Welcome to part 2 of Big in Japan: Sengoku Basara. If you missed part one, you can find it here.
When we last left our talk on Sengoku Basara, we compared and contrasted it to Koei’s Sengoku Muso series. We also spoke of what made it distinctive and enticing to a Japanese audience. However, we have yet to cover why the series is so unknown over here when the Sengoku/ Sangoku Muso series, or Samurai/ Dyanasty Warriors games, are known fairly well in the United States.
Much of this is because of strange move on Capcom of America’s part. The first game in the series, Sengoku Basara, did release State-side, as a heavily modified title known as Devil Kings. The name wasn’t the only change though, as just about every reference to the Sengoku period in Japan was removed from the game.
Among the changes made, a few characters were removed as playable characters, such as Matsu Maeda, and Yoshihiro Shimazu. Characters that were not cut had their names changed from their traditional Japanese names, to a variety of generic ones. Shingen Takeda became Red Minotaur. Yukimura Sanada become Scorpio. Ranmaru Mori became Hornet. Nobunaga Oda became the titular Devil King. The atmosphere of the game changed drastically as well, with the stages using more dark tones and themes to them. The old combat system was changed to introduce ‘Priming” attacks, which would weaken enemies so that regular attacks would do more damage. Lastly, the game’s difficulty was increased, making the North American Normal difficulty setting equivocal to the Japanese Hard Mode.
The reasons for the drastic changes are mostly unknown. However, I can conjecture a few ideas based on the environment at the time of it’s release. To start with, even though the Dynasty Warriors games were released in North America and known within the gaming community at large, they had little more than a cult following that actually sought out and purchased the games. It was a smaller niche which a series like Dynasty Warriors filled fairly well — so well that even the Samurai Warriors series would struggle to gain attention. This made the fairly small, saturated market of historically based beat ’em ups even more saturated. Sengoku Basara would have an uphill climb to deter American gamers from their competitor’s games in such a limited field. An idea might have been that changing the name and setting would aid in making it stand out.
Another possibility is that Dynasty Warriors series, while well received in Japan, was suffering some critical backlash from American reviewers. Generally, critics complained about the Warriors games having easy, mindless gameplay, and critics showed little interest in the historical aspects of them whatsoever. Capcom may have thought that increasing the difficulty, changing to a more fictitious theme, and changing the combat system to something more involved would improve Devil Kings’ critical reception overseas. Ironically, the differences had no effect in this regard, and in some cases actually hurt their scores overall.
However, the most likely culprit is one that seems a little insulting to the Western market — the idea that the Western audience simply wouldn’t get the Sengoku Basara series. As I suggested in the previous installment, the series is something of a parody of the Sengoku Era in Japan. Since Japanese teenagers and adults presumably would have passing knowledge of the time period, the parody is successful and humorous in Japan. In contrast, the history of the Far East, and the Warring States period in particular, is not a topic very many average Americans would be familiar with; therefore, the joke would be effectively lost in the West. For this reason, it does make some sense that Capcom wanted to try and release it without the historical references. Unfortunately, much like the Warriors games, Sengoku Basara loses a great deal of it’s charm without the history behind it.
Nevertheless, Devil Kings did not do terribly well, and only garnered a cult following who eventually figured out all the historical references anyway. As the series progressed in Japan, Capcom decided to not try releasing overseas again, until late 2010.
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes was apparently Capcom’s final attempt to bring the series State-side. This time, however, they tried to correct some of the mistakes of the previous attempt. The historical names and references remained intact this time, as did the difficulty and fighting engine. The stages and characters were presented as they were in the Japanese version, and they released on the same platforms as their Eastern cousins — the Wii and PS3. In addition, they hired relatively well-known and good voice actors for the characters in the game. It seemed Capcom wanted to make this series work in the West this time.
Sadly, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes still struggled in the West, but for different reasons. If you’ll recall from last installment, the Sengoku Basara series breaks up the Warring States period as it progressed. As such, the setting of Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes — the third installment in the series — is near the end of the period when most of the fighting is actually over. Since Devil Kings included none of the story of the original, and the sequel was never released in North America, Capcom was basically asking Americans to watch a movie after editing out the entirety of the first two acts. This meant that average gamers wouldn’t be paying attention to the characters or story, just the gameplay and action, giving them a rather shallow experience.
What’s more, Capcom still couldn’t leave well enough alone, and changed the opening theme of the game to a pop sounding song for no apparent reason. Have a listen:
The final nail in the coffin for this one was simply the fact it was so unknown in the West as to be unknowable. The game was similar enough to the Dynasty Warriors series that it was inevitably in it’s shadow. It was also part of a genre that garnered mixed reviews at best in the West. Also, the game was released with little fanfare or advertising, meaning those that may have been interested in it probably didn’t realize it even existed.
Shortly after it’s release, Capcom went on record saying they were not interested in releasing the Sengoku Basara games to the West again. That doesn’t surprise me, since the two games they did try here didn’t do very well. Capcom clearly isn’t blameless for this however. The strange mutation they created in Devil Kings set the stage for the confusion that would follow with Samurai Heroes. The games would have been hit or miss either way in a niche genre such as this, but the methods Capcom took with the series in their international releases effectively doomed them from the start.
This is why Sengoku Basara is and will only be “Big in Japan.”
Websites used for research on this article include: