The first two Samurai Shodown games enjoyed good success in the arcades but never hit the mainstream popularity of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. I think part of it was due to SNKs notoriously brutal difficulty making the games very hard to learn, but for Samurai Shodown in particular I think it also was the idiosyncratic weapon-based style which relied heavily on timing and in which a match could be over very quickly with two or three well-timed power hits.
For those who enjoyed that style, however, it's back in spades with the third entry, which looks even better, and retains the excellent atmospheric sound and minimalist music that unfortunately went unnoticed in most loud arcades (great on a good pair of headphones at home now, though!)
Shodown 3 actually seems to generally be the least favorite amongst hardcore fans of the original four games, but that doesn't make it a bad game by any stretch. It was handed off to a new programming team - the amusingly mangled Garapagos Islands team, in the fine tradition of SNK Engrish - and they made a lot of changes. The biggest is by far the roster - numerous "cutesy" characters from the previous games have been removed, in favor of some darker and more violent newbies, reflecting an attempt to make the game "more serious" in general. Caffeine Nicotine, Earthquake, Cham-Cham, Wan-Fu, Sieger, Tam-Tam, Charlotte, Jubei and Gen-An all sit this installment out, and Kabuki master Kyoshiro has received a complete visual redesign that takes him out of the robes and theatrical makeup (though he still plays very similarly.) Strangely, despite the "serious" theme, Haohmaru steps out as main character, to be replaced by newcomer Shizumaru, a skinny young boy who carries a sword but prefers to wield an umbrella and not seriously hurt anyone. Other new adds are Rimururu, Nakoruru's younger sister and wielder of ice magic, Caffeine's nephew Gaira (a giant monk who wields prayer beads), and a sort of goth rocker named Basara who uses a naked ghost chick and a giant Rygar weapon in battle. Amakusa is also playable this time out.
Fortunately, Garapagos didn't mess with the gameplay engine too much. The biggest changes are the ability to select three levels of difficulty - which makes the game a little easier on newcomers to learn than the previous installments - and the choice of a Slash or Bust version of each character, each of which has a slightly different moveset. The game also now has three slashes and a kick rather than two slashes and two kicks, which I feel is a change for the better.
I've seen some talk about collision detection problems, but honestly in all the hours I've played I really didn't notice it. Some moves seem to have more range and power, and matches can end rather quickly if a power hit (executed with C instead of A+B here) that hits twice lands, but matches in the previous game could go down like that too so it didn't strike me as all that big of a difference. I like the addition of the ability to dodge here - the new function of A+B - which allows you to quickly switch positions with a foe when they are right in front of you, leaving them facing the wrong way and vulnerable for a split second.
I'm not sold on the roster changes (you end up with a lot less characters and the newbies are somewhat questionable) and the between-match quotes could probably be a little less corny, but on the whole I like this one. I don't like it quite as much as Samurai Shodown 2, but those are some huge shoes to fill.
* Gameplay Video