The chance discovery of Sword of the Samurai, a decade after its release, helped James Dawson appreciate new culture, strategic decision making, and the true depth that gaming could offer.
I don’t know where I got Sword of the Samurai from. I certainly didn’t buy it and it was probably a decade after its release that I started playing it on a PC in my parent’s loft conversion which was, at the time, “my living room”. It’s a game that’s been stuck in my head ever since, due to its depth of gameplay and full dedication to its setting in feudal Japan. I’m still impressed by sheer depth of Sword of the Samurai, and it gave me the first feeling of true immersion in a game’s character because of the freedom of choice.
I remember finding it on my computer one day, among a whole host of games I may have pirated from a friend – ironic, really, given that Sword of the Samurai is the spiritual successor to Sid Meier’s Pirates!, a game I’ve never played.
Upon booting it up, I witnessed a well-animated samurai swing his sword, selected to start a new game from a large menu of options and read the message “Samurai warrior, please announce the name by which you wish to be known.” I chose to be titled “Buttface”. I was a teenager, and this amused me greatly.
I was then greeted with a map of Japan divided into various coloured provinces. Each one had a different number of symbols associated with it. I had no fucking idea what any of them were. I soon found out that the sunshine icons represented honour, the ice-cream wafer biscuits represented military might, the odd-looking guns represented duelling skill, and the space invaders represented land. I selected a province at random and then, erring on the side of caution, picked the smallest sword – Tanto – which represented the easiest difficulty.
I then had one final, simple decision to make: what my “family advantage” was. Here, I was finally given a key to decode the previously undecipherable symbols. I chose land.
After repeat plays, I’d realise this was a grave error. Always choose honour. Honour is the most important aspect of any samurai. It’s a lesson I still hold true in real life.
Good things come to those who wait
I was then greeted by the first of many loading screens I’d see during my many playthroughs of the game: a black background with white text mimicking Japanese characters, which said “Deliberation is preferable to haste…” The loading screen was a Japanese proverb about being patient while the game loaded. It was the first of many touches that showed how much research and thought had gone into making Sword of the Samurai a truly immersive experience, and one that’d take me from writing “Buttface” to embracing ancient Eastern philosophies.
Meet the competition
I was welcomed by my hatamoto (the local chieftain) as one of his samurai, then introduced to the rest of his team who were pointed out as my rivals. This was extreme office politics. Their names, honour and the number of warriors they controlled were laid out for all to see. One in particular caught my eye: a rat-faced bastard with little honour but a vast fiefdom. I took an instant dislike to him.
Choose your own adventure
From here, a series of seemingly random choices had to be made: recruiting new samurai to build my army, raising taxes to get more land, and giving land away to the local Buddhist temple for more honour. My rivals were busy doing similar things with each turn once I’d made my choice. Early on, it seemed that Sword of the Samurai would be an entirely text-based game, but it was still fun enough to bear with.
Yet this wasn’t the case, I quickly (and excitedly) learned. The hatamoto sent me a message saying that he’d trapped an assassin in a tower room and someone needed to come and bust some moves on his ass and gain much honour. There was an option to travel, and Buttface was dutifully dispatched to the castle to duel this foe.
Even for the travel sequence, the game offered up more options. I could go alongside my army, travel solo, or disguise myself as a peasant. As I was new to the game – and playing cautiously – I opted to have my boys back me up, and I had no issues moving across the map.
Finally, some sword action
After arriving at the castle and agreeing to defend my clan’s honour, I saw the image of a ninja; only the white skin around his savage red eyes was visible as the duel began. The sword-fighting mechanics were awesome – you had to block vertical and horizontal slashes with the correct counter while moving around a bamboo-screened room, as the camera lingered behind your character. The fight took forever for me to learn how to break my enemy’s defence, and it was immensely close.
After several minutes of bashing the keyboard arrow keys and space bar, I was physically sweating, but victorious. The next loading screen again offered wise words: “To wait calmly requires discipline…” This tactic had seen me win the battle, as my early aggressive style gave way to the more careful approach of looking for openings in combat.
Three ways to play
So, Sword of the Samurai wasn’t just text based, and the sword fighting was great fun, but as my adventure progressed, it continued to surprise me with other action-based gameplay. Following the one-on-one duel, there was a top-down killfest where my samurai fought off waves of archers, pikemen and sword-wielding bandits in various locations; think Hotline Miami with a bow and arrow, as well as trusty steel.
My first foray into this minigame was met with failure against a group of bandits that tried to rob me. I didn’t realise how much crossing water would slow me down and I took a couple of nasty pikes to the face, which meant my avatar needed to retire from battle injured, with no honour gained. The game informed me that my wounds had been tended and bound, but nothing could soothe the shame that burned in my heart. That had a massive impact on how I approached all future battles and was a much more impactful statement than a simple “you lose”. No one wants unsoothable shame.
Another mode was also top-down, but it involved controlling army units in real time. Again, being a Sword of the Samurai virgin, I performed poorly due to inexperience the first time I led my army to defend our borders. However, my earlier investment in recruiting warriors paid off and after figuring out how to control my army (press the number key to select the accordingly numbered unit), I won, despite suffered heavy losses.
I wasn’t as impressed with this section, though I was a long way away from discovering the benefits of other unit types – archers, mounted cavalry and so on – as well as the variety of tactics they offered. I even invented some of my own military tactics, with my favourite being harrowing the foot soldiers with my cavalry and leading them into the range of my waiting archers. After a while, I could really understand why Napoleon liked starting so many wars.
One of the story options that truly piqued my interest was a matchmaker approaching me with the option of a wife. I wasn’t only a virgin when it came to Sword of the Samurai, so the idea of pixelated lady-love grabbed my attention. I accepted the offer, but it turned out that she was playing hard to get by getting kidnapped by bandits. This had worked out in my favour, as future brides who remained non-kidnapped had fathers who required large gifts of land.
Again, the top-down killfest started and I found the future Mrs Buttface lying down in a cave after I had chopped down most of the bandits. She refused to get off her arse and walk, so I had to carry her over my shoulder, dropping her like a sack of spuds whenever another bandit needed dispatching.
Following a successful rescue, we were married in all of our finery and after a few more turns of warrior recruitment and land acquisition, she bore me a son. I was given the honour of naming the child and, of course, chose the moniker “Buttface Junior”.
Rising through the ranks
By now I was second in succession to my hatamoto, but before I became heir to the title, he died in battle. Now I had to report into someone who was my equal. No one likes having a co-worker appointed as their boss, but luckily there were other options for getting ahead, aside from just grinding away at increasing my land and army.
I visited my rivals and had tea with those of honour, building relationships and forming bonds. When visiting the rat-faced samurai I’d taken a dislike to, I had the option of calling him a coward whose ancestors hauled dung: an option I decided to utilise. Expecting a duel, he surprised me by backing down and lost all his remaining standing with our new lord.
Our new lord was young, and I didn’t have time to wait for him to die of old age. But because of my interactions with my peers, I was now heir to the throne. I decided to do something quite un-samurai-like: assassinate the bugger.
Travelling to the main castle disguised as a poor ronin, I had the options of dishonouring my rivals (usually by stealing a vase they had given the hatamoto as a gift) or fully going for it and taking out the gaffer so I could succeed him. This involved another top-down mission to kill him in his sleep.
By this point I was really engrossed in my character, and I’d gotten quite good at this game mode, which I’d previously disliked. I was more than confident this would see me as the new boss. Alas, with a passing memory of earlier pikes to my face, I was stopped in my tracks by a couple of arrows in a tight, close-quarters corridor. The mission failed. No matter, I thought, there’s always next time.
Sadly though, there was no next time.
Attempted assassination of my lord meant that I was forced to commit seppuku. Worse still, the wife and Buttface Junior were also killed for being associated with someone so dishonourable, so unlike other deaths that can occur in the game, I couldn’t continue the Buttface Dynasty’s quest for domination by continuing as my son. It was truly game over.
The start of a beautiful friendship
This wasn’t the end of my Sword of the Samurai experience. In fact, I started a new game straight away with a more serious start. I even inputted my real name.
Across many subsequent playthroughs I accepted many duels to test my swordsmanship, even starting a few fights with people who weren’t too cowardly to accept being called the son of a dung hauler, and became adept at chopping people into bits. I rescued more wives, had many sons and even became Shogun. The days of playing on Tanto difficulty were long gone and I even had some success on the hardest difficulty setting.
One particularly great feature of completing the game was that your dynasty would rule for various timescales, based on how well you played and dominated Japan. My best was 500 years; in that playthrough, my army was so big that I simply declared myself Shogun and no one dared to question my self-appointment to big cheese.
After rising to the rank of daimyo, you could have your own samurai deal with any potentially lethal one-on-one challenges without losing honour. However, I was a man of principle and skilled enough to win any of them. It’s how I imagined a real leader would behave and I loathed the idea that my retainers would see me as weak or without honour.
Looking and sounding good
Throughout my many lives in the game, I was always struck by how well the text-based options were presented. The game was ten years old when I first discovered it, but it was still often gorgeous to look at. The pixel art in the backgrounds was beautiful, whether it was a flowing golden dragon or your rival depicted as a screeching cowardly monkey accepting your insults, and it really made it so much more than just reading words on a screen. Sure, the top-down battles were a bit blocky, but the colour palette and design made it look like Japanese art you’d see on an expensive vase that you’d give to your lord as a gift.
The music was also on point, with the soundtrack based on music from the Sengoku period – the programmers recreated the sounds of traditional stringed instruments using the technology available. After playing it so many times, I can still hear the main theme in my head as I write these words, which is the sure sign of a successful score.
You must choose… but choose wisely
Despite playing massive open-world games with thousands of (often-pointless) mini-games, I’ve never played a game that gave me the same feeling of choice as Sword of the Samurai. Each turn presented you with many more paths to a final decision, and this strategy was combined with a dedication to historical accuracy that really made for an immersive experience because of this.
Every victory was met with elation, while every defeat delivered crushing despair and real consequences. It’s an experience I would love to have again with the modern tech available, but nothing has quite come close to a game that’s now nearly 30 years old.
- Duels and melee fighting are great fun
- Truly immersive experience
- Great music and art
- So many options for various tactics
- Controlling armies can be confusing
- Lots to learn early on
I don’t know where Sword of the Samurai came from, and I don’t care. It truly immersed me in a world and made me believe that I was a man of great honour and heritage, even if I did start out as Buttface.