|Imagery from every Koei game. Ever. By Crystal Mielcarek.|
Playing Shingen the Ruler was a fun experience, not because it's good, but because it recalls games that are good. The resource management, the wargame style battles, everything instantly reminded me of NES greats like Genghis Khan and Nobunaga's Ambition.
For a lot of people, the depth of these games is buried under a cavalcade of menus, each one filled with options unknown to anyone except the most devout manual readers. I have only completed Nobunaga's Ambition for the Game Boy, a feat I couldn't have accomplished without stealing all of my girlfriend's tactics in the game. I was actually at the secretary of state to replace my recently stolen license plate, and with a lot of time to spare, I started up my Game Boy. My strategy was to increase resources before I grew my army, a risky tactic due to the enemy's tendency to attack at random times. Eventually, it was down to me and two other daimyos. The other two waged a multi-turn war that eventually lead to me, with a strong military and plenty of rice, against a barely equipped daimyo, an army in the single digits. I was so amazed by my accomplishment, I took a quick picture of the end screen.
SHINGEN THE RULER
Because of the aforementioned tactical combat, I had some pretty high hopes for Shingen the Ruler, or as the title screen titles it, The Ruler Shingen™. As one of only two Another-developed games released by HOT・B USA, you'd think it wouldn't suck. As I should have expected, it sucks in spades.
I'm introduced to a menu screen that tells me absolutely nothing. I figured experiences playing Nobunaga would have at least sort of helped. Those games featured cute little icons that represented my resources, but Another evidently thought CLT, G-M, and EPI was intuitive enough. At least I immediately can tell that I'm Shingen and my age is 24.
After wading through a barrage of menus, I eventually determined two things: that turtle frown dude with one eye is pretty cool, yet most commands take a lot of effort to execute. In order to finally get to a battle, I had to determine how many different soldiers to take, how many resources were needed, how many soldiers to allocate to each unit. I like that I can split up units with whatever number of soldiers I want, but I wish they could be combined mid-battle as you can in Genghis Khan.
Finally, after about five minutes of deliberation, I actually get thrown into battle. As mentioned before, think any tactical JRPG ever. You start on one side of a pretty large battlefield with your units and have to approach and attack your opponents on the complete opposite side of the area. Considering how many units are on screen at once, I'm impressed by the flow of battle. A battle takes between ten and fifteen minutes if you're evenly matched with about twelve units. Considering this is over double the units you'll have in any Koei game, the relative brevity of it all is a definite plus.
Smooth battle can make an experience more pleasing, but it doesn't necessarily make it great. The big issue in Shingen the Ruler is that planning, tactical maneuvers, or any sort of thought don't yield successful results. In my first battle, I surrounded my opponent's toughest cavalry only to be quickly slaughtered. I couldn't figure out why this guy's cavalry was so darn strong.
Rather than spreading out my soldiers across twelve units as I did the first time, I pumped them all into four. The enemy made mincemeat out of them. I was missing something, so I checked GameFAQs for some advice. Evidently, I was constantly dying because my enemy's rank was much higher than mine.
Rank is equivalent to RPG levels, increased only by gaining experience by defeating individual units. Since you're out-ranked by everyone to begin, this means every opponent is virtually unbeatable. In order to grow in rank, I'm supposed to attack someone, kill a couple of units, and quickly run away. After doing this multiple times, I'll eventually have accumulated enough rank to actually beat a rival.
That's stupid, and so is this game. Due to it's interesting approach to combat, I intend on eventually playing through Shingen, but I can't recommend anyone who appreciates enjoyable things pick it up. It's interesting features are more annoyance than innovation.
Shingen the Ruler's inadequacies were a great excuse to start playing some Koei classics. There's no better way to wash the taint of a bad rip-off from your brain than indulging in the original. I tried to stick with the NES ports simply because consoles are where most people were introduced to Koei's grand strategy style.
Evidently, the American branch of Koei decided to release most of these games in rapid succession. Although the series originates in Japan circa 1983, Nobunaga's Ambition saw American release in mid-1988 for PCs around the same time Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with the NES port released July 1989. This sets a trend for most of the Koei releases we'll discuss: PC version comes out, within the next year the NES port is available.
Picking Oda and re-rolling multiple times until I had stats all over 100, I start my adventure by experimenting with ninjas. In the first few turns, I use them to decrease enemy morale and wealthon Tokugawa, only to realize he has incredibly high stats in virtually everything. I'd have to ninja him over and over for the next one hundred turns before it would make the battle any easier.
As the seasons pass, different daimyos are hit with plague and natural disasters, but I never seem to be affected by any of them. No one really attacks me for quite a while, which makes me feel cocky enough to start expanding.
I start a war in area 13. As opposed to Shingen, Nobunaga's Ambition and most other Koei game use a typical hexagonal grid system for battlefields. It's borrows heavily from the board games of company's like Avalon Hill and SPI, using movement points to determine how quickly you can move over different terrain and determining the outcome of attacks based on various statistics. Evidently Nobunaga's Ambition is so board gamey that the entire series is in the Board Game Geek database. Despite its ease of play, it's perhaps a little too straightforward. There's not much else to do aside from walking up to your opponent and attacking, a simplicity that future Koei games rectified.
I win and now own two areas, but Tokugawa, perhaps upset about all of the ninjas I threw at him earlier, attacks my starting position. Having lost many men in my previous battle, I quickly fall prey to his enemies and am forced to flee to my new homestead at area 13.
As I try to play it safe by improving my stats, my ennui gets the best of me and I'm quickly determining my next target. I decide to attack area 12, which I quickly win only for Tokugawa to overtake area 13. I sense a pattern here: every time I win a new territory, the AI knows I'm going to be weak and goes after me. I again flee to a new home territory, ready to rebuild my army.
Unfortunately, I'm so weak that Tokugawa just swoops into area 12...
...and I'm dead. I love how the game is unwilling to sacrifice any of its inherent Japanese qualities. Many games of the time greatly altered content to make it more American friendly, but not Nobunaga's Ambition. I guess it wouldn't make sense to alter the Japanese-ness out of a Japanese warlord simulation.
This is the most brutal of all the Koei games I've played. Even on the easiest setting, the other daimyos will exploit any weakness they see and quickly kill. With such ruthless tactics and high challenge, it's clear why Nintendo Power, Computer Gaming World, and other American press revered Nobunaga's Ambition upon release. According to Computer Gaming World's Pre-20th Century Strategy Game article in their October 1990 issue, Nobunaga's Ambition scored a 4/5, a high mark beaten only by Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon.
ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS
Romance of the Three Kingdoms was released in October 1989 for the NES, only a few months after Nobunaga's Ambition. Few reviewers from either Nintendo Power or Computer Gaming World comment on the inherent sameness of the games. As with Nobunaga, Three Kingdoms features the same sort of resource management and hex-based wargame battles, but there are several scenarios, giving you a lot more variety than the previous game.
Far as I can tell, the different scenarios only alter the positions and statistics of various generals. While this gives plenty of replay value, I'm not sure how drastically this alters gameplay. None of the material I read said anything about the Battle of Red Wall being any better than the Emergence of Cao Cao, but I'm sure you could lose hours mastering each setup.
One of the cooler features of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the general system. As you play, you can recruit generals that function as new armies and more actions for each turn. It helps to speed up the flow of gameplay and changes the balance of power in multiplayer games. In short, it's pretty awesome, and most future Koei games end up using it.
The focus of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is definitely battle, with more options than Nobunaga and the next game, Genghis Khan. Perhaps the coolest of these options is the ability to set things on fire. You can burn opponents, burn spaces around them and watch them spread, or set buildings on fire to force people out.
Aside from these additions, there's not a whole lot to recommend Romance of the Three Kingdoms over other NES Koei games. Romance of the Three Kingdoms 2 improves the battle system in numerous ways and the resource management/economy features are far better in Genghis Khan, released only a few months later in January 1990. I've owned the latter for a few years and put more hours into it than any other Koei game, but I've never actually completed either of the game's two campaigns.
In Genghis Khan, there's a lot of random stats that won't be seen in future Koei games. Perhaps the most interesting tweak to the game is the elaborate economy system. The item listed on the main screen are products that your culture produces, but these aren't always up for sale on the market. In order to ensure your prosperity, you'll have to go to the trade menu and select one of three cultures to trade with. Oftentimes, you'll have to buy items when their prices are low and sell them when prices are higher at a future time. Predicting what's going to garner you the most profit is rarely obvious, making the game like a sick and twisted stock exchange simulator. At the start of my round, I check to see if anything's less than a dollar per unit, but instead I find expensive chairs.
There's a lot more detail in other areas as well. Not only does your warlord have a ton of stats of his own, but so do all of the princes beneath him. You can demote, promote, and even marry off your princes on a whim. I'm not entirely sure how this system works even after plugging many hours into the game, but it's pretty cool anyway.
In the Mongol campaign, my typical strategy involves quickly signing peace treaties with those around me. Starting in area 1, I sign treaties with 8, 6, and 2 all in my first turn. There's three orders available in each season, so you have to choose carefully. Sometimes, the treaties will be denied, but it's pretty rare.
After only a small bit of preparation and quickly spying to see how strong my opponent is, I attack area 2. My skill is much higher and my armies are greater in number, so I take them on directly. Archers can attack from two squares away and you have the option to ambush, which turns your unit invisible until someone moves into an adjacent square. This unleashes a stronger attack on your opponent, even though you always know it's going to happen when your opponent mystically disappears.
With little effort, I defeat Taichiud. My strategy is to repeat this tactic until I own most of the eastern coast, at which point I can begin western expansion. Although I haven't tried the second campaign, The World, I'm assuming the map isn't nearly accommodating. It's easy to hold on to two or three peace treaties at a time, but more than that might be difficult to maintain.
BANDIT KINGS OF ANCIENT CHINA
Bandit Kings of Ancient China received a 3/5 in Computer Gaming World in their Pre-20th Century Strategy Game article. The writer sarcastically puts quotes around simulation, obviously put off by the use of magic in the game. Strangely enough, Bandit Kings of Ancient China was the cover story less than a year earlier, with a glowing three page review boasting about all its fun and addictive qualities. While editorial inconsistencies like this might be easy to overlook if it was just a little blurb, it was the cover story!
Anyway, I start Bandit Kings of Ancient China in exile. Evidently, I don't need to be associated with any specific territory, but the main goal of the game is clearly to expand my influence. After I settle, the typical Koei options instantly appear on screen: flood control, land, soldiers, food, and gold. I like the idea that if I have enough soldiers and recruits, I can just travel around and take over whatever areas I please.
In this game, doing tasks saps your bandit king's body power. This forces me to rest for a few turns to recharge my body strength, though it can increase over time naturally. This is the main reason to recruit more people, so you can make more actions per turn a la Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The only difference is that while Romance guarantees every general one action per turn, Bandit Kings makes it so your generals might be too tired to do anything.
One of my favorite aspects is that beasts will randomly appear to attack townsfolk. You need to maintain order, so you've got to fight these beasts promptly. Of the ten times I had to fight bears or wolves, the general I picked was totally sapped of all his body power, making him useless for another turn.
All I really want to do is hunt for furs and sell them to increase my gold, occasionally hiring men and improving their skills. I try to attack area 26, but evidently Hairy Priest isn't much of a fighter; I immediately take the area.
I really want to play more Bandit Kings of Ancient China. It shifts away from the Nobunaga's Ambition more than the other Koei games covered. While still difficult to fully grasp from the outset, there seems to be way more options in terms of how to expand and complete your conquest.
I played several other Koei games which I'll have to cover in another post. I've got another four of them and I still haven't tried, like their Pirates! rip-off, Uncharted Waters. I'll get on that now.