Although not to the extent of Super Sentai Series, its American offspring Power Rangers has been out of touch with gaming for almost four years now. Part of it has to do with the fact that the series itself went on a hiatus of sorts in 2010, only airing a "re-version" of the earliest season instead of adapting a new series. But after the license was re-acquired by Saban, the original adapters who started the franchise, 2011 finally gives us Power Rangers Samurai, adapted from 2009's Samurai Sentai Shinkenger - and with it, two tie-in games.
The series, being almost a shot-by-shot remake of Shinkenger, takes most of the original's components, right down to the premise: Across pitch-dark gaps of various sizes - be it a small slit between objects or large crevices - exists the Sanzu River, from where creatures called 'Nighlok' rise and wreak havoc in the human world. Standing against these creatures is a Samurai Clan known as 'Shiba', which utilizes a unique ability called 'Symbol Power' - a power which can essentially be described as magic through writing Kanji (which, I assume, replaces incantations) associated with each spell.
Lords of Shiba clan had been quelling the Nighlok every time they rose up for generations. When the cretins begin to act again in this modern time, the duty to vanquish them falls upon the clan's 18th successor: Jayden. As the lord and leader, he summons four vassals from his retainer families - Kevin, Mia, Mike and Emily - who also have been preparing for this task, to form the Samurai Rangers. After a while, they're joined by Jayden's childhood friend Antonio in their battle against Nighlok.
The first surprise I came across when I started the game is that it's developed by Inti Creates. For those unfamiliar, Inti Creates was the developer of Megaman Zero and ZX series, co-developed Megaman 9 and 10, and Gal☆ Gun with Alchemist.
Like most previous Power Rangers games, Samurai is a stage-based brawler. Clear one stage, and you unlock the following ones. But here, to the game's credit, you do get some freedom regarding how you complete stages; stages unlock in batches, so you can complete a batch in any order before you unlock another batch.
After selecting a stage, you can choose which Ranger you want to play with. The first two stages allow you to choose any of the five Rangers, but the available roster differs by stage from there. It's because each stage has a storyline taken and abridged from the show itself; as such, what happens in each story effects the stage's roster. If you want to play co-op, characters available to each player are not always the same either. But not to worry: After clearing the game, you'll be able to replay any stage with any Ranger you want.
Stories in stages are abridged versions of earlier TV episodes, conveyed through text boxes with profile avatars and a background image (or, a simplified visual novel interface). However, those already familiar with the episodes are likely to find the abridged ones insufficient and rushed to give the player a good grasp of what's happening. I should also mention that the game barely covers the first half of the series' intended run, so those interested in the story would have better luck from watching the series - or better yet, the original Shinkenger.
At the beginning of every stage, there's a small segment where you have to write the Kanji for the Ranger(s) you've chosen using the Wiimote's motion controls: You have to move the Wiimote in fast strokes (like you're writing with a brush) as shown on screen. Despite lasting for only a few seconds, this is easily my favorite part in the whole game. I presume that its charms come from the accurate motion tracking sub-system; not to say it's perfect, but it works most of the time. If you can manage to get all the strokes right, you start the stage with a full 'Symbol-Power' gauge, which you can use for special attacks.
Battle controls use only the Wiimote+Nunchuck combo, and are pretty simple. A is for light attacks that can be chained together; B unleashes a heavy attack at the cost of a small chunk of Symbol-Power; C is for guarding; Z for jumps. Left and Right on the D-Pad are assigned to two different special attacks that are much more powerful, but also consume more Symbol-Power.
Each stage has 2-3 areas to traverse through. At the end of each stage is the boss Nighlok monster. Defeat it, and... it's not over yet! As per Super Sentai/Power Rangers tradition, the monster will grow to a giant, which the Rangers always have to defeat by summoning their own giant Mecha and combining into a Super Robot, ubiquitously named 'Megazord' in Power Rangers. In a clever bit of self-referential nod (also taken from Shinkenger), the series gives us this little concept: Nighlok monsters have two lives. Once the first life is over, their second life begins immediately by reviving automatically into a giant form, retaining the consciousness all the way through and ready for battle.
In Megazord Battles, the screen is split horizontally to show the Samurai Megazord and the monster in each panel face-to-face. Along the middle split is a gauge with a hub in the center. From left and right, two types of of icons rush towards the center in random order; the left side releases Nunchuck icons (representing a block), and the right, Wiimote (representing a slash). All you need to do is simply shake the respective controller part when the icon is in the center area; if you manage to hit it right in the center, you deal extra damage to the boss - in the form of either a counterattack or a stronger slash. Don't let the seemingly simple mechanic lower your guard though; the icons move rather quickly on top of the inherent motion recognition delay of the controller, so it requires a fair bit of reflex. I'd even say that giant battles look less active than brawling section, but require a bit more attention. Defeating the giant monster clears the stage, after which you're graded by your performance, from one to three stars, and counting halves. Get nine to rank up, which upgrades the Rangers a bit; you can increase rank twice.
The game is quite short; I cleared only 10 stages before getting to the end credits - although there are actually 15 stages in total for Wii version. Discounting the quantity for a moment, stages themselves also tend to repeat after a while. The reason is that there are five area designs in total, all based on certain backdrops in the series (more specifically, common generic locations used in Super Sentai's filmings): Urban area, old building interior, burning rubbles, bamboo forest, and beach; each stage is basically just a (predetermined) combinations of any of these.
Combat also lacks noticeable variety: Aside from a couple of unique minor differences (specifically, in model animations and unlocking paths to secret items based on each of their elements), each character plays exactly the same as the rest. The only exception is Antonio, the Gold Ranger who, like all Sixth Rangers of a Sentai squad, has a different set of powers and equipment. There also aren't a lot of music tracks, although it's not much of a surprise considering the amount of content.
On the other hand, the game does have some positive points despite the minimal content. It makes good use of the TV series' footage, which is something previous games rarely ever did; it pays careful attention to details in small elements throughout the game; visuals are tidy and clear enough without requiring long loading times - just to name a few. Not to mention that it's tricky to avoid repetition in a game based on Super Sentai/Power Rangers, which are rather repetitive themselves by formula (once you take out the dialogue and story). Music tracks, while nothing special, follow the source material's music style, are appropriate for a brawler, and last a minute to two before looping again.
Power Rangers Samurai is released for both Wii and DS, so I also tried the DS version out of curiosity. After playing the two versions side-by-side, I can certainly say that both are essentially the same game in terms of concepts, aside from a few technical aspects; the same stage backdrops, same audio tracks and clips, and same combat system, and such. The only notable differences are related to each console's capability and special features: For example, DS version is a 2D brawler (which requires less hardware capability and energy), and the Wiimote-controlled segments are adapted for touch-screen controls.
Power Rangers' return to gaming could have been better than just "passable", but it also could have gotten a lot worse; for the very least, it's certainly a step-up from Ranger Cross in almost every way - even if that's not saying much. I'm hoping successive years' tie-ins get better development based on the previous.
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