Given how crazy violent the postmodern, hip-hop-heavy anime Samurai Champloo is, you'd think it'd be easy to make it into a decent video game; just inject the characters into a cool-looking slash 'em-up and add a whole lot of weirdness, right? Guess not. That's more or less what the developer did, but Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked still kinda sucks.
Not that Sidetracked doesn't have good things going for it. Created by the TV series' writers as a "lost chapter" in the show's canon, Sidetracked takes the series' 19th-century heroes - wild talent Mugen, sword master Jin and the food-obsessed girl they protect, Fuu - to Hokkaido, a place overrun by foreigners and controlled by an evil samurai clan.
Like in each episode of the show, the plot splits into two distinct directions, as its heroes wander off to do their own thing before meeting up again. These two plot threads gradually weave together, creating an interesting (if hard-to-follow) narrative involving the native Ainu people, demons, a rain of blood and at least one evil European transsexual with a beard, nice breasts and an ugly hat.
If the gameplay was that fascinating, we'd have a classic on our hands. Unfortunately, Samurai Champloo' s hack-and-slash wears out its welcome after about half an hour. Most of the game is spent navigating narrow, linear environments filled with enemies that suddenly appear every few seconds. Sometimes you'll have to kill a set number of them to advance to the next area, and other times you'll just need to find the exit. But you'll always be slashing through nonstop, repetitive hordes of ninjas, samurai or monkeys with knives, all of whom behave more or less the same.
Granted, there are a few novel touches. Yes, it's pretty cool that you can "equip" two different background-music tracks, and that those tracks open up new sword combos and abilities as you switch between them on the fly. It's also worth pointing out that there are different tiers of fun here; Jin, with his strong, measured sword strikes and inability to jump, is easily the most boring character, while Mugen's breakdance moves make him far more interesting to watch. But the most enjoyable one is Worso, an acrobatic Ainu warrior whose plotline can be unlocked by finishing either of the two main ones (assuming you have the patience to do that, anyway).
And yeah, "Tate" mode - which briefly interrupts combat so you can mash buttons and cut a single enemy with up to 100 lightning-quick slashes - looks really cool. And "Trance" mode - a silhouetted fight in front of a shoji screen against 100 weak enemies, which you enter if you score 100 slashes in Tate - is almost as mesmerizing the 20th time as it is the first.
But it's not as fun the 20th time, and that's the problem. As soon as the hip novelty and awesome visuals wear off, you begin to realize there's not much more to Sidetracked than the same five minutes of gameplay, over and over again. Even Tate and Trance modes eventually become time-consuming pains in the ass, no matter how many cool secret items they unlock.
Above: The words you're looking for are "doubleyou," "tee" and "eff"
After a while, the only consistently interesting parts of the game are the challenging boss battles, which actually require timing, patience and skill. But even these can get irritating; one mad-bomber boss filled his area with deep craters that are literally almost impossible to avoid (they seem to have an actual gravitational pull). You know your game is in trouble when you steal the most infuriating element of the legendarily bad game E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial for the Atari 2600. Never played that one? Just know this: Atari literally buried thousands of them in cement vaults in the desert.
In its favor, Sidetracked does an excellent job of capturing the anime's ultra-hip tone, broken-fourth-wall writing and overall sense of anachronistic weirdness, but there's something clumsy about its presentation. The cinemas look a little cheap and run too long, the voice-acting is flat and there are way, way too many loading screens.
Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked does a lot that's interesting - for a little while, anyway - but we get the impression that this is the product of too much thought and not enough work.