Once Street Fighter II: The World Warrior exploded into arcades, just about every game publisher tried to make a game like it, working usually in vain to capture the same popularity of Capcom's now legendary series. And so a deluge of one on one fighting games hit the market with colorful graphics and flashy animations. A year later Mortal Kombat appeared in arcades to similar success but with a completely different approach. This lead to an entire line of other rip offs whose only selling points were eschewing pixel art for digitized graphics of real people like Mortal Kombat or having just as much graphic violence. One publisher, however, reached for the stars and created both a Mortal Kombat AND a Street Fighter II clone within two years of each other, even using the same characters and setting for both. Sadly, while both of Kaneko's efforts offer some original ideas and fun characters, both are clearly rushed and unpolished in their attempts to get out and capitalize on the popularity of their inspiration as quickly as possible.
Shogun Warriors and Blood Warrior were developed by a team called Atop, a group of Kaneko regulars. These two fighting games are the only ones developed under the Atop name. While it seems like they were the last games designed by Naoki Hoshizaki after he worked on a few installments of West One's Wonder Boy series and the simple but excellent Aoi Blink on the PC Engine, the rest of Atop continued to work at Kaneko and in some cases with other developers later on.
Masanori Yoshihara, another Aoi Blink and Wonder Boy alum, would go on to work as a designer on several games that still have a cult following today, like Blood Gear and Arcana Heart. Blood Warrior's bland backgrounds stand out even more knowing that they were created by Tomoko Nakayama, who later worked on much more colorful fare as a co-director of the baroque Wii exclusive Pandora's Tower.
One of the character designers, Fumihide Aoki, would go on to have a stint at Pack-In-Video before entering into a long career with Camelot and Nintendo, contributing graphics and art direction for many installments of the Shining Force and Golden Sun series as well as Nintendo's various Mario sports games. He has worked with Nintendo as recently as 2014, on Mario Golf: World Tour for the 3DS.
The most interesting member of Shogun Warriors' production, however, is Noboyuki Tanaka. He is only credited with a "Special Thanks" in Shogun Warriors, and was not involved in Blood Warrior. However, Shogun Warriors' visual stylings and more vibrant backgrounds make sense with his involvement. Just one year later he would work as the executive producer for Samurai Shodown. Little touches like the messengers running by in some backgrounds and other details associated with SNK's classic series are not a coincidence after all!
All in all, twelve people are listed in Shogun Warriors' credits. After some departures, only ten were left to work on Blood Warrior along with just three stunt people to choreograph and perform as the characters. These three, Jyunko Abe, Tadao Yoshikawa, and Miyuki Suzuki, were members of Japan Action Club. J.A.C. is a training school for aspiring actors and martial artists that was actually formed by Sonny Chiba in the late seventies.
Both Shogun Warriors and Blood Warrior were made by some very talented creators, but both feel rushed and unpolished. With such a small team, however, they're almost impressive. Samurai Shodown as an example, was made by almost fifty people, and with the similarities between both games, it's easy to see how it could have been a much more memorable game if Kaneko had more effectively supported its production.
While Shogun Warriors is forgotten now, it is worth a look for fighting game fans for its campy presentation and goofy characters. Characters Kaneko had so little faith in that they weren't even given names - they're just referred to by occupations like Sumo, Samurai, etc. Oddly, the only actual Shogun in the game is a robot, but this is forgivable since the game is actually called Fujiyama Buster in Japan. While the title change may seem like an attempt to capitalize on the popular Samurai Shodown games, Shogun Warriors actually predates that series' first installment by a year. In that respect, Shogun Warriors' characters had a brief moment when they actually were unique among fighting game rosters, a rarity in the genre that was unfortunately not enough to make up for the game's flaws.
Geisya seems ordinary at first, but has one of the most powerful special moves in the game, an easy to execute move where she spins around while sliding forward to hit enemies multiple times. If all four hits connect, the attack will take off 75% of an opponent's energy! Interestingly, the design displayed for her in the character select screen is significantly different from how her sprite looks in the game.
Like Kyoshiro in the later Samurai Shodown series, Kabuki is a Kabuki actor that fights with this massive hair. His special moves are almost useless, but his normal attacks are some of the best in the game. Due to the versatility of their normal attacks, Kabuki and Kappa are also very good choices to fight the game's four bosses.
He has stretching limbs, an icy breath attack, and powerful kick moves he can use to repeatedly bounce off an opponent's head. This is in addition to a move that lets him fly across the screen, letting him quickly get close to an enemy to grapple with them. Kaneko basically took cool things about Dhalsim and Chun Li from Street Fighter II: The World Warrior and combined them into one character. Like Geisya, his portrait looks very different from his sprite and more like a traditional depiction of a Kappa.
Shogun Warriors' ninja character is similar to Kabuki, in that his special moves aren't as useful as they seem, while his normal attacks are very good. He wears a huge shuriken on his back in case people forget that he's a ninja.
This guy is just a nobody wielding a post as a weapon. He has a spinning attack move similar to Geisya's but not as fast or damaging. He's so lame he didn't even make it into the sequel.
Samurai has a prominent tattoo on his shoulder, but otherwise he is super boring and, despite wielding a sword, his attacks have terrible range. Avoid.
His background is a modern day bridge with a prominently featured Mount Fuji billboard. Like the game's ending, Shogun's design and his background are out of place when almost everything else in the game's presentation sets it in the past.
Sumo can be pretty fun to play as. All it takes to make him charge across the screen is tapping all four buttons at once. With his height, this move is meant more to knock jumping opponents out of the air with the right timing while also letting him quickly close the distance with his enemy. Unfortunately he's missing in the sequel.
This guy's background shows that he draws a huge crowd. A big blue guy wearing a fur caveman outfit, he mostly attacks by spitting fire on the ground and jumping at you. His AI is coincidentally extremely similar to Goro's in Mortal Kombat, many of the same tricks used against Goro will work just fine here. Unfortunately he didn't make the cut for Blood Warrior.
Despite this guy's serene background, Kappa's funky music is used as his theme song. The coolest of the four bosses by far and a fun challenge. Unfortunately he also didn't make the cut for the sequel and remains exclusively in Shogun Warriors.
A huge guy whose normal standing attacks are the best anti-air moves in the game. So he of course is also given a fast, powerful projectile attack to make him even more annoying. The most tedious fight as you have to carefully approach him and be ready to counter any move he does quickly, if he gets you in a corner it's over.
Benkei is the most tedious boss fight, but Goemon is by far the most frustrating. He's also ineffectively morbid compared to the game's other characters, pointing at the screen to inform the player personally that "You will die!" Even his design is a ridiculously "dark and gritty" version of the legendary Goemon figure.
Some of these characters are actually pretty cool for a 2D fighter released in 1992, and Kaneko deserves some credit for putting out a game so similar to SNK's Samurai Shodown a solid year before Samurai Shodown even existed. While the game is nowhere near as good as SNK's once popular series, it's worth a try as an example of a competent, but unbalanced, early take on a Street Fighter II style fighting game. The animation is a little choppy but in general it looks nice. There's also a pretty good soundtrack to go along with the action, though unfortunately some songs are used for more than one character, keeping each background and character from having as much personality as we'd see in the best fighting games from Capcom and SNK.
The most immediate flaw of Shogun Warriors is the way special moves work. It's seemingly simple, but has a few issues that keep it from being as intuitive as Street Fighter II or even more complex fighters like Samurai Shodown II. The game is played with four buttons, two for punching and two for kicking. Each character also has a couple of special moves that can be performed by either hitting all four buttons, or by performing a motion on the joystick followed by hitting one of the punch buttons. The game even shows you each character's special move motions on the select screen, a revelation at a time where some kind soul would often tape a hand written list of every character's moves to the side of the arcade cabinet. The problem is that the joystick motions have to be performed with a very exact timing that few other games in the genre demand, making it difficult to execute these motions consistently. To make things even more frustrating, when an opponent is knocked away with a special move, the game does not let the player on the offensive move forward to follow up. This odd restriction often happens while performing basic attacks on opponents, removing potential strategy from the game. It's a shortsighted decision that ends up making the game uninteresting compared to its contemporaries.
The most frustrating thing about Shogun Warriors' fighting, however, is the way grappling works. In other fighting games in the early nineties, it's often easy to grab and throw an opponent by hitting a direction and a button. But here grappling is initiated by pressing either both punch buttons or both kick buttons at the same time while standing next to an enemy, then rapidly mashing the buttons to actually make the move do any damage. During this time the player on the receiving end has to quickly move the joystick left and right in an attempt to break out of it. This is a mess in practice. For some characters, the grappling attack involves them grabbing and striking an opponent repeatedly, letting them easily cause a little damage even if the opponent breaks out quickly. Other grapple attacks consist of a single hit that has to be built up to and will almost never be seen because of how hard it can be to out-mash the opponent. It also completely wrecks the game's balance when fighting against the AI, as it is often simply too fast to escape unscathed, especially when it comes to fighting the game's four bosses.
When Kaneko released Shogun Warriors outside of Japan, it was given an English dub. SNK did this with some characters in Art of Fighting 2, but otherwise this was very uncommon at the time. The effort is appreciated, but the result is more amusing than coherent. In the US release Sumo excruciatingly exclaims "I'm strong!" in an unidentifiable accent. The most hilarious however is Geisya. During one of her special moves it sounds like she's screaming "What a fucker!" - in US arcades in 1992! If she is actually saying "sucker," the low sampling quality of the game makes it impossible to hear it that way. Another stand out is Kabuki shouting "Wyld Stallyns!" as he does his head banging special move.
Shogun Warriors' enjoyed a very brief period of standing out from the crowd, but Samurai Shodown and other more polished fighting games quickly eclipsed it both with more enjoyable fighting action and with more personality, causing it to be completely forgotten by everyone, except maybe its developers. And so almost all of the same people that worked on Shogun Warriors produced a sequel, known as Blood Warrior. Regardless of the change in title for both regions, Blood Warrior is obviously a continuation of Shogun Warriors and features many of the same characters, now redesigned, properly named and depicted by actual actors.
Geisya from Shadow Warriors now sports claws and has a projectile similar to Benkei's. Her speed makes her one of the most powerful characters in the game.
The only new character in Blood Warrior is a living statue whose limbs expand to comedic effect while fighting. Unfortunately, his special moves are very weak, and his short attack range makes him more of a joke character than an actual contender. He can be fun to use at first, but is disappointing as the game's only newcomer.
The Kabuki from Shogun Warriors. In addition to having good normal attacks his special moves have been drastically improved.
Kappa has a name is now even more powerful. The kappa outfit of the digitized actor is a must see.
In Blood Warrior, the Ninja gains Oni's ground projectile, but his normal attacks are drastically worse, making him one of the weaker characters.
The most dramatically improved character between the two games sports much more personality and is more fun to play as in Blood Warrior. Amusingly, he demands to know if players were able to check out his "killer tattoo" when he wins a fight in Blood Warrior, but his new outfit completely obscures the tattoo that was so prominently displayed in Shogun Warriors.
The Shogun's modern trappings are ditched entirely for a more traditional redesign in Blood Warrior, and only his glowing eyes give him away as being more than human.
The third boss of Shogun Warriors returns as a regularly playable character in the sequel. He trades in his massive beard for a face mask and loses his projectile move, but keeps his versatile variety of basic attacks.
Goemon is also a regularly playable character in Blood Warrior, sporting a new, dramatic look akin to how the character would be portrayed in a Kabuki production. He also sports an array of mechanical devices, giving him a theatrical, "realistic" take on fighting game special moves. A similar approach was taken with the human versions for Cyrax and Sektor in Mortal Kombat (2010). Amusingly, the tonfa he fights with also serves as his trademark pipe.
With a totally new look, much faster action and redesigns of almost every Shogun Warriors character, at a glance it looks like it has everything that makes a good sequel. Despite the improvements, unfortunately, it's just as mediocre as its predecessor. While the digitized sprites are actually pretty good, justifying their lack of animation with faster movement speed than many other Mortal Kombat clones, Blood Warrior's backgrounds are all extremely bland and dull in comparison to the original.
The game also lacks personality, even with all of the new voice overs and character designs. It doesn't quite gel together aesthetically because of the workmanlike backgrounds and, like Shogun Warriors, the total lack of context for any of the characters. In both games there are no triumphant or humorous quotes from the fighters after a battle, and while Shogun Warriors' ending is so short it may as well not even be there, Blood Warrior takes this to its logical conclusion and has none. After defeating the other combatants, you only get to see your character standing on a podium surrounded by some of the developers as the credits roll by. There isn't even a boss fight at the end. For a game mostly meant to be played by two people fighting each other, these aren't terrible omissions, but are part of why this series was quickly forgotten compared to games of its time with superior character designs and more focused art direction.
The biggest improvement with this sequel is that it is now actually possible to perform combos consistently and pressure opponents more effectively thanks to the game's increased speed and noticeably tighter hit detection. This is a great relief after the many instances in Shogun Warriors where it's possible to score a hit on an opponent even when an attack clearly appears to miss them completely. More forgiving special move commands are a massive step up, making it easy for even new players to perform the game's various special attacks.
There is a new gauge below the characters' energy bars that increases the more damage they take, which offers losing players a way to make a quick comeback. As it fills up, special moves become more powerful: projectiles increase in size or damage, successful move execution results in extra hits being dealt to the opponent, and so on. But the gauge decreases each time a move is performed, adding a bit of strategy to the game as players have to choose when it's appropriate to prioritize a barrage of special moves over more precise and damaging attacks.
Another improvement is the new music, changing from mostly generic "traditional" songs to a generic heavy metal soundtrack. It complements the game's more graphic violence effectively compared to Shogun Warriors' good but less distinct tracks. Both soundtracks were composed by Tatsuya Watanabe, but it is distinct from the music he had created for earlier Kaneko games like Heavy Unit and Air Buster.
The most amusing addition to the game, however, is a tie between the goofy costumes the actors are wearing and the ineptly executed finishing moves characters can perform to disembowel, cut in half, or explode opponents at the end of a battle. These finishing moves end up being laughable, and all you have to do is input the command for any of your character's special moves when instructed to experience them. Mortal Kombat was always meant to be cheeseball, but the "graphic violence" in Blood Warrior is a whole new level of cartoony and idiotic. In other words, it's fantastic. All this is matched by those campy costumes, which we get to see up close in the game's wonderfully awkward character portraits shown before and after each fight. The game may be a mess, but it's a funny and enjoyable one.
Blood Warrior is so silly that it's still fun to play for a bit today. With a little more time and polish, it could have been a legitimately good game, as all of the changes from Shogun Warriors are focused and consistent in making it a more accessible and faster experience.