Developed/Published by MicroProse. Originally released January 1, 1989.
Originally released in 1989, Sword of the Samurai transforms the player into an ambitious samurai trying to rise up, gain power and conquer Japan. Set during the tumultuous Sengoku era, it combines elements of strategy, simulation and role-playing to fashion a robust experience.
Entering into Sword of the Samurai, I tried to play things a bit differently than I usually do. In most strategy games, be they real-time, turn-based or some mixture of the two, my tactics usually don’t expand beyond building gigantic armies as quickly as I can and then throwing them at my target until I’m planting my victor’s flag on top of a mountain of virtual corpses (most of them from my side). With Sword of the Samurai however, I took the rare step of actually trying to play with a bit more finesse. What can I say? Even I have moments where I want to feel more like the hand behind a scalpel than a sledgehammer.
Luckily for me, this actually wound up meshing well with the game. Even though it’s centered on the goal of conquering Japan, the methods you employ to get there are markedly different from a lot of the other strategy titles. When the game begins you’re nowhere even close to being in a spot where you can march across the countryside, katana drawn with an army at your back. You start off as just a minor vassal in the service of a Hatamato who, in turn, serves another warlord governing one of the country’s many provinces. Your initial goal is to work your way up through the ranks until you’re the one in charge and can raise armies big enough to contend for the coveted title of daimyo.
This is done primarily by currying favor and building up your reputation so that when the lord above you kicks the bucket you’re the first choice to replace him. Now, this might sound straightforward but it isn’t. In fact, gaining power can often mean going against convenience and even your natural inclinations.
Take one occasion where a rival lord kidnapped a member of my family. I, being rightfully peeved, mounted a full assault on his castle which immediately left me on bad terms with my Hatamoto. Lord Jerky-Pants (not his real name) might have deserved the smackdown my troops delivered, but invading another one of my master’s servants was technically a dishonorable act. I should have just been the bigger man and acted with restraint.
Or, in the least, I should have been a bit smarter about my vengeance. I had other options besides laying waste to his castle and slaughtering his armies. For instance, I could have challenged him to a duel. It wouldn’t have gotten me my son back but Jerky-Pants would have been forced to turn me down, looking like a coward, or face me in mortal combat and risk dying.
I also could have taken advantage of some the more underhanded options the game provides. Just as he kidnapped my heir I could have broken into his castle and abducted one of his family members. Or I could have just stolen a valuable heirloom, setting him up for some embarrassment when he got spotted by our Hatamoto wearing the wrong sword. Heck, I could have even just hacked my way through his guards and outright assassinated him. The way I played my character, he considered himself above such subterfuge. Even so, it was nice to know that I could pull plays from the Lannister playbook if I wanted to.
I should mention, of course, that these options, as well as the more conventional honor earning missions you perform, aren’t just a matter of clicking a button and hoping for success. Most every action you take plays out via variations on a trio of mini-games including one-on-one sword duels, top-down melee combat and large scale army battles. The mini-games themselves have some rough edges. The dueling system (notably designed by Sid Meier), for instance, is easy to exploit. Granted, I only played the intermediate difficulty, so it’s very much possible that it becomes more challenging at the higher skill levels. That said, nine times out of ten I was able to win most duels by simply spamming my opponent with an endless string of attacks that would eventually overwhelm their attempts to parry.
The army command, in turn, suffers from controls that, put kindly, are beyond dated. When a battle starts, your army forms on the bottom of the screen and the enemy starts on top. The problem comes when you actually try to command your troops. You can only select one unit at time and then, rather than just clicking on the map where you want them to move, you have to drag a painfully slow cursor across the screen. Every time you select another unit the cursor resets to their position, forcing you to slowly inch the cursor over to the next movement point
Now don’t get me wrong, I still really enjoyed the army combat. There’s a simple joy to watching my pixelated army duking it out my equally pixelated opponents. Likewise, as the game advances and you gain access to larger armies and more diverse troop types, there’s some real potential for genuine tactics. Unfortunately, the sluggishness of the controls limits you from every really taking full advantage of them. I can’t count the number of times I would look at my army and envision complex maneuvers that I’d have to scrap simply because it wouldn’t be possible to get all my units moving in time for it to work.
The only one of the three mini-games that I can’t really criticize is the top-down melee combat which drops you onto a map and tasks you with fending off attacking troops. It’s no frills arcade action that manages to be easy to grasp while still maintaining some genuine challenge. I liked the way that it keeps you on your toes with differing enemy types (sword, bow and spear) and I also appreciated how the developers implemented differing environments to adapt its rudimentary mechanics to a variety of different situations. And I also adored the way the game switches between your bow and sword automatically depending on how close your target is. It was a little thing, but there are games today that don’t incorporate that sort of common sense streamlining and I just really loved seeing it in a title originally released in 1989.
Even if the gameplay is only one-third perfect, I really have to stress that, on the whole, it’s all still really fun. It’s a good thing too because Sword of the Samurai has an unfortunate tendency to get a bit grindy at times. Granted, some of this stemmed from the way I chose to play. For my main playthrough, I opted to try and keep things honorable. I didn’t kidnap or steal or do anything unsavory like that. Unfortunately, fashioning yourself into a beacon of virtue becomes an issue when advancement literally requires your boss to die. I wound up, at one point, stuck in a holding pattern waiting for my Hatamoto to kick the bucket. It can happen on its own; he can be assassinated by outside forces and rival vassals. The problem is that its occurrence is completely random and you can spend hours going through the motions hoping and praying for that fortunate bit of murder to finally occur. In the end, wanting to just get on with things, I eventually tossed aside my role-playing and did the stabby-stabby myself.
Now granted, my particular issue probably won’t come up unless you decide to go the Lawful Good route like I did. That said, even when you’re not waiting for your current head honcho to die, there is sometimes a tangible sense of repetition. It’s not the worst I’ve experience and the fun gameplay and authentic atmosphere definitely tempers it, but you’ll still come upon moments where you want things to move along at a faster clip. Thankfully, it only takes two rounds of “kiss butt until mine is the butt that’s kissed” to get to all-out war end game (which is pretty danged glorious). Even so, if I was going to put a pin in Sword of the Samurai‘s biggest overarching problem, it would have to be its occasionally poor pacing.
Which in no way should dissuade you from giving it a try. It’s not a perfect title and it definitely shows its age at times. That said, I was absolutely enthralled with Sword of the Samurai during the hours I spent with it. Let me put it you this way. Sometimes, when you review a game, you know that you’ll never touch it again when you’re done. Sword of Samurai is that wonderful title that keeps calling to you long after you’re done working on it. Whatever its flaws may be, the ultimate sum of its parts is a game that’s well worth your attention, not to mention the $5.99 that GOG’s asking for it.
Come back next week to catch my take on the 4x strategy classic Master of Orion II.