How does the return of SNK’s beloved franchise fare from a technical perspective?
This seems to be the month of retro do-overs. We just got finished with our technical deep dive on Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, the kart racer that put Naughty Dog on the map a whole decade before Uncharted. Now, we have SNK’s reboot of its fabled 25 year-old fighting franchise that first saw the light of day on the Neo Geo. SNK is an interesting company. To grossly oversimplify, it’s kind of sort of Nintendo and Sega’s B-team. Their entry in the 16-bit console wars, the Neo Geo, didn’t sell nearly as well as the Genesis or the SNES. However, it was technically advanced for the time, featured 1:1 parity with the Neo Geo arcade machine, and better audio and visuals than either the SNES or the Genesis.
After financial trouble. which resulted in its owner creating a new company—Playmore that bought out SNK’s original IP, the firm spent the early 2000s focused on its core franchises, including King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown. After 2010, though, there was a decade-long hiatus. 2019’s Samurai Shodown reboot marks the series’ return and, going by reviews so far, it’s a triumphant homecoming. A decade is a near-eternity in the digital space. There’ve been tremendous advances in both the PC and console spaces since the last Samurai Shodown game arrived and, while it certainly won’t win any awards for technical wizardry, the Samurai Shodown reboot leverages modern techniques to give its distinct art style some added oomph. We’re going to take a close look at Samurai Shodown on a technical level and also see how it scales across different platforms. Let’s get started!
PS4 Pro vs Xbox One X Comparison
Unless a PC version comes out, this really is a game you’ll want to experience on the mid-cycle refresh consoles. Both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X hand in substantially higher resolution output but—much more importantly—they deliver a very consistent 60 FPS update. We’ve looked at both the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X versions and frametime consistency is sublime.
Considering how meh Samurai Shodown looks, it better run flawlessly. On the console front, we analysed the game’s performance by taking some sample scenes from the game and running it through trdrop, an open source software. Note that this tool gives us a mere demonstration of the game’s performance, because an exact 1:1 representation of performance can only be provided by the developers themselves since they have access to vast of array of tools and profilers.
Both of the premium consoles benefit from a higher resolution framebuffer. The cel-shaded art style makes pixel counting difficult but both consoles offer a presentation that looks fine on 4K displays. The Xbox One X version looks particularly sharp. The games texture assets don’t scale that well at higher resolutions but, nevertheless, this is a meaningfully better experience than what’s available on the base consoles.
It isn’t exactly a technical masterpiece, Samurai Shodown is built on the Unreal 4 engine but fails to good use of its newer featureset. An immediate point of comparison here would be with Mortal Kombat 11, a game that’s built on a heavily modified iteration of Unreal 3. Samurai Shodown’s going for a highly stylized aesthetic, though, so this wouldn’t exactly be an apples-to-apples comparison. Nevertheless, SNK’s latest leaves a lot wanting. Let’s start with the material rendering pipeline. Physically based material rendering is one of the cornerstones of the Unreal 4 engine and a key point of departure from earlier tech. Many large-scale Unreal 4 titles, from Ark to Vampyr make good use of the material pipeline to present physically plausible materials in-game. This isn’t a requirement with Samurai Shodown, considering the game’s cel-shaded aesthetic.
Samurai Shodown’s poor texture quality, however, can’t be as easily excused though. If the Borderlands remasters have taught us anything, it’s that high resolution texture assets can transform cel-shaded games just as much—if not more—than other titles. We’d actually lean towards “if not more” here considering that often, cel-shaded texture work is used in place of geometric detail, an approach that looks awful in games going for a photorealistic aesthetic, but which passes muster in cel-shaded titles. But unlike the Borderlands remasters, Samurai Shodown features textures that are simply awful at times. In several maps, the ground is a blurry mess reminiscent of Soulcaliber—and we mean the 1990s original. Bumpmapping is employed but the low quality of the assets means that, instead of conveying depth detail, it just makes the ground look distorted.
Likewise, the post-process pipeline is fairly basic. Light bloom is employed to add emphasis to special attacks and particle effect, as well as brightening up the skybox. But there isn’t much else going on. There’s a highly stylized, low-sample motion blur effect for slashing attacks, but it’s not employed across the board—Regular movement is motion blur-free. A very subtle static depth of field blur is employed on some stages where the backdrop has significant depth, but it’s not used at all in other stages or in character close-ups. Furthermore, ambient occlusion seems to be missing entirely. This could be put down as part of the aesthetic but, again, other cel-shaded games use AO to add depth to the scene without compromising their aesthetic vision.
Anti-aliasing quality is decent. Looking at the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro footage, it’s hard to catch shimmering. There does appear to be a temporal component—edges and transparencies are stable even when the camera moves, and the slightly softer presentation doesn’t do much harm considering the already compromised texture work.
Character models are a disappointment—model quality is low by eighth-gen standards and characters are noticeably blocky—and we don’t mean just in a chunky anime-esque way. Samurai Shodown’s always been a bit behind the curve—the 2009 series outing was described as looking like a PS2 game, not a mid-gen Xbox 360 title. Model quality here is about what we’d expect from a seventh-gen fighter and, indeed, 2011’s Mortal Kombat boasts of more detailed models. The saving grace here is, of course, Samurai Shodown’s aesthetic. Cel-shading has a timeless quality to it and it’s quite forgiving of technical shortcomings. Samurai Shodown’s character look good in this sense, but that’s like saying Budokai Tenkaichi 2 on PS2 looks good—the aesthetic still works, even though that’s a distinctly 6th gen title.
Water rendering is, well, just plain awful. To be honest, the water shader in 2002’s Morrowind looks better than Samurai Shodown’s opaque blue Jell-O. A very course cubemap is layered over the water texture—it’s apparently supposed to convey the glimmer of reflected sunlight, but it simply doesn’t sit well in the scene. And, as we’d mentioned, the water’s completely opaque. It really does look like sickly blue Jell-O with something nondescript stuck inside.
Samurai Shodown doesn’t exactly need advanced lighting techniques and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t make use of them. Unreal 4’s forward rendering functionality is used here considering the low number of light-emitters per scene. Character shadows are soft but we did notice some dithering, even on the Xbox One X version. Also, the prebaked static shadowmaps used in the background are contact-hardening while the dynamic character shadows are not—this has a noticeable impact on visuals where there appear to be two different kinds of shadows onscreen at once.
2009’s Samurai Shodown game looked like it came straight out of a PS2 Platinum hits catalogue. 2019’s Samurai Shodown looks like what the 2009 title ought to have looked. On much older hardware. While gameplay is another matter entirely—and Samurai Shodown’s thoughtful, risk-reward based play has never been stronger—the actual visual makeup of the game is disappointing. However, PS4 Pro and Xbox One X owners have the opportunity to enjoy some excellent fighting gameplay in a game whose aesthetic scales reasonably well on higher-res monitors, even if it one of the underwhelming games of this generation from a solely technical perspective.