"The Demon King descends from his mountain domain to you, the First Samurai and your master. Defenceless against the Demon's magic, you succumb to his powers, leaving your Master to fight the Demon King alone. Your master falls in combat, dying. But, with his last breath, he summons the Wizard Mage. The Demon King fearing defeat, escapes to the future. Tormented, the young samurai seeks the teachings of the Wizard Mage in the ways of magic. Boiled with revenge and armed with a magical sword, the young samurai follows the Demon King into the future and the unknown..."
With these words, the nicely done intro brings you into Vivid Image’s game The First Samurai. It was published in 1991 for PC, Amiga, C64 and SNES and was a successful answer to games like Shadowdancer and the famous Last Ninja, which had been keeping fans of far-eastern arcade action entertained during the early nineties.
The First Samurai is an arcade platformer, full of action, in which you guide your hero through time – visiting different worlds, mystical to futuristic - on his quest for revenge. Even if the story might not be that original, the great gameplay balances this out very well and provides a bunch of nice innovations.
You control your samurai using the keyboard. You walk, crouch, jump and climb with the cursor keys, and by combining them with space bar, several effective attacks can be performed. As long as the samurai is not holding his sword, you defend yourself with punches and kicks which strike into different directions, but don’t worry, you’re also going to find weapons soon enough. There are daggers and axes, for instance , that can be thrown towards your enemies. The most important weapon is your magical sword, though. It is not only supporting you in encounters, it is also part of a clever energy system. I will come back to this later on.
The levels are quite complex and interestingly structured. Most of the time, you won’t be moving simply straight forward, for your agile samurai is able to climb many of the vertical surfaces or can slip though holes in the ground to access lower areas. Not all of these ways are easy to use, though. Some have to be spotted first and then rocks or such are often blocking the passage and have to be removed by hitting them. But it’s worth the efforts for many nice goodies await you. And threats, of course.
To make sure that the samurai has a hard time venturing the levels, plenty of fierce creatures are crossing his path. To be precise, they run, fly, jump and roll around and give their best to stop the brave hero and to protect their master, the Demon King. The monsters come in a large variety – bats, rats, fire-spitting stone statues or alien-like frogs and even other warriors are only some to be mentioned. Furthermore, there are pretty sneaky traps cutting down your energy, if you are not cautious enough.
Speaking of energy, your samurai will suffer from attacks and traps, no matter how hard you fight. You begin the game with four lifes. Your life energy is indicated by the arm icon on the lower left part of the screen. When the arm has disappeared completely you'll lose a life. You will find numerous items refreshing your energy, such as food baskets or potions, to ensure you won’t be finished off too easily. The developers of the game have thought about something else and that’s connected to your magical sword. As I have mentioned above, your sword is your most important item. Its special magical energy is displayed by the sword icon on the lower right of the screen. Whenever you have destroyed an enemy creature, it releases a glowing, flying star which you absorb automatically. It lets your magical energy rise and the sword icon grows a bit. After having collected enough of this magical energy, your sword will appear in your hand and you can use it. The cool thing is, it’s not only very useful to fight with but it also represents sort of a reserve for your life energy. If, actually, your life energy has been drained too low, your magical energy is reduced and part of it transforms to life energy, preserving you from death – for the time being. When this happens the sword disappears until you have regained enough magical energy to get your beloved weapon back.
Another nice innovation in The First Samurai are ‘resurrection pots’. These pots are distributed throughout the levels and are somewhat similar to checkpoints. To use them you will first need to charge them with some magical energy. As soon as they begin to glow, they’re ready to use. If you succumb during fights, you'll loose a life and will be resurrected at a pot. You can even choose at which pot you want to restart. That eliminates the need to cover old ground after you’ve died and it can be also used to move the hero quickly between different parts of the level. The usage as shortcut can be very helpful, as the game, like I said before, is quite non-linear in certain parts.
The pots are, of course, not the only items supporting you on your quest. There are other magical items which can be picked up (only if enough magical energy is collected). These items can be used to overcome certain areas, which would be otherwise unpassable, like walls of fire, rivers or other similar spots. Furthermore, you have the possibility to get clues for such tasks from the Wizard Mage, whose blue-shimmering face appears from time to time.
But I don’t want to reveal too much in this review, for it’s your fun to explore and discover the world of The First Samurai yourself. I will go into the technical aspects instead now. The game runs perfectly on Dosbox. Sadly, there’s only music during the intro, but at least it’s very good and catchy. The in-game sound effects are nicely done, suiting the overall atmosphere well and don’t get annoying. The VGA graphics are really beautiful to watch and the diversive designs of creatures, effects and landscapes are animated smoothly. The character itself is also very well drawn and animated and it’s a pleasure to watch him fight and move. The only feature I missed, was the cool parallax-scrolling which had been implemented in other versions, but not in the PC-version, although that fact does not reduce the fun playing this game in any aspect.
Although the different attacks of your samurai take a little to get used to, the controls are generally fairly simple and straight-forward. The difficulty of the game is moderate, in my opinion. As enemy creatures are constantly respawning, you’ll be well advised to keep in motion most of the time, but there’s no need to panic since the resurrection pots prove to be a great saving system. You even keep all items you were carrying after you’ve been resurrected.
Nevertheless, this game is by far not easy, so a little practice for the handling is required.
My mind is settled. The First Samurai offers great Arcade-Action and many nice innovations. The beautiful visual appearance, the mixture between moving, fighting, exploring and puzzling and last but not least, the well-balanced yet diverse leveldesign result in many hours of game entertainment! Vivid Image have done an amazing job and even for today’s standards The First Samurai is a very recommendable challenge to all fans of this genre.
Don’t miss it, it’s a clear 5!
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