The death and rebirth of Bushido Blade
Given the choice of every fighting game ever made, I’d pick Bushido Blade. The game and its sequel were Squaresoft titles for the original Playstation, and featured poorly voice acted, blocky “samurai” squaring off on areas that probably featured about a hundred polygons total.
They were two of the most excellent fighting games for one reason: one hit killed you.
Bushido Blade excels because every second is packed with tension. Whereas Soul Caliber demands you slam your ludicrous bladed whip into an opponent twenty times to deplete a life bar, Bushido Blade demands you make contact just once: one good, clean hit. Maybe you get lucky, and catch your opponent unawares with a quick stab. Maybe you execute a complex series of strikes that end in their death. Or perhaps you randomly mash buttons and get lucky. Bushido Blade allows for all of these things, and does so by removing the traditional meter of progress offered by fighting games: the life bar.
As such, any damage you cause is psychological. While missing with a series of fireballs, jumping uppercuts, and spinning kicks in Street Fighter gets you exactly nothing (unless the other player doesn’t know how to do any of those moves), in Bushido Blade you’ll make even the best player sweat, because even a single mistake could have led to their death. Every deflected sword blow is another that could have taken their life; they can’t help but think this.
Multiplayer video games rarely involve psychology. You die suddenly in Call of Duty, but it’s not something you’re afraid of except at the very end of the match. Death is an affirmation of skill—someone else’s skill—but it doesn’t carry with it serious connotations: you die, but you’re alive ten seconds later. You cannot scare an opponent in Battlefield with covering fire, with mortar shells: he’s taken bullets before, and he’s died before. He always comes back to fight the same battle. An individual can die thirty times but still celebrate a victory if his team is capable.
Not so in Bushido Blade. Death is the end. You die, and you’ve lost: there’s no victory in defeat. You may find honor, the remembrance of a battle well fought, a death well died, but there is no victory.
This is why we don’t see many games like Bushido Blade: despite its accessibility, it’s a technician’s game: vicious, but with a strong impulse towards craftsmanship. You have a collection of basic attacks, basic stances geared towards different types of fighting (aggressive, defensive, positively murderous), and all these allow you to attack and defend at different angles. Bushido Blade is not a game of combos but instead a sort of video game trigonometry, where you set cunning traps and play the angles of attack. Instead of overwhelming an opponent with brutal force, you can draw them in, switch stance mid-stream, and launch a vicious counterattack. Even if your opponent survives, you’ve done your damage psychologically: they will not attack you again. You can use their caution to your advantage.
At first blush, nobody would make Bushido Blade today because of its twin guns of difficulty and obtuseness. It makes you feel woefully underpowered rather than deliciously over. It relies on mental games and “cheapness” rather than on brutal examples of skill. A full ten percent of my games of Bushido Blade 2 end with one player immediately impaled on one of the game’s rare projectiles, as one or both parties decide they want to go for the quick, immediate kill; often, both players die simultaneously. This doesn’t sound fun or fair.
The game Bushido Blade reminds me of, as a game of angles, is Settlers of Catan. It reminds me of European board games that focus on thoughtful strategy and decisive, strategic action over overwhelming force. Bushido Blade is the thinking man’s fighter, where you can stare at your opponent for ten seconds before launching an attack, the same way you stare at the board in Catan before the move comes to you: you’ll build a settlement here, decimate your opponent. In both games, your best laid plans shatter when your opponent reveals that this move was exactly what they were expecting.
This kind of action is resurfacing thanks to the return of board games to the public eye. Games like the iDevice version of Ascension are increasingly popular on mobile devices. And while Bushido Blade fills a different genre, the prominence of game’s such as Sirlin’s Yomi (designed for tournament play) show there’s an audience for Bushido Blade’s exacting blend of accessibility and tactics. Besides the adrenaline of Street Fighter, there’s room for exacting, tense combat like Bushido Blade offered. And it’s the kind of title I look forward to playing.