Two samurai face each other in a blizzard, katanas at the ready. As the snow flurries down, neither makes an attempt to strike. One second passes, two, three, as the two warriors seemingly do nothing, except for make tiny, almost imperceptible changes in their stances. Really though, a silent war is raging —a war fought in the mind. Be clear, this is not a battle fought for an audience. Time slowly drips away as the two warriors jockey for position, advancing here, retreating there. And then, without warning, everything happens. A blade flashes in the moonlight. A claret gush of arterial blood leaps out onto the snow. One warrior stands silhouetted against the winter, holding his killing pose in true samurai style. The unfortunate other drops to his knees, and then to the ground. This was Bushido Blade.
First of all, and most importantly… Bushido Blade was awesome.
For those who don’t know, Bushido Blade was released in 1997 for the PSX. It was made by an outfit called Lightweight Games, who you’ve probably never heard of (inexplicably, their output besides BB was pretty atrocious). The premise of the game was simple, yet absolutely revolutionary. It was a one-on-one fighter, with each player being able to pick one of a variety of weapons. But this was no Soul Calibur—these weapons were all 100% lethal. Gone were the usual trappings of health bars and power meters. In Bushido Blade, If you got nicked on the arm by your enemy’s blade, that arm was now out of the picture. Take a glancing blow to the legs, and you were forced to fight on your knees. Take a serious hit anywhere, and it was curtains—accompanied by a satisfying shower of blood.
This game was hardcore. However, this was the very thing that made it so incredible to play. Death for either player was never more than a blink away. A single misstep, a moment of bravado, and you were toast. You know that feeling you get playing a heated battle in Street Fighter… you’re in the deciding round, both of you down to your last slivers of health, super meters full? The tension, the psychological games, the sense that time has slowed almost to a standstill? Bushido Blade was like that every time you played. It was enough to take years off your life. Your heart would leap into your throat every time you were so bold as to commit to an attack. If your opponent had expected it, a quick dash forward and a well timed slash to the jugular would have sent your hopes of victory flailing into the gutter—with only your avatars blood-curdling death cries for company.
Of course it was frustrating at times. It was possible for a match to be over as soon as it started, and needless to say, the learning curve was incredibly steep. But it was fairer than you’d expect, with its realism working in its favor. For example, sure, the health bars were gone. But to balance it, so was the superhuman speed shared by most modern fighter game characters. And it had an honor system too—no killing your opponent with his back turned, or throwing dirt in his eyes. You were free to break these rules, of course, but you never felt like you wanted to. You felt responsible for upholding the Bushido code. And why? Because of the game’s greatest strength… you felt like you actually were the character you were playing. This is one of the biggest factors missing from every beat-em-up since. In traditional fighters, there’s a weird distancing at hand—you sit there, inputting lengthy strings of button presses to unleash the desired screen-filling, seizure-inducing combo. Your opponent, of course, defends in the pre-defined pattern he has memorized over many hours of practice And then there are cancels, input buffering, EX moves and the like… the list goes on. Ultimately, these features divorce you from the battle itself, and make you feel like an automaton. In Bushido Blade, however, you totally inhabit every aspect of your character.
Bushido Blade knew the truth about what makes battle great. It’s not the extravagance of the special moves, or the length of the combo. It’s the psychological aspect, the fact that really, the hardest battle is always with the self. It’s not about mindless aggression, it’s about restraint, instinct, and knowing your opponent. Bushido Blade knew that stillness was more beautiful than constant motion.
It really was awesome.
Bushido Blade, unfortunately, did not perform commercially as well as it should have. It was followed by a sub-par sequel, which tried to gain more mainstream appeal by softening its purist stance on fighting. Ultimately, Bushido Blade died the way all true warriors do—forgotten, but gloriously noble. It should have done for beat-em-ups what Halo did for shooters—do away with anachronistic gameplay systems rooted in the distant past, and cut straight to the essence of what made its respective genre great… It should have changed fighters forever. It didn’t, sadly, but today, we honor the Way of the Warrior one more time.