Sucker Punch’s big samurai game of the year is finally out, and I couldn’t care less about whether it’s dope or not. A big, open world game with a hokey, arguably racist approach to samurai aesthetic? A game that sure sounds like it’s all too willing to fall in with imperialist ideology; in pursuit of expensive AAA orientalist spectacle? At best, Ghost of Tsushima sounds boring.
This is to be expected, I guess. Sucker Punch is the studio that cast its three Natives in Second Son with white actors. Invented a Fake Native Tribe (while stealing directly from the Duwamish). And decided that a rogue government agent was the real baddie—not the status quo settler-colonialism infecting Seattle (and the rest of America).
Remember how the good ending achievement was actually called “Reconciliation?” Yeah. How in the bad ending, you go home and obliterate your tribe? That awarded “Rebellion.” Remember how Director of Second Son and Ghosts of Tsushima, Nate Fox, straight up said he’d never visited the Duwamish Cultural Center which is just a 20 minute drive from the studio? But a 5,200+ mile trip to Japan was doable? How the reason the protagonist was Native is because Seattle has Natives (none of whom are apparently actors). You probably don’t remember any of that because certainly none of the reviewers and critics at the time commented on it.
“Dia, then how am I supposed to scratch my Japanese Sword power fantasy itch?”
I hear you, William Nioh. And fret not. I am here to help. I have the games, I have the soundtracks. I know you have a need for furious katana action. I have the power fantasies you crave. Put down the phone, turn off QVC. Don’t order that Dragon Sword.
You want that fix? I got you. Dia is for the people.
Let’s talk about better games fixated on doing some sick ninja shit.
Let’s get into some videogame soundtracks that absolutely shred.
What happens when you bring together famed French illustrator Moebius, famed Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and tell them you’re making a videogame retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai?
Fuckin’ magic, that’s what. Don’t listen to the haters.
Janky, brash, almost hideous by today’s standards (and not much of a looker at the time), Seven Samurai 20XX is a game that probably can’t even be rightly called a cult hit. It’s not making any lists anytime soon—except for this one.
Which is a shame, because if nothing else this soundtrack SLAPS!
It’s energetic and bombastic. Here’s an early master of electronic music deciding to get high on late ‘90s techno and abrasive electric guitars, and then go harder than Liam Howlett would take another decade to even try. But then to also slow it down, get weird and spooky. Turn electroclash into ambient, lo-fi, low-key hip hop jams, infusing them enthusiastically with more traditional Japanese (and other pan-Asian) instrumentation and melodies, along with distorted vocal samples. Sakamoto has always been a student, a borrower, slinking in and weaving rhythmic straw into invigorating sonic gold. And while this may be a departure from what many people think of when they think of Sakamoto’s work, it turns what might be just a weird, clunky, and forgotten game into a transcendent oddity. Something strange and broken and beautiful for it.
Also, like I said: It absolutely slaps.
“Dia, shinobi aren’t samurai.”
I know, but if Nate Fox gets to play fast and loose, so do I. And 2002’s Shinobi by Sega’s Overworks division is exactly the furious combo-driven, wall-running, katana-waving action you crave. I promise. Also the scarf physics are still one of the most stylish things in gaming history, and has yet to be defeated by other Scarf Tech (yes, it’s a PS2 game).
When you look that cool and feel that good to play, you need a compelling soundtrack. Assassins need sick playlists when they’re flipping out and killing … you know I’m not even sure what you’re actually slicing apart in Shinobi. I could look it up, but it doesn’t matter. You’re not here for plot. It’s got it though. A plot. Pretty sure it’s about demons. Ninjas & Demons are like Vampires & Werewolves but way cooler.
But really, you’re here for furious ninja shit. You’re here to look, sound, and feel cool. What you want is a power fantasy.
You know who has you covered? Composers Yasuhiro Kawakami, Teruhiko Nakagawa, Tatsuyuki Maeda, Fumie Kumatani, Yutaka Minobe, and Masaru Setsumaru. You need to slay and they are here for you. They’ve turned up with the jazz-infused ninja techno beats you need to win and look cool as hell while winning.
Shinobi brings the electric guitars and synths of Seven Samurai 20XX but with a Sega Dance Club Arcade slickness. Tempos run hot. Organ chords clash with propulsively-pitched synth loops like steel blades. And because you definitely wield a demonic sword that eats souls, there’s always the rockin’ riffs of guitar fury.
Sure, there’s plenty of taiko drums and shakuhachi and distinctive riffs. Shinobi has all the cultural signifiers of Japanese swashbuckling media flowing into absolutely slamming techno beats. I got a speeding ticket because of this soundtrack once. It’s that good.
Bushido is something Sucker Punch harped on as being crucial to Ghost of Tsushima despite the game taking place in the 13th century, and Bushido not being created for another 400 years. It’s an anachronistic bit of nonsense with significant implications that the game doesn’t care to reckon with (even if it should).
Squaresoft’s 1997 samurai-combat game doesn’t have to worry about that, although a dishonorable combat system is in place that was interesting at the time.
Instead, you’re thrust into the modern era, to escape an ancient dojo with its secrets—and kill everyone sent to contain you in single combat. There’s also a straight up versus mode where you can even enter a dodgy first person perspective and live out your violent fantasy in the most awkward way possible.
It’s an ambitious and divisive game. But it also kicks all kinds of ass.
Shinji Hosoe (with contributions from Ayako Saso and Takayuki Aihara) paints with a similar palette as the previously mentioned games, but with a decided emphasis on traditional instrument samples and melody (with a nod to Sakamoto’s own work if you listen carefully).
Layered throughout the dazzles of dancey electro and raging guitar is the arcade jazziness one would expect from a composer most frequently found working for Namco. What if the drivers in Ridge Racer were doing mortal combat with naginata? That’s this. And if you can’t tell from that description—it bangs. Even the tracks that find room for bizarre orchestral flourishes interrupting the icy, melodic synths found in JRPGs and ‘90s fantasy anime are the perfect accompaniment for taking a sledgehammer (a staple of the samurai armament, I’m sure) to an opponent’s exposed leg, or arm, or heck, just their face.
It might be the most expansive of the three albums explored here, with a range of tone and tempo that finds a song for every mood. After all, even an efficient killer needs to take time out in gentle contemplation. To find moments of respite in a snowy bamboo thicket. And then get right back to frantically dueling rivals on a helicopter pad.
Okay, would-be samurai. There’s your three bangers for this week.
Get playing. Get listening.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.