There was a time that every game that came out was some version of a side scrolling beat ‘em up. Any film, TV or pop-culture tie in was invariably boiled down to some dude walking from left to right and punching/kicking some baddies in the dick. Batman and Ninja Turtles – sure, that approach made sense, but Cliffhanger, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker or The Simpsons, not so much. Although the genre has had a steady trickle of games come out after this initial golden period in the late 80s and early 90s, the popularity of the side scrolling beat ‘em up, or at least the number of releases seems to have waned in recent years.
Enter Samurai Riot, an old-school side scroller with co-op play in mind by Wako Factory. Tsurumaru and Sukane, a samurai and ninja respectively as they fight to bring an end to a civil war. As you might expect, achieving such a goal isn’t as easy as simply beating up a bunch of cannon fodder and a few bosses. As well as wrestling with various baddies, the heroes also have to wrestle with morality and sometimes with each other to determine a course of action. It’s a nice modern veneer to what is, at its core, an old fashioned game.
True to their archetypes, Tsurumaru is a slower and hardier combatant compared to the fast but fragile Sukane and her companion kitsune, Azu. No matter what character chosen, the player has access to a number of normal as well as special attacks with which to lay waste to enemies. Both characters play well, but the real pleasure comes from playing with a second player. As well as judging individual effort, Samurai Riot also judges and rewards players on their ability to work together, filling a meter when players attack together, support each other or control the screen by fighting back to back with no enemies between them. Once the co-op meter is filled players can then unleash a devastating combo attack.
In addition to combat, players are also presented with frequent moral choices that, whilst not that nuanced, lend the game a more mature air than a straight beat ‘em up. A number of the choices are essentially as binary choice between doing something ignoble but expedient/effective or doing something that takes more effort but causes less suffering. It’s not subtle but it is effective. Disagree with your co-op partner and you can enter a PvP battle in which the winning party gets to have the final say on a decision. It’s a clever system that gives some added weight to the decisions.
Samurai Riot looks great, with a kind of Tartakovski meets flash animation aesthetic and controls well too so long as you have a controller and don’t try and use the keypad. It may not be the deepest or most comprehensive game around, but for those who love the genre, Samurai Riot is great exploration of the style that keeps things traditional underneath the modern morality play.