Games of Decades Past: Afro Samurai

In the first of a new series, we're looking back on games that just turned ten years old. First up: the utter madness of Afro Samurai.

Afro Samurai
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Games of Decades Past is a series celebrating the birthdays of games turning 10 years old. Whether you remember it like it was yesterday or it was so dated at launch that you thought it came out in 1997, we will make you feel old with these retrospectives on some of the best and worst games from a decade past.

10 years ago yesterday, Bandai Namco released one of the most visually striking, interesting, and engaging hack and slash games to the still relatively new 7th generation of consoles. Afro Samurai took the cult classic manga/anime and ran with it, providing an adaptation featuring the entire original voice cast, the now-iconic art style, and an added layer of charm and believability to Afro’s vengeance-fueled world. But just like the source material, the game went right under everyone’s radar and became a cult classic among otaku and gamers alike with little love from mainstream critics.

Such a reception should have been impossible for a game this set up for success. An impressive cel-shaded art style (that still holds up today), a Tarantino-esque story full of blood and intense theming, a star-studded cast featuring the voice talents of Ron Perlman, Phil LaMarr, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson, and even a soundtrack containing tracks from and inspired by RZA, who also composed the anime and movie. But alas, sales were low, and this certified classic was left to the annals of time, only to be brought up by some two-bit video game journalist on its tenth anniversary. So, here I am.

Inspired by American R&B music, Takashi Okazaki created one of the most original premises seen to that date in Japanese media: an African-Japanese samurai warrior seeking vengeance and stopping at nothing to attain it. Completely selling the magazine it was serialized in before becoming its own manga, then anime, Afro Samurai was destined to make a splash. Years later, however, it seems that legacy has been left in limbo.

The Legendary #1 Headband. Its promise is power, omnipotence, immortality. But at what cost? One that is greater than any man can imagine, and heavier than any man can bear.

Afro Samurai tells the tale of the titular samurai, Afro, and his quest for revenge after witnessing his father’s murder at a young age, far too young. Being the owner of the Legendary #1 Headband, his father’s death was thought impossible, but once the villain relinquished the #2 Headband after removing the #1 from his father’s decapitated head, it became clear. The man with the #2 Headband had the power to kill the #1, and everyone wanted the chance to face the #1. After training with his father’s sword while in possession of the #2 Headband, Afro sets out to face down the man who killed his father, the man who, with the #1 Headband, would have the power of a god.

A true samurai epic follows. Traversing the land searching for the killer with the #1, while being hunted himself by those who would take the #2, Afro slices through all manner of villains in his pursuit of the man named Justice (who is voiced by Ron freaking Perlman, by the way). So obviously, a premise this badass had to be made into a bloody, cel-shaded, hack and slash game with the tagline: “Blood is Beautiful.”

Though all retellings of Afro Samurai change small bits of the plot here and there, the game makes little concessions in doing the entire Justice Arc, well, justice. Fans of the series and of Samuel L. Jackson shouting “motherfucker!” alike are invited to step into the sandals of Afro and experience the tale of a boy wronged that feels just as fresh as ever.

The game’s bosses mirror their anime counterparts, intimidating and with their own reasons for collecting the headbands ranging from religion to pure and simple greed. Smaller enemies break up the large-scale battles, jumping over and ducking under your sword swings, forcing you to take them off-guard with a well-placed kick or a focus attack before cutting them down, or in half. Even prominent side character, Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), was given a lead role to not only give us a few more healthy doses of “motherfucker!”, but to also help navigate the player through the intricate world, making his death partway through the story that much more shocking.

Without spoiling much more, it should be plain to see that Afro Samurai deserves the cult following it has garnered, not only for its timeless story and art style, but for its inarguably flawless video game translation as well.

Regrettably, however, the most recent release in the series threw everything out the window when Versus Evil released Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma on the PlayStation Network and Steam in 2015. It was met with universally negative reviews, leading to an average of 21/100 on Metacritic and sullying the good name of an already under-appreciated classic. The story was written by the same guy who wrote the script for American Sniper (I’m not a film critic so take that as you will), and the creator of the series had little involvement with the development beyond drawing the slideshow cutscenes. Yes, I said slideshow cutscenes. The game was an absolute train wreck, leading to refunds abound. It has since been removed from all digital marketplaces, but the shadow of Afro Samurai 2 still lurks over gamers everywhere, reminding us that that a 6/10 isn’t all that bad.

So yeah, Afro Samurai, a cult classic manga that was made into an anime with pitch perfect casting choices in Samuel L. Jackson, Ron Perlman, and Phil LaMarr (who I barely mentioned because he basically voiced everybody else), which then translated into one of the single best 1:1 video game adaptations put to disc. Ten years later, and few anime-inspired games can hold a candle to what Afro Samurai accomplished. Aside from a movie that keeps going in and out of production, the standing of the series today has no clear future. Our best hope is that someday soon it’ll be backwards compatible on Xbox One, but until then, dig out your PS3/Xbox 360, find a copy of this game, and experience it for yourself. It’s definitely worth it.

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