I’ve always felt that there needed to be a good Samurai RPG, but I’ve yet to find one. A feudal Japan setting, with some added mysticism and the classic Japanese steel seems to be a natural habitat for a role playing game, however there hasn’t been that definitive game in said genre.
That said, I have enjoyed plenty of console games that have imagined the Samurai and Ronin culture. I have excluded games that only tie into the Samurai culture because they use a Katana, or games that are about the Ninja. This list is strictly comprised of Samurai centered games or at least where the Samurai culture plays a large role. I have chosen to only select one game per series. Because the Samurai game genre is not extensive, I have chosen these as some of the best Samurai games.
Not the Best Samurai Games
Seven Samurai 20XX
A retelling of the seminal Seven Samurai, this game doesn't deserve the title. Mostly a mess, the retelling is the only redeeming factor. The gameplay boils down to hack and slash with some decent combos. It's playable but doesn't contain the necessary production value needed to come close to equaling the source material. While the world building and character archetypes are admirable and attempt originality, the music and graphics are subpar enough as to not fill it out. There is no reason to play this game, especially looking back now.
A carbon copy of the Dynasty Warriors formula, yet set with Samurai. Similar to its Dynasty cousins, Samurai Warriors is a brawler, and similarly there's not a lot to it. The Dynasty Warrior franchise is plenty popular, but they are all rather shallow. The brawling mechanics are solid and fun, but it's all extremely repetitive. Kendo is a very technical discipline and Samurai Warriors is nothing more than a button-masher.
Another early PS2 game, fighting is very simple, with only one button used to attack your enemies. While the attempt to remove button-mashing mechanics for timing and patience is admirable, it doesn't work out. The fact this is literally the only gameplay makes this repetitive and boring. The only thing breaking up the monotony are special moves initiated after filling the Ki bar. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kengo are the gameplay aspects that found there way into Nioh.
Blood Will Tell
Continuing the trend of mediocre Samurai game on PS2, Blood Will Tell features hack and slash gameplay, that is honestly broken due to the camera. In many instances it is hard to tell where you are being attacked from and how best to attack your "target." However, unlike the games above, Blood Will Tell has an intriguing story in which the main character is attempting to regain the body parts he is missing, 48 in all.
Best Samurai Games Honorable Mention
Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny
Onimusha is essentially a Samurai version of Resident Evil even with the stupid D pad movement. To be fair, I remember that Onimusha 2 did add the ability to change the controls to a true 3D movement (as opposed to turning with the left and right buttons and pressing up to move forward). Combat was good but I didn’t care for all the soul collecting and straight demon fighting. The second game in the series also had much more exploring which got tedious because of the controls (no analog stick, really?).
The graphics were great for the time, even if the backgrounds were pre-rendered, usually colorful and a nice setting, but this is a game that is very hard to go back and play because of the clunky controls. Unlike other games on this list, there really is no charm here.
Any of the Onimusha games could be added here (we'll except for the third game because of, well, time travel). But Onimusha 2 gets the nod for its innovation of controls and lack of convoluted plot.
Afro Samurai was a show that I really tried to get into. Its style was as close as I could find to Ninja Scroll, just with some more comedy thrown in. It wasn’t the greatest show, but what it did, it did well, setting up each fight as a, what in video game terminology, boss battle.
The game captures the show well. And that is probably the best thing about it. The art style is a great match if not perfectly smooth and the gameplay is decent, but the charm of the show and the difference between a great game and a good game was missing. It’s a solid game that doesn't do anything special.
For Honor isn't purely a Samurai game, so I might slightly be breaking my own rule, but it looks to have the most technical swordplay controls in any game. A combination of timing, tactics and reflexes, pitting Samurai against other great warriors of the past, in this case Vikings and Knights, should prove a very intriguing game.
Some of the Best Samurai Games
Bushido Blade is antiquated by today’s fighting game standards, but its simplicity was addictive. Bushido Blade was the first fighting game I can remember that had one hit kills and the ability to injure specific limbs. This was in a time of traditional arcade fighters such as Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken.
In one on one combat in a wide open arena (huge for the time on PlayStation), combatants faced one another wielding several different type of striking weapons, mostly swords. Bushido itself means “warrior code of honor” specific to the Japanese. While not everything in this game is related to Samurai, Bushido is the honor code in which they lived by and plays an important part in the game.
It felt so rewarding to get a one hit kill, but it also forced the player to be cautious and pick their spots, being very patient not to expose yourself during a strike. Exposing yourself and missing the crucial strike often meant you were on the receiving end of death.
Way of the Samurai
As far as a day in the life goes, Way of the Samurai probably best illustrated the life of a Ronin (for a videogame). From the onset there were so many different ways to play this game. Because of the branching gameplay there was some trial and error and the game could be “finished” in one sit down, but the game could be played multiple ways.
At its heart, Way of the Samurai is a combat game. It’s very slow going combat, and it forces you not to be a button masher. Similar to Bushido Blade, exposing yourself can lead to a quick death. Each sword also has a limited durability, so blocking and striking will wear them down. Swords offer different attributes, and over time special abilities can be used. If you choose to fight though, you better be ready. These games had small story archs but they could be different each playthrough, whixh made short plays more gratifying.
A remastered version of an original Wii title, Muramasa is nine of the best Samurai games that also includes RPG elements. Set in 2D, Muramasa is absolutely gorgeous and combat is smooth and reaches a certain Metroidvania level of non-linearity where new weapons are required to open up certain areas. It's a perfect title for the Vita because it's so easy to pick up and play.
The Best Goofy Samurai Game
Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman
Super goofy with awful graphics, this game was probably the Samurai game I’ve played the most. It’s not a traditional Samurai game by any means as Zan, the protagonist wielded a revolver (with unlimited rounds) in addition to his Katana. It was a little Devil May Cry before there ever was such a thing. It took place in the west and added a Japanese flavor instead of just making direct parallels to the two cultures like Hollywood has done.
The box art is gorgeous (and implies a much more serious tone than the game itself) but the standout is the intro music. It occasionally pops itself into my head even today; “Riiiiising Zaaaaaaannn, Samurai gun man!”
Candidates for the Best Samurai Game - The Runners Up
I played this game in the arcade (or the NeoGeos they used to have at McDonald’s) and the Sega Genesis. I much preferred the Genesis version based solely on using a controller compared to a joystick (as I did for all my fighting games, the six-button controller mind you). Samurai Shodown was the best alternative to Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2 at the time. I realize now that it is a much deeper game that Mortal Kombat ever was and of course my affinity for Samurai wasn’t what it was, but this is a game I still find myself enjoying, while Mortal Kombat doesn’t have the same effect (Street Fighter 2 is still the pinnacle in my estimation).
I almost exclusively played with Haohmaru because he really embodied the Samurai not to mention he was the face of the franchise and the first character I played with.
Total War: Shogun 2
A turn-based strategy game similar to something akin to Final Fantasy Tactics with some other gameplay aspects as well, the Total War series offers clan battles and diplomacy. The generals you control are where the RPG elements are found, improving traits which leads to building them out as almost mythical leaders.
Perhaps the coolest aspect of Shogun 2 is the historical basis of the encounters, providing a bit of history to it's original gameplay and the other side of the Samurai culture that isn't the lonely Ronin.
The Best Samurai Game...so far
Nioh, for all intents and purposes, is the newest and also best Samurai game. It's extremely difficult but also rewarding along the lines the Dark Souls series or Bloodborne. While it's based among history, the game is mostly fantasy, fighting Demons with magic infused weapons and other spells. This hasn't seemed to dumb down the combat as it is extremely technical even insofar as to having a stamina meter that can make or break the fight. Mismanagement of stamina usually results in death. But, at its core and soul, Nioh is a Samurai game and the best representation of Samurai in the current generation.
What games did I miss? Has anyone found the RPG I’ve been looking for?