In the 80s and 90s, gaming was the frontline in the pop-culture clash of East and West. Japanese games came on chunky plastic cartridges, and were played on games consoles that were probably orange, and they were simple and stylised and surreal and featured things that were a lot bigger than they were supposed to be, and things that flew and talked and had eyes that shouldn't. Western games came in huge cardboard boxes full of floppy disks, and had paintings of monsters on them, and were played on beige computers, and were dark and complex and long and full of menus and blood and lore and things that tried very hard to be exactly like they were in real life.
We don't live in those times any more. The culture clash has become the culture cuddle, and although our gaming tastes might still be different, our pop-cultures are getting cosy, emulating each other. Afro Samurai is a case in point. This Japanese manga serves a straight-up samurai revenge tale from feudal Japan with twists of 70s blaxploitation and spaghetti western films; it was adapted into a bloody anime series with Samuel L Jackson's voice and RZA's tunes, which found success on US TV; the videogame rights have been picked up by Namco Bandai, but it's the Japanese company's Californian operation that's making it, and Atari that's putting it on shelves.
And the game itself is something of a mix. Ostensibly a combo-stringing hackandslash from the dojo of Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry, it's also a cinematic, easy-going action-adventure straight from the entertainment factories of the West Coast. The aim is for it to appeal to fans of anime and hip-hop as much as gamers. Based on the presentation and quick hands-on we got at Atari Live, Afro Samurai has the gratifying shallowness of many licensed games - but unlike those others, it also boasts a perfect marriage of form and function.
The condensed plot of the first (and to date, only) series of Afro Samurai is a perfect videogame framework. In the rigid samurai culture of its alternate world, hierarchy is expressed in two coveted headbands. A headband can only be taken by beating its owner in combat. The Number One headband can only be challenged by the owner of the Number Two headband. The Number Two headband can be challenged by anyone. Afro must avenge his dead father, a former Number One, by claiming the headbands in turn.
He does this by running around chopping hundreds of men and women up into pieces in gorgeous, entirely HUD-free, high-definition cel-shaded graphics. Recreating and animating Afro Samurai's sketchy, agitated style in 3D models can't have been easy, but Namco Bandai has done exceptionally well. Some environments are simple, and interactions are basically limited to chopping and kicking - even doors are opened with a kick. But Afro Samurai is all about huge, moody characters looking devastatingly cool while they laconically murder each other, and the game certainly delivers that.
It's not complicated. Kicks, light and heavy slashes are combined in combos to dispatch enemies. There are 120 unlockable combos in the game, some of them obtained by levelling up (you earn experience for kills, and bonus experience for stylish ones), some in the form of collectable objects. It's in combo tactics that the game will eventually reveal some depth toward the end of its six-to-eight-hour campaign, and in the hardcore Number One difficulty mode that's unlocked when you beat the game on Number Two. But for now, all you need to worry about is looking cool, a little light crowd-management, and charging focus with combos. The game assumes an overly aggressive play-style, taking in multiple targets with a single move or combo.
Focus buys you a short period of monochrome slow-mo. As well as making your life easier, this gives you a chance to aim your sword-slash precisely to dismember your enemies as you see fit, a fine line of dissection appearing over your automatically-selected target, adjustable with the right stick. This works better than you'd think and is gruesomely satisfying; it also plays into occasional "body part poker" interludes, where you'll be challenged to chop up a royal flush (one head, one arm and one leg) or a flush of three legs, for example. You get health, experience and focus bonuses for these.
Save your focus and fully charge it and you can enter over-focus mode, which is the opposite of focus. It's still slow-motion, but instead of allowing targeting it requires none, simple button-mashing sending Afro from one instant-kill to the next. As with focus, it's best just to use this when it would be most fun, for example when besieged by dozens of enemies at once. Over-focus is indicated by a glowing charm dangling from the hilt of Afro's katana (the lack of HUD has enforced a few elegant touches like this - enemies' health showing in how bloody their clothes are, for example, or the huge talking heads that serve as loading screens).
That's about it. With no multiplayer modes at all, no elaborate systems and nothing cluttering up the screen, Afro Samurai is a minimal game, as sparse and hypnotically repetitive as RZA's beats. It puts what it does best front and centre: easy, moreish slaughter, spectacular graphics, and a strongly individual licence supported by some top-drawer voice-work, including series regulars Jackson and Ron Perlman. There's naturally a worry about depth and longevity, but we'll have to wait until review to see if it's merited. For now, Afro Samurai promises a smooth ride for a usually strict genre, and there's no reason not to welcome that.
Afro Samurai is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in the spring.