On a tiny island off the coast of Japan, two assassins, one male and one female, face one another. Both had trained for years at the same dojo and became close friends. But now, having broken an oath of loyalty to their clan, she is trying to flee the island, while he has been ordered by his superiors to murder her or face death himself. As both stare into the other’s eyes, they silently bow before charging at one another, their blades reflecting the torchlight in the darkness. In the ensuing exchange of frenzied slashes and parries, the loyal swordsman loses his balance and falls to the ground. Seeing her window of opportunity, the traitor grants her former friend a swift death to spare him the shame of utter defeat. She cries out in sorrow just as the world around her cuts to black. Then, these words of wisdom appear:
One may follow a damned path, but this is not the way of the Narukagami.
In another world, in another place, there is a different cry, this time of frustration. What’s a Narukagami? Who the hell is Kannagisai? And most importantly, why must I follow the ancient code of a noble warrior caste when I’m playing as a fair-haired Russian ninja named Red Shadow? That’s Bushido Blade‘s story mode in a nutshell. There are many ways to win, but they all have one thing in common: honor. You can die a thousand deaths, but the only thing that sends you back to the title screen is a win earned cheaply. It’s a glaring shot of frustrating unrealism that I would count above any “Press X to not die” event in the world. In a game that simulated realistic sword fighting, it ruined my typical perceptions of winning and losing. No one ever gave me a Game Over for spamming fireballs or air juggling hapless victims for an entire round – yet that’s exactly the kind of behavior Bushido Blade discourages.
Despite my initial misgivings, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Bushido Blade. Its fighting interface is so simple and uncluttered it’s a circus-freak sideshow next to today’s standards of complex tag teams, power meters, thousand-hit combos and over-the-top super moves. There is no music, no life bars, no time limits and, for the most part, no real boundaries to the game’s “arenas.” It’s always a delight to drag your would-be murderer into the bamboo forest or the snowy mountaintop where harsh winds hinder both you and your opponents’ movements. I can’t help but get dragged back in.
A big part of Bushido Blade‘s appeal is the fact that slicing someone with a sword actually kills them. This doesn’t seem like a radical concept, until you put it alongside contemporaries like Tekken 3, Soul Calibur and the earlier Battle Arena Toshinden. In those games, you can stab your opponent clean through the torso (in Soul Calibur‘s case, even shoot them several times with a gun attached to the hilt of your blade) and he’ll get up to continue the fight as if his internal organs somehow remained miraculously intact. In Bushido Blade, you are considerably lucky if you find a chain of moves that goes higher than three, and even in those cases it is always and only the first clean strike that counts. Furthermore, the weapons in Bushido Blade all had real-world counterparts. Forget the big scary eyeball sword; this game’s largest killing instrument was a heavy broadsword whose weight you actually felt on your character.
Like real sword fighting, Bushido Blade‘s combat is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. If you strike someone in the arm or leg, that limb will hang uselessly for the rest of the fight. You can throw dirt in your enemy’s eyes and in some cases even hurl throwing stars, knives and a fan to throw them off balance or injure them. This attention to detail and approach toward realism made the game stand out in a genre that has become increasingly complex by the day. Where other games courted potential buyers by claiming their games’ fighting styles drew directly from real-life examples, Bushido Blade actually walked the walk.
With such a bold recipe for success, you’d imagine that Bushido Blade had a long and glorious franchise ahead of it, taking its rightful place alongside titles like Street Fighter and Tekken. Sadly, that would never come to pass. Arguments between publisher Squaresoft and developer LightWeight effectively killed the franchise in 1998, leaving the fate of the last Kagami in doubt. But even if Bushido Blade fell victim to industry squabbles, why haven’t other fighting games picked up where it left off?
The answer is a complicated one. First, there was something of a sequel to Bushido Blade in Kengo – also by LightWeight – that retained some of Bushido Blade‘s combat but did away with the story and the feel. As if that wasn’t enough, they also dropped the instant kills and localized damage in favor of a life bar. It was a poor successor that didn’t come close to delivering what the original Bushido Blade had. But another factor lay outside the developer’s control: the rise of tournament gaming. With their life bars, timers and large, flashy move sets, it’s easy to see why traditional fighting games are much more suited to tournament play. Fights are rarely decided by chance in these games, whereas Bushido Blade matches can quickly end with a beginner’s lucky, wild swing. Combine these factors and it’s little wonder why companies are reluctant to take a realistic approach toward fighting games. Instead, we see titles like BluBlaze and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom which have completely done away with any notion of being comprehensible, let alone realistic.
But the final reason that Bushido Blade remains a relic of the PS1 era lies in the mindset of the average fighting game enthusiast. In most fighting games, players get a lot of satisfaction from learning new special moves or figuring out how to string together powerful combos – it’s what drives players to sample different characters to see how they each play. But Bushido Blade‘s embrace of realism keeps every character relatively close in feel. Sure, you can play a slightly faster or slightly stronger character with weapons of differing length, weight and speed, but the differences are so negligible you can just combine your favorite character with your favorite weapon and still succeed. The satisfaction inherent in mastering a difficult character is sadly missing.
In Bushido Blade, like real combat, glory is difficult to come by. No one is going to applaud your cheap tactic of stabbing people while they’re on the ground or beheading someone while they try to climb over a wall to come after you. You won’t make any friends by maiming their characters and dodging out of reach while they crawl about helplessly, begging for you to hurry up and finish them. There are no points for coming back from the edge of defeat to crush an enemy when the only possible conditions are “alive” or “dead,” and you won’t win any praise for a flawless victory. Heck, there aren’t even rounds – if you get beaten you can just press a button and continue with a new fight.
When you consider all these factors, it’s no wonder the “realistic sword fighter” genre begins and ends with Bushido Blade. While many people can appreciate the skill of the professional tournament player laying the smack down to their face, few can stomach getting taken out in a single swing they could see coming but did nothing to stop. These days, the only “realistic” fighting games stick to organized sports like professional boxing or mixed martial arts. Sometimes they deliver an interesting experience, but it’s never the same. They lack the twitchiness of Bushido Blade‘s life or death gambits, the visceral terror of knowing that the only blow that counts in this fight is the first one to land.
In the end, it was a fun and bold experiment that I hope will one day return to modern consoles. That’s what I would like to see: poetry in motion, a pair of skilled swordsman striking, parrying and riposting with a deadly grace that does the art of sword fighting justice. In the meantime, Bushido Blade reigns supreme.
Jonathan Palmer is a starving freelance writer who wrestles ninjas for food.