Welcome to a short series I like to call Big in Japan. Here I will be highlighting certain games and titles that are remarkably successful and well known in Japan, but tend not to get much of a following in the West. I’ll be discussing the work itself, as well as reasons why it failed to garner popularity here in the States and other parts of the world.
To start off, we’ll be revisiting the beat ’em up genre as we look at the Warriors series’ top competitor in the East — Sengoku Basara.
To start with, we need to go back in time to the middle-age of the Playstation 2, back in the early 2000’s. The Shin Sangoku Muso (a.k.a. Dynasty Warriors) series was on it’s 3rd installment, and doing rather well for itself. The Warriors franchise proved to be a promising and growing franchise. It was successful enough that Koei decided to make a new, similar series, called Sengoku Muso (and yes I confuse Sangoku and Sengoku quite often). Sengoku Muso would put players in control of Japan’s mightiest warriors and generals as they fought for power in the turbulent Warring States (or Sengoku) period. However, the Warring States period was already the primary setting for another Playstation juggernaut series at the time.
Onimusha was an action game based around the Warring States era in which the games’ heroes have to fight off the demonic powers of Nobunaga. Capcom had this series in it’s repertoire already, and had the claim to the Warring States era Japan setting. However, Onimusha’s popularity was beginning to wane. Capcom tried to branch it out with a tactical strategy game (Onimusha Tactics) and a one-on-one fighter (Onimusha Blade Warriors). Neither accumulating much in terms of sales or critical reception. The well for Onimusha was getting dry — so dry the next title would involve time travel. Capcom wasn’t so easily defeated however.
Sengoku Basara is Capcom’s long awaited answer to Koei’s Sengoku Muso (Samurai Warriors). The series takes the basic premise of the Muso games, and dials it up to 11. At the time, the Muso series was known for taking historical events and reinterpreting them, sometimes to unintentional hilarious effect. The Muso games were known for having characters remain a certain age throughout the game, even though the games usually spanned more than a single lifetime. They were also known for being obtuse in regards to stage goals and character leveling. Sengoku Basara would resolve most of these issues, while creating their own spin on the concept.
While all the characters in Sengoku Muso and Sengoku Basara are based on historical characters, you may notice some of their interpretations are significantly different. Mitsuhide Akechii in Sengoku Muso is a brave, knightly warrior who turns on his Lord due to deep moral issues he had with Nobunaga’s practices. Sengoku Basara turns this interpretation on it’s ear, by interpreting Mitsuhide as a raving psychopath whose betrayal is not a moral quandary, just an inevitability. Hideyoshi Hattori, known for being ratlike in appearance and demeanor, appears in the Sengoku Basara series as a towering behemoth that prefers to beat his opponents to a pulp with his fists. Kenshin Uesugi is portrayed as a tall, bulky, intimidating warrior in the Muso series. Kenshin in Sengoku Basara is a small, soft spoken bishonen. Both Kenshins are still cold and calculating on the battlefield, but the physical differences are still vast.
Other interpretations are not as overt. Nobunaga is still so powerful and vile that nobody dares mess with him, but in Basara he seems to revel in it. Yukimura is still the great young hero of the age, but his dedication to his lord makes him practically a zealot in Basara. These are similar interpretations, but still rather extreme, making the men at their core almost indistinguishable to the outsider looking in.
The differences between the interpretations has much to do with the end goal of Sengoku Basara versus Sengoku Muso. Sengoku Muso is intended to represent the heroes in the story at least somewhat accurately in terms of how Japanese culture perceives them. This makes the Muso series more dramatic and takes itself very seriously. For instance, if this were the American Revolution Muso, George Washington would be a strong upstanding, yet reserved general. Sengoku Basara, at least to my understanding, is intended as a parody of the historic events. American Revolution Basara would interpret George Washington as a burly brute who carries an axe around so he can chop down every cherry tree he sees on the battlefield. The characters aren’t historical representations; they are caricatures. This is all in Capcom’s plan to tune in to the ridiculousness of the scenario and characters to the extreme, even if it seems a bit irreverent to do so.
In spite of the parody aspects of the game, Sengoku Basara approached the character’s aging and changing much more accurately than Sengoku Muso; this was done by choosing not to cover the entirety of the Warring States era in one go. The series breaks up the era into three major parts, resulting in each of it’s installments taking place after each other, resulting in changes to the cast and political landscape. For instance, you witness Ieyasu Tokugawa start as a young leader, and grow into a powerful warlord from the first installment to the last. Also, while you still see Yukimura Sanada being portrayed about the same age throughout, his attitude changes after the death of Shingen Takeda — showing the series’ character development.
This also means, that instead of the roster becoming progressively larger by simply adding characters, it was also removing characters that died, such as the aforementioned Shigen Takeda, or have little significance during this time span, such as Kenshin Uesugi. It also allowed Capcom to build more balanced and varied playable cast, without having to rely on clone or mirror characters (though they still existed to some degree). The tight cast also contributed to the series’ arcade-like feel; something the gameplay reinforced.
The game was produced by Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who is also credited for the Devil May Cry series, and the gameplay shows that connection to a certain degree. In place of the complex battles and scripted events and morale systems that bog down the Sengoku Muso series, the focus of Sengoku Basara stayed solely on the player. Battles between armies were set up as a gauntlet to traverse. Each stage had a theme and an ultimate goal that needed to be achieved, which was usually told to you at the outset of the stage, or when the objective changed. Most stages ended with a fight to the death with the army’s leader, but what you had to do to get to that point was usually more than barreling through a load of enemies like in Sengoku Muso.
That’s not to say, defeating tons of enemies is not in the game, it’s actually a crucial aspect of it. Sengoku Basara encourages the player to not only kill tons of enemies, but find new and ingenious ways to do it via the combo system. Players are rewarded with gold for defeating enemies, officers, and finding hidden chests. The gold from enemies is multiplied depending on the length of the combo and how many enemies are in the combo. Keeping a long combo going is ideal to building up gold, which is exchanged for character experience at the end of a stage.
This is another aspect that is improved upon in Sengoku Basara. Character growth in the Muso series was misleading. Characters would increase in power through leveling up; once they were maxed out, however, they could only be improved by collecting permanent upgrades to various stats scattered across the levels. In addition to this, you had to find various levels of weapons and items — many of which were a chore to hunt down. Sengoku Basara simplifies this, as characters’ only method to improve is through gaining experience to level up, and through equipment upgrades. Basara also allows new special attacks called Super Arts to be learned as characters level, giving incentive to continue building characters. At later levels, characters know more Super Arts than they have reasonable button combinations, allowing you to choose what Super Arts to bring into battle. This takes away a little of the grinding from the series and replaces it with a little customization. A fair trade in my opinion.
The changes to the cast, adjustments to the storytelling, and stylized gameplay made the Sengoku Basara series far more frantic, energized, and engaging than it’s major competitor. For the rest of the PS2’s life span and into the following generation, Sengoku Basara would keep pace and even surpass Sengoku Muso in some areas. The series would spawn two anime seasons, though their quality is suspect, and even a one-on-one fighting game developed by Arc System Works. This was not just a spark that was forgotten in Japan, this was a full-fledged franchise there.
So, why haven’t more people heard of it in the West? We’ll get into that in Part 2. Stay tuned.
Onimusha information researched from www.pixilbit.com/feature/963/onimusha.
Sengoku Basara information taken from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sengoku_Basara and personal play.