?!” comments on all corners of the internet. All too often the lack of a localised release can be attributed to the same hoary old issues we’re all wearily familiar with: Personal infighting between two passionate creatives can make cooperation impossible, ancient licensing rights held by disinterested third parties can gum up the works, some guy in a suit may not understand the appeal, and on a few unlucky occasions the right people will notice the right game… too late for anyone to do anything about it.
And then there are the times – like this one – where what appears from a distance to be a highly desirable Japan-only game doesn’t get an international release because it’s not a very good game.
It’s sad but true: Bushido Retsuden’s glorious presentation does a fantastic job of selling the game from afar, but with a controller in hand it soon becomes clear the myriad problems far outweigh the graphical treats on offer, with so-so storytelling giving way to mechanically unremarkable fights that are at best boring to play and at worst very clearly broken. Even the most tolerant genre enthusiast will find the frequency of the game’s “We put them in because RPGs are supposed to have them” random encounters patience-testing, their unwelcome appearances only exacerbated by their sluggish loading (there’s also a mood-ruining pause for loading when you switch from one location to the next, and in the game’s lowest moments even part-way through conversational event scenes). Once you’ve transitioned to the side-on battle view it soon becomes obvious all fights, whether you’re facing the lowliest hunk of muscle or the biggest horned demon, are wildly unbalanced, with far too many of these standard-issue foes having HP pools inflated to such a ridiculous degree anything less than an MP-draining special move isn’t worth doing while also possessing the ability to utterly devastate your own team with a simple swipe – and they rarely come alone. Bosses can choose to wipe out your strongest allies in a single hit from an attack you have no time to prepare for and you wouldn’t have any way of knowing was coming even if you did, and this will happen even if they’re wearing the best equipment available at the time and you diligently fought every XP-granting foe on the way there. If you do survive long enough to take a turn yourself you can optionally choose to perform special moves using the same inputs as the original fighting games – it’s a fun novelty for a few turns but offers no benefits whatsoever over the alternative of picking them from a list and only leads to sore thumbs over the extended play time an RPG demands.
The long and short of it is this: The game’s a mess. It’s not a poor experience because it’s too easy, or too hard, simple, complex, or time-consuming – it’s a poor experience because it makes too many bad choices too often. Worst of all is knowing Samurai Spirits definitely has a strong enough cast of characters and exactly the right sort of setting to pull off a fantastic RPG – but this isn’t it.
I realise this is all very easy for me to dismissively decree from my privileged position – I’ve had the game in its Saturn and Neo Geo CD forms since roughly forever (a PlayStation port is also available), and I’m proficient enough in Japanese to understand what’s going on without having to rely on anyone else spending an enormous amount of time translating a game’s worth of text for me first (a dictionary always comes in handy, mind you). I don’t need to longingly wish I could play Bushido Retsuden or spend any time imagining what it would be like to sit down and spend a few hours with it because I already can, and I can do so as often as I feel like doing it even if that turns out to be not very often at all. In an ideal world it wouldn’t be like this, because in an ideal world everyone would have all the elegantly written translations they needed right at their fingertips so they could try out any game they came across for themselves the instant they learned of its existence, but in the imperfect one we live in I can only say this: Being a good looking example of a popular genre that’s long been the primary focal point of the import-interested gamer’s attention doesn’t automatically mean that game’s actually worth your time, time that could be more enjoyably spent right now on other Japan-exclusive releases like iS: internal section, Guilty Gear Petit 2, Kaze no NOTAM, or Taekwon-do – all games that are all easily emulated and even when consumed “raw” have little to no language barriers to entry. If none of those appeal gaming already has a brilliant selection of fan translations ready and waiting to play, so much so that even if only one percent of those English translations listed on Romhacking are of any interest you’d still have more than one new-old game a month for an entire year to be getting on with.
There will always be untranslated gems out there – the entire Boku no Natsuyasumi series more than deserves some long-overdue international acclaim – but the key thing to remember is those games would still be gems whether they remained obscurities locked away on old hardware in different languages or became so readily available everyone ended up having several copies lying around at home, whereas Bushido Retsuden is nothing more than the illusion of a great RPG that never existed in the first place.