SNK Does Pint-Sized Pugilism Right With The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny
I have a confession to make. While I love Samurai Shodown, it’s not my favorite weapons-based fighter franchise on the Neo Geo. Sure, SNK’s pioneering dueler is iconic and robbed me of a mountain of quarters in my youth. But when it comes to clashing steel on the company’s 16-bit home and arcade hardware, that honor goes to SNK’s lesser-known slash-fest, The Last Blade. Maybe it’s the game’s superb repel system that rewards quick-witted players while punishing reckless ronin. Or perhaps it’s the game’s flair for the dramatic with its soap opera-esque soundtrack and breathtaking animation. Whatever it is, it’s kept me coming back time and time again for about 15 years now. Despite likely sinking hundreds of hours into The Last Blade and its 1998 sequel, The Last Blade 2, over the years, both games remain in regular rotation in my Neo Geo cabinet whenever I host gaming gatherings.
First appearing on the Neo Geo Pocket in 2000, The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny combines and condenses both of these titles into one pint-sized package. Following in the footsteps of the previously-released King of Fighters R-2, Samurai Shodown! 2, and SNK Gals’ Fighters, the game is now available on the Switch, giving owners of Nintendo’s hybrid console a chance to experience this super-deformed swordfighter.
The Way Of The Blade
The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny admirably deconstructs its source material while leaving the series’ spirit intact. The game features the same razor-sharp swordplay of its predecessors, only on a smaller scale. From flashy combos and super specials that can send your opponent spinning high into the air to defensive repels and mid-air counters, this is the same The Last Blade you know and love, just carefully pared down to a humble 8-bits.
I loved seeing iconic scenes, like the villain Shinnosuke Kagami’s demonic transformation and The Last Blade 2‘s raging Fire At The Wadamoya, transformed into something that would have looked at home on the NES. While the game lacks much of the visual punch that made these moments so spectacular on the Neo Geo, what it lacks in pixel-pushing prowess, it makes up for with pure, unadulterated charm. The same goes for the game’s music. Many compositions from The Last Blade and its sequel have been reworked altogether and sound fantastic. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and give the title theme a listen here. If that doesn’t get you ready to slice some super-deformed samurai to ribbons, you’re probably dead inside.
Just how true to its predecessors The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny feels is certainly impressive given its technical limitations. Though that’s not to say no corners were cut to make this happen.
8-Bit Bakumatsu Brawls
For starters, the bustling backgrounds the series is known for are now entirely static. Considering just how much was previously going on in these scenes, this change can make for some odd sights. For example, The Last Blade 2‘s Port Town, once a busy market full of action, looks a bit eerie now as you slash your way to victory in front of dozens of statuesque onlookers. Additionally, several characters, including the steel-skinned Shigen and the sadistic Shikyoh, are no longer playable. Though Shikyoh’s reanimated corpse, Mukuro, does appear for an unlockable mini-game.
The violent final blows which served as grisly punctuation marks to each duel have been removed altogether for this hand-held spinoff. So if you had your heart set on cleaving a super-deformed version of your favorite samurai in half, well, you’re out of luck. Still, these are minor concessions when you consider how much SNK managed to include in this surprisingly robust title given the Neo Geo Pocket’s humble specs.
Of course, the transition from the four-button controls of the Neo Geo games to a two-button control scheme also takes some getting used to. Repelling attacks is one of The Last Blade‘s signature features as it allows you to get in a quick slash while your enemy is stunned. Mastering this technique is essential for competitive play. You could do this by simply pressing a single button right before an attack lands in the Neo Geo version. However, here, you need to push forward and the A button simultaneously. It’s a bit tricky to adjust to at first. But once you get the hang of things, countering blows with your chibified ronin feels excellent.
A Selection Fit For A Samurai
The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny features several game modes to choose from. The Story Mode is the meat and potatoes of this package, where you fight your way through the roster of characters before facing down the big baddie in front of the gateway to hell. It’s good fun, though a bit easy on the default difficulty setting. Thankfully, you can dial up the options menu challenge to make the computer put up an admirable effort.
In addition to the Story, the game also includes your standard Versus, Training, and Survival Modes. Versus matches are played on two side-by-side screens, as the game was designed initially to use the NeoGeo Pocket Link Cable, which allowed you to connect two systems for multiplayer melees. While it looks a bit funky at first, it works fine. Like any good fighter, The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny is at its best when enjoyed competitively over beers with a friend.
As you complete matches, you’ll earn money that to spend at the in-game store. Here, you can buy scrolls, which include character bios, items, and character endings. Not only can these scrolls be used to brush up on some lore, but they’re also required to unlock the game’s five hidden characters and two bonus game modes.
Bonus modes, you ask? That’s right, The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny features a pair of unlockable mini-games. Home Run Competition puts you in control of the mighty Juzoh in a homerun derby, while The Great Escape stars Mukuro as he frantically tries to flee the portal to hell. Though these games are nothing to write home about, they’re welcome extras.
A Deconstructed Delight
If you’re a fan of SNK’s previously-released Neo Geo Pocket ports to the eShop, don’t hesitate to pick up The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny. Despite making a few concessions to fit onto the Neo Geo Pocket’s 8-bit framework, the game does a remarkable job of staying true to its 16-bit roots. With snappy combat, charming presentation, and a wide selection of modes to enjoy, it’s a fine addition to the Switch library that no SNK fan should pass up.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed); Publisher: SNK; Developer: SNK; Players: 1-2; Released: October 28, 2020; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $7.99
Full disclosure: A copy of The Last Blade: Beyond The Destiny was given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.