When I got back into all things Super Nintendo in early 2006, one of the reasons was the desire to play longstanding childhood curiosities that I never rented. Among those 100+ curiosities was an odd little action title by the name of First Samurai. Coming out in the summer of 1993, it largely flew under the radar. But I’ll never forget seeing it previewed in an EGM issue in early ’93. Its dark and dreary screenshots left a mark on me, and I always wondered if it was as decent as my imagination had made it out to be. First Samurai originated on the Amiga in 1991 and it earned some rave reviews. In fact, Amiga Power rated it 91%. The success of their action platformer inspired little known developer Vivid Image (who also made Street Racer) to convert First Samurai to the 16-bit powerhouse SNES. Kemco picked up its publishing rights and we’re off the races, right? Not quite. The summer of 1993 saw a GLUT of Super Nintendo games being released, and First Samurai didn’t carry with it much press or clout. As such, it quickly faded from memory. But not mine. When I got back into the SNES in early 2006, First Samurai was actually the 7th game I played, and I had a choice of over 50 games to pick from. It was one of those strange childhood games I just had to finally play. So, is it any good, or does it deserve to stay obscured in the shadows? Let us endeavor to find out.
BUT FIRST, A HISTORY LESSON
EGM issue #43 (February 1993) was one for the ages. It featured a badass 59-page preview of upcoming SNES games, and I devoured every bit of it as a 9 year old kid. Many of the game previews had me intrigued, but one in particular really caught my eye: FIRST SAMURAI. Most SNES games at the time were bright and bold but First Samurai was different. It was dark and foreboding… the kind of game perfect to play leading up to Halloween. Indeed, there’s a reason why I put First Samurai on my list of SNES games to play during Halloween season.
LATE NIGHT WRASSLIN’ AND GAMES
There’s something special, for me at least, about watching a live special wrestling event late in the evening (or early in the morning, depending on your view). These special shows don’t happen often and you can feel the excitement welling up as the show nears. But you’ve got some time to kill leading up to it. And I find a perfect time killer is finally playing a childhood curiosity that I have been wondering about for over 20 years. I have fond memories of playing Harley’s Humongous Adventure for the first time as I was waiting for WWE Beast in the East (emanating from Japan) to come on at 2:30 AM.
History has a funny way of repeating itself. This past Saturday morning, I found myself staying up late to catch the first hour of WWE Super Show-Down. Around 1 I decided to revisit First Samurai. Now I had played it briefly back in early 2006, but I never sat down with it thoroughly. With October now here, I wanted to review it as part of my Halloween lineup. It brought back fond memories of Beast in the East and playing Harley’s Humongous Adventure beforehand.
Oh well. You can’t win ‘em all, I suppose. Nonetheless, I still had a good time revisiting First Samurai. It is indeed like a mash-up of Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden. Now it’s not nearly as awesome as that sounds, but you can see traces of both classic games implemented throughout First Samurai. Not too shabby.
The exploration aspects of First Samurai help to differentiate it a bit from the packed crowd of action platformers on the SNES. The above shot is a good idea of what a typical level looks like. You’ll run around killing tons of demons and monsters while hunting down key artifacts and Mystic Runes. All under the veil of a quasi-Asian demonic underworld. Come on, how bad can that truly be, eh?
In a way, you have to admire the interpretation Vivid Image went with. Sure, he’s not nearly as cool as Haohmaru. He’s not as flashy or aesthetically pleasing. Instead, he’s a grizzled vet full of scars. You can tell he’s been through some shit. And I mean homeboy HAS BEEN THROUGH SOME SHIT. Just look at that kisser and try to tell me that’s someone to mess with. He will FUCK YOUR SHIT UP.
THE STORY GOES…
Immediately, the young Samurai falls to the Demon’s magic.
Overwhelmed, the Demon King escapes to the future.
Hellbent on slaying the Demon King, the Samurai, with his Sensei’s magic sword, hunts the Demon King through all of time and space.
Difficulty-wise, First Samurai can be tricky and tough at times. There are only 5 stages but they fluctuate in difficulty. Passwords are nonexistent but thankfully there is a level select cheat code that allows you to skip previously beaten levels if you wish not to play through the whole thing again.
At the Options screen:
1-2: Hold L + R + X + A and press right
2-1: Hold L + R + X + A and press down
2-2: Hold L + R + X + A and press left
3-1: Hold L + R + X + A and press up
Witness the slowest stage title crawl in 16-bit history. I could almost make and eat a sandwich in the time it takes for the words “STAGE 1″ to appear.
Welcome to the ravaged battlefield. The year is 1730 and your hunt for the Demon King begins in a foul land that’s been corrupted by evil and disease. I like how each stage opens with the Wizard Mage floating eerily around the screen (which you can speed up with the press of a button). It’s accompanied fittingly so by a creepy sound effect that haunts my ears to this day. It really sets the somber mood proper, making this an ideal candidate to play during Halloween season. After the samurai finishes meditating, the Sensei’s magic sword comes flying to our hero. I love when games allow you to hop on trees. It’s the small stuff, y’kno?
Looming over the samurai is a huge dilapidated statue. You feel a chill in the air as you push forward toward the beastly growls. You’ll come across a Warp Lantern (these allow you to warp to different parts of the level provided that you’ve activated one of the magic pots) as well as your very first Mystic Rune. You must collect all 5 Mystic Runes on each stage before you can fight the boss.
Monsters of various sizes greet you at nearly every step of the way. Looks like someone’s a fan of the Alien films. Early on, the game provides you with helpful messages. But this goes away after the first stage and it all becomes intuition afterwards. Pretty cool.
Speaking of cool, it’s possible to strike down enemy projectiles with a well-timed swipe of your Sensei’s Katana.
Whenever you collect treasure or gobble up food, you’ll hear “HALLELUJAH!” Bizarre but so damn satisfying. This game has some crazy sound samples and it’s all part of the cheesy charm.
Summon the Wizard Mage to help clear the path by collecting Magic Bells. I marked out the first time I saw this. The crack of lightning in the background, along with the whipping rain and thunder sound effects, really makes this super atmospheric. I mean, it’s no Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past rain but gawd damn, seeing this in the dead of the night with all the lights turned off was pretty damn neat.
Samurai’s ability to scale and climb walls reminds me of Ninja Gaiden II a bit. Grab the Mystic Rune lying there as well as the axe sub-weapon. It lets you attack from a safe distance just like the Castlevania games. First Samurai has some neat tricks up its sleeve!
Whenever you lose your first life bar, the sword goes away and your force bar regenerates some of your life bar, but your force bar goes to zero. Kill enemies to collect force energy. After your force bar reaches 70%, the sword returns to you. So the only way to die is to lose BOTH your life and force bar. Enemies respawn too, so it gives you a chance at farming. That is, if the respawning enemies don’t outright kill ya!
Summoning the Wizard Mage reveals the path. But first you must have a Magic Bell. Sometimes they’re hidden in tricky places…
Nothing’s better than seeing a double whammy. In this case, a Warp Lantern and a Mystic Rune. But beware of the fire breathing dragon statues. First Samurai also features option helpers, similar to Gradius III, in the form of spinning shurikens.
Where’s the rain, you ask? See, here’s the quirky (and cool) thing about First Samurai. The effects in which the Wizard Mage clears your path is never the same. It’s always fun to see what tricks he will perform next!
Similar to Castlevania, food can sometimes be tucked away in obscure hidden places. Always experiment! A mutant frog blocks your path. No need to summon the Wizard Mage, it’s time to slice and dice. Hope you like frog legs!
Scattered throughout the stages are magic pots. They basically serve as save points but you’ll need to first activate them by way of meditation. And in First Samurai, meditating means kneeling for 2 seconds. Activating a magic pot does eat up some of your force bar, so keep that in mind. But should you die, being whisked to the closest point before a boss battle is a lifesaver. I wouldn’t activate every single magic pot on a stage, but definitely do so if you feel death knocking on your door. Trust me, you don’t want to start back at the beginning of a level.
Remember, you cannot fight the boss until you’ve procured the 5 Mystic Runes AND come to the appropriate boss area. Later stages switch it up where the boss battle isn’t always at the right of the level. This gives the game more of an exploratory feel than most other SNES action platformers.
Everyone needs a pet for companionship and in the case of the Demon King, assassin-related purposes. Meet Akai-Ryu and Aoyi-Ryu, AKA the Red Dragon and the Blue Dragon. The Demon King’s dragon twin pets voraciously defend the Mountain Realm in his absence.
Beware, the red one spits out 3 slower shots while the blue one emits multiple fireballs at a much faster clip.
Sometimes, namely whenever you’re out of force energy, you’re… er… forced to fight with just your bare fists and feet! It’s not ideal especially against the bosses but this samurai is one tough son of a bitch that refuses to go down without fighting to the very bitter end. When the dust settles, you’re oddly elongated as you teleport to the next stage.
Wizard Mage transports you onto the time travel express train. You stand awestruck at the wondrous train and its magical ability to travel through time. Suddenly a warning from the Wizard Mage pierces the samurai’s mind. “I’ve discovered that the Demon King built this device and one other to aid him in his time travels. Seize control of the time train from his minions to help lock the Demon King in his future domain!”
Chrome Dome has traveled through time apparently to make an unexpected cameo. Hmm, makes you wonder if Hamato Yoshi (Splinter) ever trained with the First Samurai.
Wizard Mage to the rescue once again. This time you get a gnarly purple effect.
Somewhere E. Honda is rolling over in his grave. I really like this level. The fast zooming space background lends itself well to the time traveling aspect. There are tons of roofs you can break open to jump down below or out of. Eventually you head to the front of the train but there’s nothing there. Hmm, where could that 5th and final Mystic Rune be? Expect there to be a bit of this when you play First Samurai.
Wizard Mage’s having way too much fun with his job.
Originally released in 1991, it seems like this second boss (Obakeh) was inspired, at least in part, by the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day — the legendary summer blockbuster of ’91.
Finally, after two levels, we officially arrive at Stage 2. There goes that creepy Wizard Mage bastard again. With the destruction of the time train, our hero finds himself in the decaying hulk of a monstrous city. In the year 1999 the Demon King’s hordes descended upon the metropolis, and without the Master Sensei to defend it, the city fell. Now lawless chaos reigns and you must fight again to restore order and free mankind from the Demon King’s evil grasp.
Welcome to Tokyo in the year 1999. Back in 1993, I’m sure ’99 felt like eons away. Now, as I write this review in the year 2018, 1999 was almost 20 years ago. Yikes. This is another pretty cool stage. I like the aesthetics here with the yellow buildings and breakable windows. Hell, you can even crack open the manholes to enter an underground passage full of deranged demons.
Question: why does every video game that features Tokyo always depicts Tokyo at night? Answer: no matter what, it always has a great atmosphere.
Wouldn’t have the same effect if this were held in the daytime instead. But at night? OOOOH, AHHHH.
Sometimes a demon will try to ambush you following your act of vandalism. Other times, you’ll find food hidden away. It’s fun to shatter the windows and see what you get.
ProTip: Blast Laura Branigan’s Self Control while playing this stage.
Heading underground doesn’t prove any less safe as hordes of creatures appear in full force. And, pray tell, why are there floating jellyfish out of water? Who knows, this game is an acid trip!
Seriously, First Samurai reminds me of one of those trippy horror action Hong Kong flicks that I watched during my childhood in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s just bizarre and nightmarish. Perfect for Halloween, indeed.
Wizard Mage, did you go on to become Zordon?
Walking around barefoot with all those shards of glass can’t be good. Love that Japanese Pagoda which lights up intermittently. Lovely stuff.
Summon the boss Gyakusatsu by offering up the 5 Mystic Runes. Ooze drips from this disgusting, octopus-tentacled creature of the Netherworld. Slightly reminiscent of Medusa from Castlevania, it’s unsettling how it heaves demon heads at you and crawls in and out of the walls. Creepy…
Remember how the time train was only one of the Demon King’s two devices that can span the eons? This next level, the time elevator, is the second. When your mystic blade disables the central guidance computer, the final battle will be at hand. I like climbing the chains and breaking the boxes open to find goodies.
Vengeance awaits. You now find yourself in the Demon Palace. The year is 2245. You can almost taste his blood on your blade.
Breakable nooks and crannies, containing invaluable goodies, are scattered throughout the Demon Palace. It’s really tough sledding here without your sword — his limbs are too damn short!
Zordon, I mean, Wizard Mage comes through again.
Twisted and demented, this is the perfect level to play on a cold dark October night.
Always nice seeing Magic Bells and Mystic Runes for the taking!
Security is pretty tight in Hell, I see. But nothing will stop me from hearing that glorious “HALLELUJAH!” voice sample.
Wizard Mage, you never cease to make me smile.
Graphically, for the most part First Samurai isn’t anything special. But once in a while, whether it’s a pleasant rain effect or this flashing scene, First Samurai surprises you.
Beware, the Tengu demon is on the loose and very lethal. Try keeping a safe distance and throwing knives at it.
With horror, the First Samurai remembers the Demon King’s hideous visage. Now, he must face the evil king alone…
THE FIRST FIRST SAMURAI
As previously stated, First Samurai originated on the Amiga in 1991.
In 1994, a sequel was released called Second Samurai (naturally). It appeared on the Amiga and Sega Mega Drive (the name of the Sega Genesis in regions outside of North America). I find it interesting that it never came out in North America or on the SNES for that matter. Then again, I always thought it odd that the Genesis never received First Samurai. Perhaps Vivid Image was trying to make up for it with Second Samurai. Whatever the case may be, the sequel is even more obscure than its predecessor.
Second Samurai incorporates the same time travel theme. This time our hero travels back in time to the prehistoric era. Yup, he’s still on a quest to defeat the Demon King.
It features a 2 player co-op mode and Sega-16.com writer Sebastian Sponsel rated it a solid 7 out of 10, calling it the best Amiga port he’s ever played on the Genesis.
If there is an obstacle you cannot seem to get past, try using a Magic Bell to summon the Wizard Mage. Perhaps he will help you. Keep in mind that you must be in the precise spot to call upon his spirit, or else nothing will happen. Also make sure you have a Magic Bell. If you don’t, better go find one!
Keep your force meter high at all times by defeating many smaller demons. They respawn so farm if you need to. Remember, you only die if both your life and force meters are fully depleted.
Sometimes walls, floors and ceilings are weak. Try to break them with fist, foot or steel to open a blocked passage or find a hidden item.
Once you have collected all 5 Mystic Runes, look for the boss’ lair to summon a Demon Overlord to battle. Their lair is not always located at the far end of a stage, so some exploring may be necessary. Never call to battle the Demon King or any of his Demon Overlords without the great Katana in hand. Whenever you lose your sword, the First Samurai screams out loud, “OH NO, MY SWORD!” It’s rather comical, but charming in its own unique way.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
Super Play, notorious for their harsh grading, was actually pretty impressed by First Samurai. Unfortunately, First Samurai didn’t receive much press in North America. Neither EGM or GameFan reviewed the game and as such, it was doomed to fly under the radar. Super Play rated it a solid 80%.
I’m not as high on this game as Super Play was. I do like it, and in some ways, I like it a lot. But that’s the sentimental me talking. Technically, it falls a little short. But more on that in a bit. Let’s cover the positives first. There’s no denying that First Samurai is a unique game in the massive SNES catalog. There really aren’t too many games like it. The atmosphere is refreshingly dreary and foreboding as opposed to the majority of SNES games that are “cute” and colorful. First Samurai is particularly fun to play around Halloween season. Its quasi-Asian motif and ghoulish enemies help to make it stand out in a packed crowd, despite the game not being as competent as one might hope.
The samurai’s ability to climb pillars and such is reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden II. And dueling with dastardly demons hearkens one back to Castlevania. Our hero can also jump very high and control is generally very good. I also like all the little tricks the game presents: Magic Bells to summon sorcery, Warp Lanterns that transport you to a certain section of the level, Mystic Runes that must be collected before fighting the boss, finding the boss lair itself, sub-weapons that allow you to attack from a safer distance and the unique usage of the life and force meter. First Samurai has a slight exploratory feel to it that not every SNES action platformer has. This definitely helps to increase the game’s appeal. Unfortunately, the gameplay has its share of flaws. While he can jump high, jumps are floaty. But the biggest flaw in my opinion is his pathetic sword swipe. It doesn’t nearly cut the swath you would hope or imagine, and this does lead to a lot of unnecessary damage. It’s a similar flaw to Lagoon, but at least in Lagoon there are tricks to work around this flaw. Not really the case in First Samurai. Besides, he’s supposed to be a badass samurai! But maybe because he’s the first of his kind, he’s still learning how to hone and perfect his craft.
Whatever the case may be, his disappointing sword swiping almost single handedly removes First Samurai from “hidden gem” contention. His upward swipes are fine, and striking at a downward angle isn’t too shabby either. But my God, his normal sword swinging, the one which you’ll do most of, leaves a lot to be desired. Worse yet, it makes the game far more difficult than it should have been if this simple mechanic wasn’t botched in the first place. I will say this, though. I do enjoy how his sword looks more like a light saber. Now if only he swung it like how Luke Skywalker did…
But there’s enough to like and appreciate about this game. The graphics, while nothing spectacular, remind me fondly of an 8-bit NES game from 1990. Even though the character sprites are a bit squabby and somewhat aesthetically unpleasing, there’s an odd charm to the visuals of the game (even though they’re not great by any stretch of the imagination). Some of the color schemes used stick out in my mind for some reason, like the level that depicts Tokyo in the year 1999. The sound effects are muffled but you gotta love the “HALLELUJAH!” and “OH NO, MY SWORD!” speech samples. Music is pretty decent as well. Just too bad the rest of the sound effects are on the lower end of quality. The game presents a pretty tough challenge but like I said, that’s mainly due to the hero’s lack of attacking range. But First Samurai can be fun despite it all. And it really does personify the very meaning of “guilty pleasure.” So in the end, I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy or play this, but it’s definitely got a place on my Halloween game list. And because of my history with it, First Samurai will always, oddly, occupy a space within my gaming heart.