Takara’s Dead Heat Fighters series: Samurai Spirits

Nettou Samurai Spirits holds the honour of being the first of Takara’s “Dead Heat Fighters” series; adorably miniature versions of various Neo Geo fighting games (and one Toshinden for good measure) all adapted for Nintendo’s fantastically popular Game Boy.

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This tiny Samurai Spirits came out in 1994, just a year after the arcade original and four whole years before SNK pinched were inspired by the look of this game and went and cutesy-fied their fantasy-samurai-bashing series themselves with Samurai Spirits! (yes, the exclamation mark’s part of the title – like Falcom’s Zwei!!) on the Neo Geo Pocket. While the host platform meant Takara’s effort was never going to be a perfect recreation of the still-gorgeous arcade experience it does do a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere and the essentials of the real thing, making for a surprisingly familiar experience even when played out in just four shades of green.

The first thing you’ll probably notice on this page are the impressive event graphics lavished throughout the game – Takara sensibly ditched the AES style entirely and instead adopted an incredibly clean and expressive look that suits Nintendo’s portable hardware well. It’s incredible just how much has been crammed in here, with each character not only retaining their unique win pose animations but also all-new full screen character story introductions, endings, and unique mid-game cut scenes too. These scenes help get across the character and flair of the series without getting in the way of the action or trying to force the Game Boy to do something it simply can’t do (see Killer Instinct GB), and they’re so good it’s a shame they’re confined to a twenty one year old lump of plastic.

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Once battle starts you’ll find the care and attention to detail that went into the pixel art carries on throughout the entire game, with energetic sprites pulling off instantly recognisable moves that never get lost against the beautifully detailed (if static) backgrounds thanks to a clear black outline. Even faithful battle pets Mamahaha and Poppy are present and correct, no small feat on hardware with a meagre 4.19MHz processor. The only real sacrifices are Kuroko (“The Ump”, if you’ve ever played Card Fighter’s Clash), who still flags up successful hits but has been moved to the top of the screen, and Hikyaku (That Delivery Guy) has his items dropped in from the top of the screen rather have him run past and throw them out.

The controls have been naturally been tweaked to fit the Game Boy’s button layout, with A and B controlling kicks and slashes respectively. A strong attack is possible by pressing both together, and all fighters have their usual array of special moves, wall jumps, throws, dashes and so on, just without the fine-tuning you have in the arcade version due to the lack of weak/strong attack buttons. Even the weapon-disarming duels are included, something of a frivolity that they could have easily decided wasn’t worth the bother but took the time code in anyway.

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As if including all twelve standard characters wasn’t enough Takara also decided to include three secret fighters (just press select four times when Haohmaru slices the lanterns during the intro) – Kuroko, Hikyaku, and final boss Amakusa. They all have individual story introduction,s win quotes, and win animations, and they aren’t head swaps of other characters. This is incredibly impressive work to keep hidden away like that, especially as the first two are totally new off-the-cuff creations.

There’s also Super Game Boy support that allows two player versus games using SNES controllers and regular GB link-up matches if you happen to have two copies lying around – which you might, seeing as this game had a worldwide release!

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The original Game Boy really isn’t built to handle games like Samurai Spirits, but Takara pulled off the impossible and created what is essentially a demake that captures the essence of the original without being so concerned with being authentic that it forgets it need to be a great Game Boy game above all else. It’s fair to say that Samurai Spirits 2! for the Neo Geo Pocket Colour is the ultimate handheld samurai experience, but this still remains a surprising little brawler filled with the sort of care and attention to detail you’d expect from a first-party developer, not what is essentially a farmed-out licensee. Bravo, Takara – and sorry for getting on the Dead Heat Fighters bandwagon so late!