The Last Blade / Bakumatsu Roman: Gekka no Kenshi (幕末浪漫 月華の剣士) - Neo Geo, Neo Geo CD, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Wii, PlayStation 3, PSP, PSVita (1997)
American Arcade Flyer
American Neo Geo CD Cover
Japanese PlayStation Cover
The first thing one notices about The Last Blade is how beautiful it is. It was like nothing SNK had made before. The sprites are probably the best looking ones ever seen on Neo Geo. Even the sprites in later games like Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Rage of the Dragons and Matrimelee can't compare. They're detailed, lush, vibrant, and the animation is silky smooth. The only 2D fighting games with more detailed sprites are Street Fighter III and Guilty Gear X. The characters are far more realistic and mature looking than the somewhat disproportionate, overly colorful Samurai Shodown characters, and the backgrounds have an insane level of detail.
The presentation of the game works perfectly. It's dark, solemn, and carries an aura of twilight. You can really feel that an era is coming to an end. For instance, one stage is set in a traditional Japanese village, but the influence of the West already has begun creeping down the mountainside as telephone poles snake their way through the streets. These settings are inhabited by believable characters with their very own unique flavor. The game is simply dripping with style. Every sword stroke is performed with the utmost grace, fluidity, and exaggerated romanticism. It's like art in motion, too good to be real, and yet more realistic than most other attempts at this genre.
To match the somber tone of the game is a melancholy, synthed orchestral soundtrack. Where most other games of this genre use traditional Japanese music, this game reflects the Western influence of the visual design and follows European compositions instead. Not every battle is fought to music. Some battles are tastefully left to the ambiance of the setting. In Moriya's bamboo forest stage, a shrill wind howls past the leaves as a waterwheel creeks in the background. In Washizuka's stage, a dog barks off in the distance as some other creature rummages through trash in some unseen alley. The lack of music in some battles really makes the tension build up. The level of detail is almost insane.
Even with such a beautiful presentation, the star of the show is the fighting engine. Like everything else in the game, it works beautifully. Because it's a weapons-based fighting game, one would assume it plays something like Samurai Shodown, but it doesn't. Not in the slightest. In fact, it doesn't really play like any other 2D fighting game. It plays more similarly to Soul Calibur, with two attack buttons, a kick button, and a repel button. Blocking is still done traditionally, by holding the joystick backwards. The repel is far more effective than the block, though. It repels the enemy's attack and creates an opening for your own. But this requires true mastery to wield correctly.
Unlike Soul Calibur, however, The Last Blade focuses greatly on long chain combos. The buffer time makes doing combos a wonderful task for the experienced, as you can pretty much punch in the entire button string for a combo you know before you even get the second or third attack out and it'll flow through without a hitch. Almost every character has a great combo string, and you can pretty much pick any character in the roster you think looks cool and be a great player with them, because it's probably one of the most balanced fighting games ever.
Another great aspect of the fighting engine is the Sword Gauge. After selecting a character, you can choose from two different fighting styles; Power or Speed. Somewhat like the Slash and Bust system from Samurai Shodown III, the Power and Speed styles greatly change how a character works. With Power as your style, your character is very strong and can use a special super desperation move, but their potential for chain combos is very limited, usually losing pace after 3 or 4 hits. With Speed, your character is able to pull off 8, 9, 10 hit combos with very little effort, and they can also use their gauge to go into a custom combo mode similar to the X-Ism style from Street Fighter Alpha 3, but the strength of their attacks is toned down considerably.
There are several different versions of The Last Blade. The Arcade and Neo Geo versions were, of course, virtually the same. The Neo Geo CD version contained a fully orchestrated arranged soundtrack. This soundtrack is absolutely amazing, and is one of the best orchestral soundtracks ever. However, as per usual with Neo Geo CD games, there's some hefty loading times, and the music reloads after every round, meaning you'll hardly ever hear much of it. The PlayStation version was more or less the same as the Neo Geo CD version, but with an absolutely hideous anime intro and the added feature of playing as Kojiroh Sanada (the real Kojiroh Sanada, not his sister), who's actually just a palette swap of Washizuka. For the most part, the port is okay - there are some load screens (with some cute four panel comics), and while the action usually runs at a decent pace, there are some spots of slowdown. However, Yuki's stage is almost impossible to play, because the added snow effects apparently cause the whole game to run in slow motion.
Early in 2006, SNK released a compilation of both The Last Blade games on PlayStation 2. These are pretty much ports of the Neo Geo CD versions, with added online play. Unfortunately, there's still some slowdown, and the quality of the sound effects is pretty low. The Last Blade also appeared on the Wii Virtual Console, and the PlayStation port is available for download on PSN.
The Last Blade 2: Heart of the Samurai / Bakumatsu Roman Dainimaku: Gekka no Kenshi ~Tsuki ni Saku Hana, Chiri-Yuku Hana~ (幕末浪漫第二幕 月華の剣士 ～月に咲く華、散りゆく花～) - Neo Geo, Neo Geo CD, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Wii (1998)
Japanese Neo Geo Cover
Japanese Dreamcast Cover
Japanese Dreamcast Alternate Cover
It didn't take long for SNK to pump out a sequel to The Last Blade. A year after the initial release, Bakumatsu Roman Daini Tobari ("Bakumatsu Roman The Second Act") was shoved out into arcades and onto Neo Geo. The Last Blade 2 takes everything from the first game, throws in a few new characters, a new sword gauge mode, and refines everything to the point where the game couldn't possibly get any better.
First, you have three awesome new characters. Kojiroh, who plays like a non-charge version of Washizuka. Hibiki, a super-fast samurai chick with a concealed sword, a fan favorite. Then you have Setsuna, who's quite possibly the coolest fighting game character ever created, who plays somewhat like Kagami. Then you have EX Sword Gauge style, a special style that combines elements from Power and Speed, which allows for more balanced, less restrictive play.
Not only is there a new Gauge style, but the older styles have been modified. With Power style, you can now super cancel your desperation move with certain special moves. With Speed style, the custom combo mode has been replaced with a long chain combo with specific inputs, similar to Geese's Deadly Rave combo from the Fatal Fury and The King of Fighters games. Many of the characters have been given new moves, or have had some of their old moves modified, and others, like Kagami, have been totally tweaked. The controls and overall feel of the engine are even tighter than before, allowing for some of the most accurate play to be had with a fighter.
Although the stage count has been bumped down, the stages themselves are far more lively and detailed, and look better overall. Particularly of note is Moriya and Kagami's stage, the aftermath of a navy battle near a beach, with rabid dogs eating rotten meat that's washed ashore in supply barrels. One of the dogs runs away when you make too much of a ruckus during the duel. In another stage, a couple of guys try to tame a wild horse as an infant tackles his own epic task of crawling up a small staircase. Or take Fire at the Wadamaya, a burning building.
The Last Blade 2 (Neo Geo)
The animation is still fluid as ever, although the newer characters seem to outshine some of the older ones. Setsuna's movements in particular are quite amazing. The sense of style has been amplified so much, you can almost smell it, for example when Setsuna's pet owl swoops in to take his sword's scabbard away, or how Kagami simply stands up and curses at you when he's defeated, or how a stealthy turtle creeps onto a rock in the foreground as your battle rages on. The development team went out of its way to make every single second of this game absolutely cram packed with so many little details and nuances, and such colloquialism that it's almost mind-boggling to take it all in.
The soundtrack in The Last Blade 2 is infinitely better than the first, and the first was nothing to shake a stick at. The composition of the synthed orchestra is a lot more "professional" sounding, and the quality brings it about as close to actual orchestral music as you can get on a cart-driven system.
Like the first game, The Last Blade 2 was ported to Neo Geo CD. This version is the definitive version of The Last Blade 2. Not only is there an incredible arranged orchestral soundtrack, but the loading times are cut down dramatically compared to the first game, and there is no longer any loading in between rounds. The same music track keeps playing throughout the whole battle, never restarting abruptly after a victory. There are also some voiceovers for the more important cutscenes.
The Dreamcast port, sadly, isn't quite what it should be. The music is from the cart version, not the Neo Geo CD version. The American version, like the arcade version, was censored heavily - instead of just removing the blood, the red spurts have been turned white, resulting in a silly milk explosion every time someone gets hit. You also can't cut anyone in half anymore, which makes it impossible to get Hibiki's alternate ending. The Japanese version also has a hanafuda card game, and both have an unlockable art gallery. The PS2 version is the same deal as the Neo Geo CD version, except with no loading times and the same slowdown and sound issues that plagued the port of The Last Blade 1.
The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny / Bakumatsu Tokubetsu Hen: Gekka no Kenshi - Tsuki ni Saku Hana, Chiri Yuku Hana (幕末浪漫特別編 月華の剣士 ～月に咲く華、散りゆく花～) - Neo Geo Pocket Color (2000)
"Bakumatsu Special Compilation: Moonlight Swordsmen - The Flower That Blooms in the Moonlight, the Flower That Dies and Falls Apart" is not only a contender for the longest subtitle in gaming history, but also one of the best handheld fighting games ever made. It may sound like the gushing of a hopeless fanboy, but it really is that good. Really!
The Neo Geo Pocket is home so some of the best handheld fighters you'll ever experience. Games like King of Fighters R2 and SNK vs. Capcom are so well made they feel amazingly close to their console brethren. Last Blade adds its chip to the handheld fighting gambling table and turns out on top. What it lacks in technology, it more than makes up for with unlockables and overall cuteness.
The game plays much like its two bigger brothers, so much that it's almost scary. Like almost all other NGPC games, it uses pressure sensitive buttons that work surprisingly well. Lightly tapping the A button yields a weak slash, whilst applying more pressure will unleash a strong slash, and so forth. You can set up repel to be whatever you want it to be in the options menu.
What's great about Beyond the Destiny is that at first glance, it appears to be a port of The Last Blade 1. You only have the original character roster, and the story is the same. However, after you beat the game a few times, and acquire points, you begin unlocking characters from The Last Blade 2. Unfortunately, a few characters didn't make the cut. Mukuro/Shikyoh is nowhere to be found, but his sickening appearance probably wouldn't have worked well in the cutesy, super deformed NGPC motif anyway. Juzoh and Musashi are also MIA, but they most likely wont be missed.
Aesthetically, Beyond the Destiny is one of the better looking NGPC games. It does a very good job of faithfully recreating the look of its console counterparts. The sprites, though super deformed and tiny, still have much of the same animation cues. The stages are very well reproduced, and the 8-bit sounding music hits all the same beats that the Neo Geo games did. You'll be able to recognize the themes from the console games the moment they appear.
Overall, Beyond the Destiny is everything you could hope for in a handheld fighter. It does the console games justice while not being simply a watered down rehash. It has its own merits and even if you've played the originals, Beyond the Destiny still gives you its own reasons to play it. A definite must-have for any NGPC owner.