Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Bandai Interactive
Release Date: April 11, 2006
Tuntablism + Samurais = Super Dope Sword Swinging Beats
Most gamers are anime fans by default, and so conventional wisdom would lend itself to the fact that anime franchises and intellectual properties would translate into popular games. Bandai has gone to great lengths to prove this otherwise-obvious axiom wrong time and time again with sub-par anime ports. Thankfully, Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked bucks the trend with a game that doesn't ruin the anime series it hails. Although SCS doesn't really break any new ground and probably wouldn't find much of an audience outside its already installed fanbase, the game does deserve merit.
Samurai Champloo (to this day, I don't know what "Champloo" means) was created by the same crew that did "Cowboy Bebop" and the animated shorts within "Kill Bill: Volume 1" and "The Animatrix." The story centers around three questionable characters that are both lovable and laughable. The brashest of the trio, Mugen, is a seemingly heartless Ronin (who actually isn't a real Samurai in the classic sense of the word) who wants only to eat, kill and … er, partake in carnal knowledge of as many women as possible. Jin, another Ronin (who actually embodies the classic Samurai) is the quiet, calm and cool professional who is efficient with his words and actions and holds a healthy disdain for Mugen's savage behavior. Fu, the female lead, is a cutesy girl who is an orphan and lynchpin of this trio. You see, Fu is looking for the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers because he holds the key to Fu's past and knows who killed her family.
The anime's story arc begins with Mugen and Jin meeting by chance at the inn where Fu works. Mugen insults Jin, and the two are about to have it out when a local thug and his cronies show up and start trouble. Mugen and Jin agree to hold off on their duel until a later date and dispatch the goons only to be apprehended, tortured and condemned to death by the local governor whose son Jin and Mugen just thoroughly trashed. To make a long story short, Fu saves Mugen and Jin from execution, and both men owe her their lives so they agree to help her find this enigmatic Sunflower Samurai.
Thankfully, SCS isn't a mere rehash of the original storyline. In fact, it offers a totally new narrative where our three heroes, while in the search of a meal, get themselves stranded on the snowy lands of Ezo. Here both Mugen and Jin are charged with safekeeping a dying clan's sacred treasures from the grips of the evil Matsumae clan, which has been growing in size and strength. Jin sticks to his charge out of honor, and Mugen is inextricably involved because he's been poisoned and the only way to get the cure is to help Masao, the warrior who is going to take the Matsumae head-on. The narrative is classic Champloo fare, with a good dose of humor and pop culture inserts and translates very well to an American audience.
While the game's content translates well, the gameplay is not as clean. SCS looks at first glance to be your average action/adventure brawler that reminds an aging gamer of Double Dragon. After a few confusing minutes of playing the first level, I realized that this title isn't so much about moving around and swinging as it is about rhythm and timing. In actuality, SCS plays more like Parappa the Rappa. You begin a chain and have to time the button presses to a beat of sorts, and you can mutate your strikes by different button presses. The results are spectacular sword-swinging combos mixed with a healthy dose of break-dancing.
There isn't much in terms of walking around, except to get yourself lined up, and then it's all button presses which can easily degenerate into button mashing early on. With later combo strings, however, you "learn" by buying new records from record shops (not too sure what record shops are doing in Edo Period Japan, but this is Champloo, after all), and these strings offer up complex and powerful strings that can get yourself some pretty sick points. You can also get yourself into "trance" mode by killing designated NPCs, where a monochrome background that's a total homage to "Kill Bill Vol. 1" allows you to try and kill as many ninjas as possible to unlock cool stuff at the end of the level. SCS's gameplay core is simple, and some may find it disappointing, but I enjoyed it. That being said, the game can get old and be too easy at times. You can also only switch between two records on the fly, which can make things a little old, but each record has its own unique track which makes the in-game music some of the best I've heard.
Unfortunately, SCS doesn't offer much in terms in replay value. You have Jin's quest and Mugen's quest, both of which could be finished within a few hours' time. There are many unlockable tracks, and there's a battle mode to dabble with once you've unlocked records and items and weapons, but there is no two-player function, which is understandable.
SCS really is a great addition to the Champloo series in that it's a totally new story that fits right in with the anime's continuum. The game is faithful to the characters and storyline, and above all else, the anime's aesthetics are wholly intact. It's nothing too fancy to look at, and isn't really too impressive at all in terms of its graphics. The music, on the other hand, is perfect; it fits with the series, it fits with the gameplay and it imbues some really authentic hip-hop into the game, which one doesn't see very often in gaming.
I'll be very clear about this: I'm a big fan of this anime and a fan of this game, but Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked does have its faults. The gameplay, while novel, isn't all too complex, and this game isn't about to win any awards for graphics. The best aspects of the game are that it lends some more meat to the series, and it works the whole Champloo angle to perfection. It goes without saying that if you're not a Champloo fan, then you might find this title to be a little odd, if not downright silly. If you're a fan, rejoice and get this game, flaws and all.
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