Side-scrolling beat-em-ups have a long and storied history, though, like shooters (what kids these days call “shmups,” us old farts call “shooters” – remember FPS games weren’t around back then), they’re getting a little harder to find. Well, good ones are, anyway.
Like a breath of fresh air (or perhaps “like a splash of vibrant arterial blood” might be more appropriate) comes Ska Studios’ The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, a game you’ll be amazed came out of Microsoft’s XNA development process. Though at its heart a very simple game, this is also a solid product with remarkable play and replay value, plus standout visual style, and a sense of fun many high-budget games can’t even come close to nailing. Be warned, this is NOT a family-friendly game, but fans of cathartic carnage and tactical button-mashing with a healthy dollop of skill need look no further: Dead Samurai is your baby.
The game’s plot is more than a little half-baked, but fun nonetheless. Spoilers aside, let’s just say your main character really is a dishwasher AND a samurai (shades of Snow Crash maybe?), and yes, he is indeed dead. Before and between action stages, plot exposition is handled by scrolling comic-strips which showcase the game’s unique visual style and tell snippets of the story. The cutscenes are hardly complex, but do a good job of what they’re there for. From the first glimpse, TD:DS has an interesting look. The art style is sort of dilapidated grunge impressionist, if that makes any sense. It’s all hand-drawn, and almost all the characters look a little haphazard or unfinished. This is done totally unapologetically though – it’s clearly the look the designer was going for – and it works well, partly because the twisted art gives a sense of the main character’s rage. I mean, the guy just got killed, after all – wouldn’t you be pissed?
Dead Samurai is basically a revenge story, so you’re taking it to the bad guys. They come in large numbers with several varieties, from basic goons in FBI-like suits (Alien Hominid flashbacks) to big robots with bombs and guns. Also, the Dishwasher isn’t the only dead guy running around unquiet – there’s plenty of zombie-splattering goodness on tap. You’ll be running and jumping around, unleashing a surprisingly large arsenal of 3-button combos on your foes. Some moves and combos launch enemies, allowing you to continue the punishment in the air. It’s actually an important mechanic, as staying on the ground while dicing one enemy usually means another(s) can lay into you from behind or above. There’ll be no shortage of enemies either – especially in later levels, the game gets extremely busy. Fortunately, the protagonist is pretty tough, and you can regain health from slain enemies via a fatality system. Once a foe has been sufficiently slashed/pummeled/whatever, you’ll get a button prompt over their head, a la God of War. Either of the two buttons used for fatalities will actually kill the enemy at this point, but pressing the button shown will reward you with a health drop as well as spirals (the game’s currency). Making sure you do this at least a few times per battle is pretty important to keeping yourself alive later on.
As you progress, you’ll earn both spirals and picks (yep, guitar picks – the Dishwasher’s a closet Guitar Hero maniac, and no I’m not kidding) to trader in at “Halperbot” shops for new weapons and abilities. There aren’t a huge number of possible purchases, but everything’s pretty fun to use, and some weapons will confer neat and useful abilities like limited teleportation. Better still, as your arsenal grows, you still have access to all your weapons via a quick tap of the D-pad, meaning you can chain more creative and lethal combos by switching weapons mid-attack. One of the main themes of the game is being creatively nasty to your enemies, something few developers seem to realize is genuinely fun. You’ll also obtain “dish magic,” giving further tricks and abilities later in the game. It’s pretty impressive how bad-assed your character gets as things go along. About the Guitar Hero reference – I really wasn’t kidding. At certain points during the action levels, you’ll come upon, you guessed it, a guitar laying around. Pick it up and the Dishwasher will go into an inspired solo, which you keep going by pressing the appropriate button prompts in classic rhythm-game fashion. It seems totally out of place with the rest of the game, except for the grungy guitar soundtrack (which pervades the entire game). However, this bonus minigame is good for some points and spirals, as well as a change of pace. TD:DS doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the guitar minigames are an expression of that.
As you go further into the story mode, the battles get more and more epic, to the point that you can sometimes lose track of exactly what’s going on. Skilled players can still hang with the action (and the game offers a wide array of difficulty levels to remain accessible to casual and hardcore players alike), but expect to see your character occasionally get lost amid clouds of blood, flying limbs, and explosions. It rarely feels genuinely cheesy, just totally over the top in keeping with the rest of the game. The plot conclusion won’t win any Oscars, but if you came for the plot, you’ve got the wrong game. What matters is that you’ll generally have more fun than frustration beating the story, and probably want to do it again.
Even so, Dead Samurai offers up more replay value than simply that. There’s an Arcade mode, in which the player is given only two weapons and one dish magic ability, and tasked to eliminate all the waves of enemies in one of several rooms. It’s simple and fun, and successfully taps into the game’s primal vibe without the encumbrances of the story mode. The enemy waves are also randomly varied, so the challenge is a little different each time. Then there’s the ranked challenge mode, set at the game’s hardest difficulty and probably only fun for the more masochistic players out there. When it’s hard, this game really is hard. Also, there’s a co-op story mode for up to 3 players – though sadly this is local only, and one of the players is, well, a guitar. No, seriously – I can’t make this stuff up. The 3-player mode is a great idea that doesn’t work quite as well as it should in practice, partly because it’s local only. This needed to be Live-enabled and more focused; as it is, the multiplayer mode feels like a last-minute tack-on, even though it supports an actual Guitar Hero controller for the third player. (Look folks, I know it’s April, but I am seriously not kidding about the guitar. I’m not. I promise.) Multiplayer is really the game’s biggest disappointment; soloing Dead Samurai really is fun for the most part, and sharing that with buddies (each with their own screen, not crammed onto one and struggling to keep up) would have been the final piece of the puzzle to make TD:DS a genuine must-have.
The Dishwasher also struggles with the predictable bugbear of repetitive gameplay, but making that point almost feels like a nitpick. When have beat-em-ups ever not been repetitive? That’s sort of the point – find something players will have fun doing, then give them a lot of it to do. If you do it right, it works, and DS for the most part does it right. The only other thing that may put players off is the difficulty; as mentioned, when things get going, the Dishwasher gets pretty challenging in places. The multiple difficulty levels are a welcome break-in curve that lets the game remain friendly to non-masochists; even with the more frequent health drops of the easier levels, the last few battles are sure to test a player’s nerve and wit… and maybe controller durability as well.
The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai has effectively become the flagship title for Microsoft’s XNA development program, and it really is a good one. Though TD:DS does inevitably lose points for overall production tightness when compared to higher-budget games, there’s no denying something really worthwhile is here, even if it didn’t get polished to the brightest sheen it perhaps could. One way or other, there are many less-deserving ways to spend your $10 in the Live Arcade, and for what it is, DS is pretty darned good. Most important, at the end of the day, it’s fun, and probably better-stacked with replay value than a lot of the XBLA titles out there. Not a classic, and – sadly – not even quite a must-buy, but definitely worth a first and second look. Especially when you consider that Dead Samurai is for the most part the work of a single person, it’s a remarkable achievement.