SAMURAI SHODOWN 4 / SNK / Arcade
Samurai Shodown 4 renders Samurai Shodown 3 obsolete in the same way that Samurai Shodown 2 supplanted the very first Samurai Shodown - it's fundamentally the same game, including everything the previous did, but adding more characters and options and ironing out the kinks to deliver a superior experience.
The gameplay engine is fundamentally the same as that of Samurai Shodown 3, but it's a little faster here and just feels smoother and more responsive. The entire character roster from the first three games is present, with the exception of Cham Cham, Seiger, Earthquake, Gen-An, Caffeine and Wan-Fu. Tam-Tam makes his first reappearance in the series here, and two new characters who are brothers have been added. One is a fairly generic animu swordsman, the other is a flaming sword dude who looks like he may have some serious back problems. Amakusa steps in to take over main villain duties once again here, but he's also still a playable character ... awkwaaaard.
The "Bust" and "Slash" versions of each character are still present in this one, and you can also still choose from three different difficulty settings. The computer is pretty soft in Beginner mode here and doesn't go into SNK Mode until the final couple of matches, so newcomers actually have an adequate chance to learn the game and get adjusted for a change here. The game also continues the "darker" theme that new programming team Garapagos tried to establish in the first game - a strong slice to finish a character while standing close to them will result in the victor becoming absolutely drenched in blood, and if you polish off an enemy with more than 40 seconds left on the clock you can perform a "fatality" move on them that renders them into a bloody pile of chunks.
The graphics look better on the whole than in any previous entry. The music is great as usual, with most of the characters having a remix of their theme songs accompanying them, and some of these remixes are really neat, like Charlotte's theme from the original game which has been redone in a really slow, minimalist way using traditional Japanese instruments. The sound team on the whole gets an A+ for all four of these games.
Were I asked to rank the first four Samurai Shodown games, sheerly out of personal preference I'd go 4-2-3-1, though I'm sure many fans of the series would reverse either the first two or the last two sets of numbers. I like this one the best due to the faster pace, higher accessibility and top-notch aesthetic presentation.
* Gameplay Video