83476191_31d178594c.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This week, he tackles the Bushido Blade series’ most abstract mechanics: honor and choice.]

Metal Gear Solid, the lovechild of GI Joe and Aristotle, may be PSOne’s poster boy, but I’ll always remember another PS classic that brought realism to console games unlike any game before it: Bushido Blade.

And while each MGS installment inspires criticism detailing its culturally relevant storyline, picture perfect art design, and expansive gameplay, the Bushido Blade series - first debuting in 1997 in Japan - has since gone mostly unnoticed (Light Weight, Bushido Blade’s developer, and Squaresoft’s, its publisher, relationship halted future sequels after Bushido Blade 2). So this week, I ask, when not pursuing Liquid Ocelot, you stop by the nearest game re-seller, pick up a copy of the series, and begin the Bushido Blade road to self-improvement.

Apply Generously

Part of Bushido Blade’s appeal lies in the title. The Bushido code, a 12th century Japanese samurai conduct code commonly unspoken and unwritten, emphasizes honor, a honing of physical skills, and frugality. And while frugality may be the game’s most important trait, Bushido Blade reveals itself best through liberal play. It may appear simple, mechanical, and average your first few bouts, but dozens of play-throughs, especially ones with humility, where you take risks rather than rush to defeat your opponent, will lead to a relaxed enjoyment uncommon with frenetic, button-masher fighting games.

Bushido Blade finds richness in reduction. The game offers three stances—high, neutral, and low—each with three one-button attacks. You have the ability to throw dirt or use a projectile (but only once). Then you get three speed attacks: an aerial hindrance attack, along with a low swoop attack, and a lunge. Depending on your contact with the other player, you may swing from one move to the next via the “Motion Shift System.” That’s it.

No time limits. No health bars. No lengthy combos. No move breakers. No specials. No parrying, or air blocks, or even Super Art systems.

You get a limited move-set and a sharp sword that kills with one, precise stroke.

Simplicity is Never Simple

Bushido Blade encourages competitive players to study the fight’s natural rhythm. As a rival lunges, back away and counter her with an attack from above. Or, if a player raises his stance high, switch to mid-range attacks—when his body arcs downwards with a chop, impale his head.

This ‘rock, scissors, paper’ mechanic minimizes complexity and makes Bushido Blade victim to the cliché “easy to learn, but challenging to master.” But the game’s not that simple. As mentioned, Bushido Blade’s gameplay clearly contrasts with traditional fighting games, which often require players to study elaborate move-lists and discover each games’ specific “gaminess.”

I recently took a gamer pilgrimage to the Chinatown Arcade, where my arcade fighter skills mattered little at the hands of expert players showing off their muscle-memorized combos and hit breakers. For me, traditional fighting games are like college courses, and versus matches like exams. These bouts put the gamer in a vacuum with right and wrong answers that you must learn, memorize, and apply to succeed.

In Bushido Blade, none of the answers matter; only your quick, correct reaction determines your future. If Virtua Fighter players are like college students cramming for exams, Bushido Blade players are thirty-year strong businessmen, successful not from facts, but from years of practice with life’s spontaneity and split-second decisions.

Use the World to Your Advantage

But this tension, this sense that twitch decisions win fights meshes poorly with the traditional 2 ½ D arena fighting that made the Playstation’s other 3D fighters, Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden. These flat arena force conflict, rather than allowing the player to position himself properly to create conflict. They lack evasion beyond a simple pivot. To solve this problem, Bushido Blade became one of the first console games to drop the traditional 2 ½ D arena format and allow fighters to freely explore their 3D environments, a mechanic later mashed onto Ehrgeiz and mastered by Power Stones 1 & 2.

The digital world’s your oyster: bamboo thickets may be cut short by stray cuts, cliff ledges may be climbed, and even the dirt may be tossed into your opponents eyes (but, come on, that’s not the Bushido way).

This true 3D freedom tapped an unconscious gamer urge to do more than pivot-evade enemies on these beautiful 3D environments. Bushido’s environments push back; thus, players take part in their digital worlds as they do in our real world. With such deadly attacks available to you and your opponent, Bushido Blade asks you to react appropriately—react not as an avatar, but as a person. The game doesn’t force the player to fight, but allows them to run. And with rivals launching katanas at your chest, running is often the most realistic and wise option available.

Real Life and Digital Death

Yet, the most shocking choice Bushido Blade provides is a seppuku-like option. To ensure an honorable death, many condemned or fatally wounded Bushido samurai performed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide (most commonly via hari-kari, or “stomach cutting”). Unsurprisingly, Bushido Blade prevents in-game suicide, but if you press select during a match your player will drop to his knees and prompt an uncontrollable cut-scene where your fighter allows the opponent to deal a fatal blow.

Both avatars always agree this will be an honorable death, though most real-life sources believe the honor seppuku provided came from murder by your own hands, you as the commander of your fate. In this game, the rival plays a role similar to the kaishaku, the assistant to the person performing seppuku and often his closest friend, who must remove the victim’s head after death. Oddly, Bushido Blade requires its own deathly participation. With the cut scene unplayable by you or your fellow player, it shares responsibility with your choice. You order your suicide, but the game engine performs it. The game takes responsibility for the honor code it sets for players.

Bushido Blades uses small rules and attack methods to subtly express the designer’s morality. While its take on suicide may be the most obvious moral commentary, some are smaller, less noticeable. In Bushido Blade 1, a kill from behind causes Game Over, a penalty for fighting dishonorably and breaking Bushido code. Tossing dirt may stun your opponent, but opens yourself to attacks from any stance.

Some opponents are even given firearms, but they’re easy to evade, lack precision, and offer little defense. These rules express an understanding between your and the game about how a skilled fighter must attack, both physically and spiritually. Gameplay, player, and the Bushido code are intertwined.

With this relationship between gamer and game clarified, the assisted suicide’s motive becomes more reasonable. The game sets the morality and rules by which you must abide. If you choose in-game suicide, the game is equally accountable for creating an environment that allows (and vaguely encourages) the seppuku.

Defining One’s Self

The game, however, does not define you; rather it offers an environment and mechanics that promote minimalism, making it easier for you to define yourself. Bushido Blade’s structure makes every choice a litmus test of taste, style, and personality. You throw dirt, stab from behind—you’re a cheater, a dishonorable fighter. You fight fast with small blades, you’re reckless and relish the fight. Slow and large blades, you battle to win.

These small decisions represent precise character traits, and are extremely customizable by the player. While most fighting game are notorious for their flamboyant characters, they leave you with options like “busty slow fighter” and “crudely stereotyped capoeira master.” These bombastic personalities leave little room for the player to associate himself with the avatar. They disconnect the player from the game’s emotional core.

I know, I’m talking about a fighting game’s emotional core, but Bushido Blade begs the player to make an emotional connection. The brief expositional cut-scenes mirror Greek Tragedy with mistaken identities, hopeless warring, and inter-family murder. On a grand scale, the battle systems flows from one bout to the next as you cut down handfuls of faceless enemies, but on a small scale, the Motion Shift System carries between slashes as you struggle with the challenging bosses.

It’s a game that asks you to make choices, ones only available from experience, sizing up your enemy, and applying yourself, applying your personal style to the fight. And while this may be available to the most hardcore fighter fans in Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter, Bushido Blade makes this relationship between player and avatar available to the average gamer, the one that gets in a virtual fight and wants the option to run away.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]