If ever there was a game that felt ahead of it's time, it would be Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo.
Released in 1988, the game focuses on Stan Sakai's comic book character of the same name, Usagi Yojimbo, an anthropomorphic rabbit on a mission to rescue the daimyo, Noriyuki, from Lord Hikiji, the man responsible for the murder of Usagi's father.
The game is a blend of adventure, role-playing and action that sees Usagi crossing Japan on his rescue mission. It comprises of number of interconnected scrolling playfields that contain a range of characters to interact (or fight) with. Certain screens end with branching paths where the player can choose between different routes through the game, some of which might be more challenging than others.
One of the significant features in the game is the range of characters that Usagi encounters. From peasants to noblemen, monks to ninja, the developers managed to convey a convincing sense of a world populated with interesting characters to find.
Throughout his journey, Usagi is judged on how he treats the people he encounters. This is represented by the Karma system, a simple points-based system that increases for performing noble actions and decreases when performing unlawful or ignoble actions. For example, bowing to peasants, other samurai and generally any other lawful character in the game will award Usagi with one or more points of karma, whilst drawing a sword and attacking a peasant will quickly drain karma. If the karma score reaches zero, Usagi is without honour and commits seppuku, ending the game immediately.
Not all of the situations are quite so clear-cut when it comes to karma. For example, drawing a sword on a pair of thugs demanding toll for safe passage will initially deduct karma, yet killing these mercenaries will actually reward more karma than the act of attacking, thus resulting in an overall net increase of karma.
Usagi might also encounter a noblemen and his entourage of armed bodyguards whilst on the road. Should Usagi fail to pay proper to respect to the nobleman, he will instruct his guards to attack in order to teach Usagi respect. It is these small details that really demonstrate the sheer brilliance of the game.
Of course, Usagi will encounter those that are purely out to make trouble, particularly large numbers of troublesome ninja, which is where only use of a razor-sharp sword can make a difference. Once drawn, the player can perform three difference attack moves by holding the fire-button for different periods of time. A quick press will perform a parry that can deflect enemy attacks, whilst holding for one second will perform a quick, horizontal slash. Holding the button down causes Usagi to raise his sword over his head, whilst letting it go will perform a powerful overhead slash and is the most damaging attack move. Combined with forward and backward leaps, combat is a frantic (and sometimes frustrating) affair as you attempt to kill off the enemies before they do too much damage to Usagi.
Any damage taken can be restored by visiting a village inn and ordering food from the owner. It's worth noting that food will add additional points to Usagi's health beyond what the health bar displays, so it's worthwhile eating two of three additional meals providing Usagi has enough money to pay for it.
Money is represented by the Ryo counter in the top-left of the screen. Ryo can be found on the corpses of fallen enemies, or by gambling with a peasant in the inn. Aside from purchasing meals, ryo can be offered to peasants for additional to karma, but be warned that offering it to a noble is considered an insult and will be treated with swift justice.
The game boasts fantastic graphics and animation that really bring the characters to life. Neil Brennan also composed some simple yet extremely atmospheric music for the game.
If there is one criticism I have about the game, it is that I wish it could have been longer. The game was allegedly meant to be much larger and more complex, but hardware limitations prevented this from becoming a reality.
Even so, the game manages to convey the sense that the player is part of a living world that is much larger than it actually is. For the first few games, there is a genuine sense of excitement as you have no idea what is going to happen next, or who you are likely to encounter.
Samurai Warrior will always remain as one of the best-loved Commodore 64 games ever made. If there is one game that I would like to receive a modern remake, it would be this.