Recommendation — Koei’s Warriors Games

Original blog post here.

Now, if I could summarise the Warriors games, it would be “ludicrously violent”.

By that, I don’t mean that the violence is especially graphic or lurid — by the standards of modern video games, it’s downright tame. What I mean is literally that the nature of the violence is itself ludicrous: you press a button, your character slams his sword into the ground, which causes an explosion that sends eight people flying.

Koei describes the gameplay of the Warriors games as centring around “one vs. a thousand” combat. You’re a superhero running wild through crowds of regular dudes and occasionally throwing down with other superheroes. This is, incidentally, completely faithful to the source material.

Several "Warriors" game box art examples. Warriors series: Koei-Tecmo. Images via Koei Wiki.
Warriors series: Koei-Tecmo. Images via Koei Wiki.

Koei-Tecmo’s 20th Anniversary Dynasty Warriors Sizzle Reel.

The flagship series of the Warriors games is Dynasty Warriors, set during China’s Three Kingdoms period of about AD 180-280 (if you want to be entirely accurate, the Three Kingdoms proper didn’t actually start until 220; but for now, that’s neither here nor there).

The series started in 1997 with the original Dynasty Warriors, which was actually a fighting game, rather than the hack-and-slash action style that the series ultimately settled on.

The aforementioned “one vs. a thousand” combat is, incidentally, completely faithful to the source material.

Dynasty Warriors 1 was, like we’ve seen, one-on-one fighting game. When 2 introduced the series-defining hack-and-slash gameplay in its earliest form, it was actually considered sufficiently different from 1 by Koei that it wasn’t’t released in Japan as a direct sequel. 1 was “Sangokumusō“, which means something like “Three Kingdoms Unrivalled” or even “Best in the Three Kingdoms.” 2 was Shin Sangokumusō, which means something like “New Sangokumusō.”

This nuance was either lost on or ignored by the English marketing team, Shin Sangokumusō was released as “Dynasty Warriors 2“, and as a result all subsequent English releases have been 1 number ahead of the Japan releases: Dynasty Warriors 3 is Shin Sangokumusō 2, and so on.

Incidentally, the exact same thing happened with Warriors Orochi (more on that later). What was released as Warriors Orochi 2 in North America was basically marketed as Warriors Orochi 1.5 in Japan — essentially an expansion pack rather than a full new entry in the series.

As a quick aside, whereas the games are known as [Franchise] Warriors in English, the name of the overall series is [Franchise] Musō — though I’ve seen it written in English basically everywhere but Wikipedia as “Musou”, including in the games themselves, a character’s Musou Attack is basically their signature special move.

Shout out to Deng Ai‘s various armbar-centric Musous throughout the series.

Dynasty Warriors probably didn’t get good until 4 or 5. The early games are infamous for their hilariously bad voice acting, exacerbated by the fact that they didn’t start pronouncing the characters’ names correctly until 5 or 6 and they still didn’t start pronouncing the majority of the names right until 7Cao Cao is pronounced like “Sow Sow” (sow like ‘female pig’), Cao Pi is pronounced… not like how you’re thinking.

Now, to be fair, transliterating Chinese into English is hard, but you’d think they could’ve at least fact-checked…

In the opinions of most fans, the high point of the series came with 7 and 8. 6 had the best production of the series up to that point, but some of the mechanical changes alienated longtime fans. However, 6 does have my favourite Empires spin-off and did win back at least some of the fans by unchanging some of the changes in the original 6.

For the Dynasty and Samurai Warriors series, Empires is a spin-off, parallel series that’s basically a combination of Warriors and Koei’s long-running historical simulation series. Basically it’s a map-painting strategy game where you’re working to unify either China or Japan, but the battles are played out with Warriors-style gameplay.

9 on the other hand, is widely regarded as a disaster, and even the later Empires release didn’t do much to improve on the original. In brief, 9 tried to incorporate a free-form open world, but didn’t combine the setpiece battles with the exploration in a successful or cohesive way.

It had some interesting ideas and pretty solid character designs marred by rather lacklustre implementation, and a voice actors’ strike that led to a non-union dub that is hilarious for all the wrong reasons — even the several competent performances were pretty egregiously miscast.

Lu Xun, for example, sounds like a Hobbit.

The second most notable Warriors series is Samurai Warriors, set during Sengoku period of Japan, focusing specifically on the time between the rise to promience of Oda Nobunaga in in the 1560s and the siege of Osaka in 1615.

By now, there have been four mainline Samurai Warriors games and several spinoffs and expansions, so the series has had time to set itself apart from the earlier Dynasty Warriorses.

The fundamental “you vs. everybody; press a button, punch eight people into orbit” gameplay remains, but there are differences in both the peculiarities of the gameplay — Samurai Warriors characters have sequences of crowd-control attacks not present in Dynasty Wariors — and the storytelling — this period of Japanese history isn’t as neatly divided into the same several large factions as the Three Kingdoms; even focusing on the most prominent regional clans and factions means that each game now has about ten separate story modes.

Perhaps as a result of that, recent games in the series have focused on smaller, tighter, deeper stories centred around smaller groups of character: 4 did have several storylines, but the primary focus was on the Sanada brothers, Yukimura and Nobuyuki. Which is a pretty good storytelling decision — the two brothers both lived to the end point of the game’s story. In fact, Yukimura’s death at Osaka basically is the end point of the game’s story and the two brothers ended up on opposite sides of Ieyasu‘s final push to unify Japan.

In fact, they got even more prominence in the next game in the series, Spirit of Sanada, which adds their father Masayuki to basically fill in the blanks of the family history the brothers weren’t alive for.

Also, it was released to cash in on the Japanese national broadcaster’s annual historical drama which similarly focused on the Sanadas: both the show and the Japanese version of the game were called Sanada Maru — it’s a pun, the Sanada Maru was the fort Yukimura defended during the siege of Osaka (it means something like “Fort Sanada”) and Maru is also a common part of the names of Japanese ships (the intent is to invoke the image of the family as a boat trying to navigate the turbulent times).

5 follow the pattern set by Spirit of Sanada, by focusing on the career of Oda Nobunaga to basically the exclusion of everything that Nobunaga either wasn’t directly involved in or which happened after he died.

The second most prominent figure in 5 is Akechi Mitsuhide, Nobunaga’s retainer-turned-betrayer and gives him his own substory to flesh out his journey to turning against Nobunaga.

Notably, 5 was something of a soft reboot of the series, giving all the characters new designs and occasionally entirely new personalities. Nobunaga and Mitsuhide get younger and older models and different movesets as the game progresses. Notably, instead of being a fat old man, Ieyasu is young and gorgeous — this actually makes more sense than him perpetually being an old man, he was 18 at the battle of Okehazama and not even 40 by the time Nobunaga died.

The two series have crossed over several times now in the Warriors Orochi series, which has a completely new, not-restricted-to-real-world-history story and involves evil gods fighting good gods and Time and Space collapsing in on themselves.

The Orochi games aren’t necessarily better than games in either of the main series, but their biggest strength is that they are allowed to tell a completely novel story, rather than having to relive the same historical events over and over and over — as much as I like the Warriors games (a lot), their being bound by real-world history and refusing to deviate from it is my biggest complaint.

This formula was taken to its logical conclusion in Warriors All-Stars, which actually expanded the roster beyond the Warriors games and created an opportunity to watch the most popular (according to Japanese fan polls) Koei-Tecmo characters beat each other up. It is, however, probably the least well-executed Warriors game.

Much like Lego, Koei has also recently started putting out stuff based on licened third-party properties. There’s a series based on One Piece, there’s one based on Gundam, there’s a couple of Dragon Quest ones.

I mean, hey, if they’re paying you to make Star Wars Lego or Gundam Warriors, may as well make a go for it.

The only ones from these licensed games I’ve actually played at any meaningful length are the Nintendo ones: Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors. Of those two, Hyrule is probably the better one, but Fire Emblem has the advantage of having characters who are capable of speech.

Critics don’t seem to like the Warriors game, decrying them as mindless and repetitive. And, yeah, they kind of are. Recently, though, the games have done a lot more to emphasise the importance of tactics and managing the battlefield, rather than just plowing through the enemy. They’re maybe not for everyone (but is anything), but if they’re the kind of the thing you like, then you probably like the Warriorses a lot.

And even if you hate the gameplay, you’ll probably love the soundtracks.

As a final note, Koei’s Warriors games are most assuredly not to be confused with 1979 movie The Warriors (or the book that inspired it).

Copyright 2021 J.B. Norman. Revised and expanded 2023.

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