But at some point, this trailblazing dev moved away from the things that made them great and became known only for re-releasing new versions of the same beat-em-up title multiple times every year. This week, I’m saluting Koei, and then I’m kicking their ass. Feel free to join me.
The year was 1983 and Nintendo had just taken their biggest step on the path to world domination through video games. That same year Koei released their first game called Nobunaga’s Ambition, based on the Warring States era of feudal Japan.
Being five years old at the time, I can’t say I grasped the concept of a historical strategy game too well, but the memory of watching my older cousins play it stuck with me while I honed my developing gaming skills on the usual platformers and shooters.
Nobunaga’s Ambition served as the jumping off point for the company and the prototype for a series that would help define my tastes in the 16-bit era. The first two Romance of the Three Kingdoms titles joined their predecessor on the NES, and by the time the series made it to the SNES, my body (or mind, at least) was finally ready.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms games were turn-based strategy titles that took place in ancient century China during the Three Kingdoms period and took inspiration from the novel of the same name. You took control of a Nobunaga’s Ambition served as the jumping off point for the company and the prototype for a series that would help define my tastes in the 16-bit erakingdom of your choice and had to balance military conquest with territorial cultivation and diplomacy.
There was an unheard of amount of depth in the series and it got deeper with each subsequent game. It even had multiplayer to heighten the intensity of the alliances and betrayals that mark the opportunistic competition between the various factions. It was too perfect to fully explain here.
1991 brought about Koei’s first (last?) foray into the classic RPG genre in the form of Inindo: Way of the Ninja. Did I just say “ninja RPG”? You know it. Why doesn’t EVERY company make a ninja RPG? Nobody knows that. Inindo was one of the coolest games I played on my favorite console of all time, the SNES.
Basically, Inindo was a Final Fantasy-style game set in mythological feudal Japan with open-world exploration and towns full of potential party members like priests and samurai who you could build relationships with. You could take jobs from daimyos as a spy, and later on you could engage in full scale battles leading armies in conquest. It was amazing and ambitious. But I never once laid eyes on a retail copy of it. My local video rental store had a copy that my friend and I took turns renting whenever we could scrape together some cash. So don’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of it.
Through sheer luck, I once impulse-bought a Koei title I’d never heard of while I was out of town called Gemfire. I was convinced if I didn’t buy it on the spot, I’d never see it again. I chose wisely. Picture Romance of the Kingdoms. You with me so far?
Now add a western fantasy theme to that. Motherfucking Gemfire. Another of my favorite SNES games and another obscurity, it wasn’t quite as deep as the Romance series, but it made up for it with wizards and monsters.
You know what else was awesome? P.T.O. That one was another strategy game where you play out the Pacific War controlling American or Japanese forces building up bases and ships and launching attacks. It was an incredibly sophisticated war simulator that ate up a massive amount of my time for a game I never saw on the shelves of a store.
And don’t get me started on Uncharted Waters. A console RPG inspired by Sid Meier’s Pirates! Shut up and take my money, video rental store clerk. See you next week since I can’t find a place that actually sells this game. Wait. Is there a pattern developing here?
So what we have on our hands is a company that makes exceptionally deep and detailed simulation games rooted in actual history and lets us alter that history. What we have on our hands is a company that makes exceptionally deep and detailed simulation games rooted in actual history and lets us alter that history. And most of those games –only a few of which I’ve listed here- were largely ignored in America in spite of the fact that they were absolutely amazing. Perhaps if they tried a different approach…
1997: Koei debuts their latest franchise, Dynasty Warriors, a fighting game utilizing their cast of historical figures from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After warming up to the idea of an action format, Koei folded the Three Kingdoms franchise into this new one to create a strategic beat-em-up where you lead the warriors of ancient China into massive-scale battles and recreate the famous wars of that period.
I first encountered this franchise when the third game came out on the Xbox. I fell in love. It was another home run from one of my favorite developers after a long period where I hadn’t played any of their games. When the fourth game came out, I bought it and it was an instant favorite.
Then Samurai Warriors did the exact same thing with the legendary warriors of feudal Japan, then Dynasty Warriors 5 was a thing when the Xbox 360 came out and I was beginning to get a bit tired of leveling up the same characters to fight in the same battles, then Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires added a little more Romance, melding the two gameplay styles with Warriors– style battles and the strategy and nation-building of Romance and I was back in board.
But when they added yet more spin-offs, I was done. Gundam, Koei? Really? But hey, 18 million copies of Warriors games sold, why quit? It beats making awesome original games that nobody buys, I suppose. Dynasty Warriors Tactics, Orochi, Xtreme Legends, Online, and uuuuuuh…..One Piece (?) were forthcoming in addition to the main franchise, now in its eight incarnation.
Holy shit, that is a lot of games with identical gameplay. Holy shit, that is a lot of games with identical gameplay.People like to joke that Dynasty Warriors is the Madden of Japan, but even the NFL games only come out once a year and don’t incorporate popular cartoon characters into the franchise.
In the meantime, Koei absorbed fellow classic game developers Tecmo to form Tecmo Koei. Tecmo has long been a respected action gaming company, so this was an interesting merger for me. Then Dead or Alive 5 came out completely broken and my interest was no more.
I don’t know how they managed to only slightly upgrade one of my favorite fighters of all time years later and make it so it froze up almost hourly and made me want to bang my head against my console until nothing was left of either. But if they made a Dynasty Warriors game out of DOA characters, as cynical as I am, I’d still probably buy it. That probably makes me part of the problem.
But wait! There was another game coming out for the Xbox 360 and PS3; one of these so-called “historical strategy” games. I remember those! Those were great! Could this be Koei’s return to grace? Bladestorm: The Hundred Year War was here to plug in the gap with a real-time strategy game that actually focused on using military tactics to succeed in large-scale battles instead of how many times you can push the attack button.
And it took place in Europe with you taking the role of a mercenary and customizing your forces to either pick sides between Britain and France or sell to the highest bidder. Yes!
Bladestorm was great, fantastic, a breath of fresh air, and it immediately sank into obscurity and received weak reviews as its only media acknowledgement. Bladestorm was great, fantastic, a breath of fresh air, and it immediately sank into obscurity When I bought it at Best Buy, the clerk didn’t believe it existed. I had to convince him to go see for himself that not only did it exist, but that it was for sale on their very shelves. True story. More Dynasty Warriors coming then, I suppose? Sigh.
While researching this article, I noticed that the 12th Romance of the Three Kingdoms game came out on the PS3. I was initially overjoyed as I just bought one. I have been aching for this series for a very long time now and I’m dying to experience how it’s evolved over the years.
Most of the post-16 bit games were not released in America and the ones that were did not come out on my console of choice so it has literally been a couple of decades. Oh wait…..this one is not coming out in America either. But, hey, at least they’ve got more Dynasty Warriors coming our way! And the fourth Romance game is available to download; that one being the last game in the franchise that I played. You see how my life is?
Koei. We’ve been friends a long time, right? I’ve always supported you at every opportunity. It was you and me against the same-ol’ same-ol’ shooters and platformers back in the day. We were the smart ones.
We were the ones who appreciated stuff like the awesome history of this planet and military/diplomatic strategy and were down with free-form gameplay years ahead of the concept of “sandbox games”. So what if you never made it as big as the AAA franchises? We had a great time and I spent more time with you then I did them over the years.
But I have one question I’d like to ask you now. Actually, I’ll have my friend ask for me.
DO I LOOK. LIKE. A. BITCH!?
Yeah, so maybe historical strategy games don’t sell as well as beat-em-ups these days, but is it really too much to ask that you put out more than one original quality title during a given console cycle?
Maybe use the profits from your ridiculous constant repackagings of your Warriors titles to try something different and creative or at least localize one of the latest in your classic strategy franchises for us loyal North American fans? I hate to see you forget what got you where you are at in the first place.
So where you at, Koei? Nobody is saying that you can’t make any more Dynasty Warriors games, but I want to see that developer I fell in love with as an adolescent again; the one who made intellectual games that educated you, challenged you, and were fun and engrossing all at the same time.
Call me entitled and weird, but I really want to play more classical turn-based strategy games based on history.Call me entitled and weird, but I really want to play more classical turn-based strategy games based on history. Heck, I’d love a solid JRPG from Koei at this point. A remake of Inindo would destroy my brain with endorphins before the thing even came out. Just the reality of it alone would make it worth the price of the game.
And if visibility or lack of interest in history is a problem, a Romance-style strategy game using the Game of Thrones license is so obvious it’s almost moronic that it hasn’t happened yet. If they can afford licensing for One Piece, they can afford Game of Thrones. I don’t want credit for this awesome idea; I just want it to happen. How about it, Koei?