Eurogamer is slightly embarrassed to present the first in what we hope will be an extremely occasional series: Reviews That Fell Down the Back of the Sofa. This review of 3DS download game Sakura Samurai was commissioned when it appeared on the North American eShop all the way back in February. We decided to wait for it to appear in Europe before we published the review. We waited. Then we waited some more. Then we got bored and forgot about it. Then we remembered and felt silly. So here, in a spirit of morbid curiosity if nothing else, it is...
Dodge, block, attack and uppercut.
It was but four simple moves that allowed scrappy Little Mac to reign champion in the classic Punch-Out!!. Pattern recognition, practice, and eventual proficiency made it a hypnotic bout of will and perseverance. Nintendo's recent eShop offering [er... make that not so recent -Ed.], Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword, strongly evokes the seminal boxing title with a similar limited move set and an emphasis on mastering each foe's tells in order to pull off the appropriate counter-attack. Unfortunately, it fundamentally misunderstands what made Punch-Out such a winner.
It gets off to a promising start, with a nifty combat system that's brimming with potential. Unlike Punch-Out or its more recent sword-fighting successor Infinity Blade, you have free rein to move around. This doesn't drastically alter the gameplay as one might think, since only one enemy ever attacks at a time and you automatically lock onto them. The difference is that you can shuffle your feet around to dodge projectiles or lure opponents into attacking. It's a welcome addition to the formula that adds depth without sacrificing the simplicity that made its forbears so special.
Sadly, that's about the only innovation Sakura Samurai brings to the table - and it's underutilised. The key to Punch-Out's success was that it consisted of a series of boss fights, so once you learned a fight's patterns and were able to implement it well, you never had to do it again. Sakura Samurai only has three boss fights, so the rest of the time you're facing off against the same few enemy types. Once a foe's behaviour is mastered, picking through further hordes of them one by one quickly becomes busywork.
While the boss fights are a highlight, they're preceded by lengthy levels without checkpoints. Fail at a boss and be prepared to spend another 10 minutes hacking through several waves of enemies for another try.
It helps that you can upgrade your blade and acquire healing items and disposable projectile weapons (consisting of daggers and frogs to throw enemies off guard), but ultimately this RPG-lite element adds an unnecessary layer of grinding to an already repetitive experience. And since your health doesn't regenerate between stages, you'll have to continually trek back to town to replenish it at an inn and purchase healing items. None of the levels save the finale are particularly difficult, but they all require tedious restocking.
An unlockable hard mode alleviates this, but swings too aggressively in the other direction. Instead of being able to acquire over a dozen hearts, you're capped at a mere three. Enemies deal double damage and shops don't sell healing items. I doubt even actual samurais have the resolve for that.
Additionally, this is a rather ugly game. The titular character's hideous, blocky design would be embarrassing by N64 standards, and the backdrops don't fair much better. Between the uninspired art direction and forgettable story about a wood sprite asking your insipid silent protagonist to save a princess, Sakura Samurai doesn't have the personality to make up for its shortcomings.
The saddest thing about Sakura Samurai is that the foundation is there for a much better game. The way it mixes intense Punch-Out-style skirmishes with full movement across a 3D terrain is well realized, but it doesn't populate the system with enough interesting challenges. Even at a scant three hours, a majority of the campaign feels like filler. Sakura Samurai's mobility may allow him to fly like a butterfly, but he only stings like a flea.