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Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked Scribbles

September 13, 2006 By Glenn Turner

Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked reminds me of a remark film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum leveled at Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel of the same name:

"Soderbergh frequently makes his presence felt as a formal annotator – periodically halting the action with freeze-frames, using elaborate color-coding schemes ... and crosscutting between successive scenes with the same characters ... Banished as an auteur, Soderbergh is free to scribble in the margins all he likes, so he has a field day."

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Desperate Measures - Out of Sight & The Brigands: Chapter VII" (emphasis mine)

Rosenbaum is essentially saying that Soderbergh is restricted by the necessities of adapting material that isn't his own, and is relegated to the cinematic sidelines as a director. Since he didn't pen the film's script, he imparts as much of his own style into Out of Sight's margins as possible, in attempts to spruce and prop up the source material.

It's hard not to draw the same parallel with the grasshopper manufacture's Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked for the PlayStation 2. It has a strong director, the increasingly notorious Suda 51 (mostly known for last year's stylish & divisive Killer7), who wildly compensates for an unremarkable hack-'n-slash adaptation involving two samurais, plucked from the titular anime, that find themselves embroiled in a land-war and end up fighting for their lives. How does he do this? By painting over the game with abrasive aural and visual elements; essentially scribbling all over the standards that come with an adaptation.

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But that's not a bad thing. Suda's love of low-slung cameras, claustrophobic hallways, over-sized typography, extravagant sound clips and high-contrast lighting manage to create an engrossing experience in spite of the game's rote cliches. His cacophonic flourishes create and maintain a rhythm that keeps the game fun well after hitting the game's ceiling, just when you should be tired of the onslaught of generic enemies and should cease to care how many more bland environments you have to churn through to get to the final boss. And while the game's combat and chain system never feels quite that satisfying, he improves it threefold by tying the move toggling to that of the game's soundtrack. Sure, the amount of damage you inflict or the exact move you execute may seem interchangeable, but the feeling of flipping the soundtrack to get a new group of moves is immensely rewarding.

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In addition to these margin-doodles, Suda occasionally scribbles so hard, so forcefully, that occasionally his pen-strokes break through the borders. The over-the-top 'Trance Mode' which pits your character against throngs of silhouetted enemies is a perfect example: it completely halts the game for an extended session of relentless button-mashing, pure slicing and dicing. It's intense and striking, but a complete departure from the game and probably isn't really worth the reward you get when you do manage to complete it. However, it is damn loud and damn fun.

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Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked represents a rarity in modern video games: a brash-but-cohesive audio/visual experience that has the director's vision stamped all over it. And while Sidetracked is an adapted work, the moment you see a screenshot from Sidetracked, hear a handful of the game's sound effects or catch the game in motion, there's no doubt that Suda's been scrawling all over it. For better or for worse, there aren't many video game directors you can say that about, and that cohesion and vision is something to be applauded when your standard games release looks and plays like it's been designed by a committee. While all of Suda 51's layers of paint can't disguise the middling game design and adaptation-baggage that lurks under Sidetracked's surface, they sufficiently distract you from the worst of it, and sometimes that's the best a director can do.

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4 comments for ‘Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked Scribbles’

#1 KillerTeddy Sep 13, 2006 04:21pm

Oh if I had a ps2...

#2 D. Riley Sep 13, 2006 06:27pm

I really hope those are poorly compressed JPEGs, as per the usual standard of promo material. Otherwise they look AWFUL.

#3 Glenn Turner Sep 13, 2006 06:29pm

Yup, exactly. The game isn't the greatest looking title ever, but it doesn't look nearly as bad as those screenshots make it look. I have no idea why some decent screens weren't issued, but I used the best that I could find.

#4 WholeFnShow Sep 13, 2006 09:52pm

This is good to hear. I keep looking at this, wanting it, then forgetting about it. If'n I can get my hands on a copy I'll definitely be in business.