It is entirely possible that Wizardry was the first computer game ever to print the word “Samurai” to the screen. I’m not sure, but it might well be. (Update: It was not. There are at least two older ones, the Sega coin-op Samurai and Winged Samurai for Atari.)
In 1981, Japan wasn’t the big thing it became during the decade. Anime and manga were still mostly unknown outside Japan, and many of those that would become most popular weren’t even drawn and printed yet (Akira: 1982, Dragon Ball: 1984, Urotsukidoji: 1986). Lately, several very successful arcade machines had come from Japan, but they did not attempt to introduce any Japanese themes. Indeed, some (like Crazy Climber or Donkey Kong) had a definitely American flavor.
The term “samurai” itself was probably well known in the USA, mainly through Akira Kurosawa’s movies, but it seems that all the 25 Zatoichi movies then in existence, and the five Crimson Bat movies, had received American releases as well.
Thanks to Altri Bit for bringing this game to my attention. It was released by MC Lothlorien (which later became Icon Design) in 1982 for ZX81, ZX Spectrum 16K, and Dragon 32, and may well have been the first computer game on any non-Japanese home platform with a specifically Japanese setting. The manual describes it as following:
You are a Samurai Warrior living during the Kamakura period in Japan (1185–1333 AD). Your objective is simply to reach the target score given to you on the Option Menu at the beginning of the game thus indicating that you are worthy of the final accolade. You can attempt to reach this target by: – fighting other Samurai, hunting bandits, helping villages, seppuku or any combination of these options.
It did not attract too much attention, and no full review seems to exist. Crash wrote about it:
You are a Samurai warrior living during the Kamakura period in Japan (1185–1333). There are no bonus points for killing Richard Chamberlain, but there are for defeating your opponents and surviving into old age. You can, of course, commit Seppuku if you would rather. Up against you are six groups of bandits and nine other samurai of differing abilities, any of whom may be superior to yourself. Challenges and hunts occur in simple graphics and are not very good. Results are in direct relation to the combatants’ strengths. Seems pointless.
The graphics were underwhelming, but the cassette inlay (courtesy of World of Spectrum) was quite nice, and fairly authentic:
The first PC game with a specifically Japanese setting seems to have been the obscure Bushido: The Way of The Warrior 1983. The title seems to indicate that the protagonist is a samurai. He fights against ninjas in this action game.
Bushido: Fighting ninjas on CGA
There is a Dragon/CoCo game Ninja Warrior from the same year, but it takes its setting far less seriously. In 1984/85, there was a sort of boom, with Karateka and several Kung Fu and Ninja games. The first game with “samurai” in the title was probably Sword of the Samurai 1990. (Well, not exactly: There was an Othello clone for the Odyssey 2 that was published as Dynasty! in the USA and Samurai in Europe, but I don’t think that really counts.)
A Samurai Class
Whether or not Wizardry was the first game to print “Samurai” to a computer screen, I am fairly sure that it was the first role-playing game (of any kind) to have a playable Samurai character class. Dungeons & Dragons introduced one in Oriental Adventures 1985, but specific to this setting. It never became a generic class like fighter or paladin. Shadowrun (1989) does not have classes as such, but “Street Samurai” is one of the archetypes. I’m not sure about Rifts, a post-apocalyptic RPG from 1990. Final Fantasy had a Samurai class or job, on and off, since V in 1992.
Not Really a Samurai
Of course…the Samurai in Wizardry wasn’t really a samurai, at least in the beginning. He started out as a combination of Fighter and Mage, one of the two easier elite classes, with stat requirements that might, with some luck, be rolled at character creation. The only item specific to his class was the Muramasa Blade, otherwise he’d use the same armor and weapons as the fighter, and had no special attacks. This illustration from the manual shows that the artist didn’t bother much to make him look anything like a samurai either:
The Wizardry elite classes tended to have somewhat strange names. When Nintendo America renamed the Bishop Wizard, it was actually more appropriate, probably the only case where Nintendo censorship was an improvement.
Enter David Bradley
When David Bradley took over, things began to change. For Heart of the Maelstrom, classes still stayed the same, but the items were new. Most plate mail—strangely, not some exceptionally strong pieces—was now for Lords and Fighters only, and the Lord got a sword better than the Muramasa Blade. On the whole, the Samurai was now superior to the Fighter, but inferior to the Lord, which made some sense, after all, the Lord’s stat requirements were higher as well.
With Bane of the Cosmic Forge, Wizardry got a new class system with partly new stats. The basic classes remained mainly unchanged, the elite classes were somewhat refined and six new classes added. The Samurai got a new emphasis on fast attack (Lightning Strike) and dual-wielding swords. He also got two special suits of armor, the better one dropped by a boss later in the game. Apart from this, he could wear only leather. He could no longer use shields or axes, and only very few polearms.
Crusaders of the Dark Savant introduced guns, which the Samurai could use, though only the lighter ones, not the heavy Blunder Buss.
After Crusaders of the Dark Savant, David Bradley left Sir-Tech. He programmed CyberMage: Darklight Awakening for Origin and then founded his own company, Heuristic Park. Wizardry 8 was mainly the brainchild of Linda Currie and Brenda Brathwaite, though I suppose that the basic storyline, which continues the previous two games, was at least sketched by David Bradley.
Wizardry 8 introduced a new philosophy to the class system. Class changing was discouraged, the difference between basic and elite classes reduced. All the classes should, theoretically, be about equally useful throughout the whole game. It didn’t work too well. A lot of things feel messed up in Wizardry 8, the Samurai class is among them.
His weapon choices were severely reduced, depriving him even of the use of such a classic samurai weapon as the naginata. He can no longer use guns, even though it would be the ideal ranged weapon for him. The Modern Arms skill rises with Speed, not Strength, and the Samurai’s Speed requirement is higher than his Strength requirement.
On the other hand, he could now wear chain mail, and some special items reserved to stronger classes, while the magic resistances on his special armor were reduced. The latter is thus often no longer the best choice from a point of view of efficiency, a somewhat bizarre situation. An ignominious end for what was once maybe the best character class in Wizardry.