Greetings and Salutations, HJU readers! It is I, Bookish Delight, here once again to spotlight video games that, as a toku fan, you should totally have on your radar!
For undoubtedly at least a few of you reading this, today’s featured series needs no introduction. However, if this holds true for you, then consider yourself part of an elite club, because—especially in Western territories—this series is about as obscure as you can get. Which is both a shame and an oddity, as it took Japan by storm for a decade and a half, and is still going strong even today, with a recently announced comeback title in the works.
This series is Sakura Taisen, and even now, years past its heyday, it’s kind of a big deal.
Where The Sun Rises
Sakura Taisen (aka Sakura Wars, which we’ll use for the rest of this article outside of Japanese release names) is a Japanese media franchise that had its beginnings in 1996 with the original Sakura Taisen for the Sega Saturn. It, along with its immediate sequels, were co-developed by RED Company and Sega CS2 R&D.
These names don’t mean much without proper context, but the fun part, as usual, comes in checking the pedigree. RED Entertainment, aside from Sakura Wars, is known for their classic Gate of Thunder/Lords of Thunder shoot-em-up (shmup) series which hit the TurboGrafx-16 in the 1990s, as well as the Gungrave series of character action shooters.
RED on their own have been a solid developer for decades—yet if you look at Sega CS2 R&D afterwards, the power of this collaboration becomes clear as day. Sega CS2 R&D, through various talent mergers, would eventually become known as Sega AM1 before that team was further absorbed into Sega’s master pool of developers, but in between those two bookends, they were known as Overworks—and that’s where this story gets interesting.
Overworks was responsible for the groundbreaking sky pirate role playing game Skies of Arcadia for the Sega Dreamcast. Meanwhile, after they were absorbed back into Sega proper, formers members of that team, including the chief directors and planners of the first two Sakura Taisen games and Skies of Arcadia, banded together to create the Valkyria Chronicles series, whose fourth installment (still helmed by that original talent!) will be released in the west this fall.
For those of you who have played either of the above games, you already know of their quality, of their uplifting and optimistic tone, their innovative battle systems, their concentration on character above all else, and best of all their ability to weave all of the aforementioned into their games’ narratives and even mechanics.
For those of you who haven’t, these games embody a lot of what Kamen Rider Build is doing with their championing of friendship, love and peace amidst a backdrop of intense dramatic wartime conflict. This shines through, not only in their plots, but also how they play. The title of this piece is no accident—interpersonal relations are the center and core of the titles that come forth from this talent.
Sakura Wars arguably remains the most socially complex of their works.
And this is how a single intellectual property became a Japanese obsession for as long as it did.
High Noon For A Decade
The phenomenon that Sakura Wars was in the 1990s cannot be overstated. It launched multiple anime series and movies, had themed cafes, tons of merchandise (to the point that until 2008 a store by the name of Taisho Romando existed in Japan which sold exclusively Sakura Wars merch) as well as live stage shows. That last one was a no-brainer considering the series’ development history—narrative creator and producer Oji Hiroi was originally inspired by Japanese stage theater.
It’s safe to say that in terms of popularity in its home country, it was the Monster Hunter of its day—and even now, Sakura Shinguji is the closest answer Sega has to Nintendo’s Samus Aran—a strong and noble leading lady with direct ties to Sega as a company, who still sometimes serves as Sega’s face.
To date, there have been five main games in the series.
Sakura Taisen 1, 2, and 4 follow the adventures of the Japan-based Imperial Assault Force (Teikoku Kagekidan), an all-female team of mech pilots led by Sakura Shinguji and Ichiro Ogami. Working together to defeat Japanese demons, Ichiro must bring the Force together with the power of camaraderie, and, perhaps along the way, craft an extra-special bond with one of its members. Only through the coordination found via that camaraderie can the IAF hope to defeat the threat looming over Japan. Meanhwile, Sakura Wars 3 follows the adventures of Ogami and the France-based Paris Assault Force, with an all new set of pilots to lead, befriend, and beyond. However, the structure of that game is similar to the three aforementioned, while telling a poignant story all its own.
Sakura Wars V, however, jumps across hemispheres—and it’s here where our story begins.
“The development of cities around the world (Tokyo, Paris, New York and many other cities as well,) holds an enormous energy and there is also no good and evil. Hence, to protect the people living in those cities, a garrison equipped with spiritual power was required, but that is a side story of Sakura Taisen. Well, what should be done about New York? America is a young country. Young means magnificient. That being said, on the other hand, values are being left behind as well. The new protagonist surely believed that a garrison was required for a new country. This new protagonist has a small Asian stature and has been living with the burden of a century-old traditional culture. One could say, that this conflict between [different] cultures, the understanding and the handshake are [also] themes of the 21st century.”
– Sakura Wars Creator Oji Hiroi, RPGFan 2005 Interview
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the fifth mainline entry in the series, and the front-bearer of the “Sakura Wars World Project,” which was to be seven games to be produced on the PlayStation 2 alone. In the end, only a fraction of them made it to production, but this tentpole game was fortunately one of them.
Enough Hype! Just What Is This, Really?
So Long My Love, like the other main titles in the series, is functionally two overarching games in one, plus several engaging minigames thrown in for good measure.
Playing as protagonist Shinjiro Taiga, you spend half of the game walking around town, getting to know the townspeople and your fellow teammates, using an interface that has its foundations in visual novels but kicked up several notches, more towards point-and-click adventure games, or even titles like Mass Effect or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. As the reference to those other games would imply, the outcome of the storyline, and how characters act towards you, is dependent almost entirely upon player decisions and dialogue responses. While many major events remain unchanged through each run of the game, just as many can be entirely changed as a result of your influence, and the multitudes of minor details and events in play which can be changed make it so that you never play the same game twice.
The other half of the game is good old fashioned mecha squadron strategy RPG battles, which are the lovechild of mech anime and tokusatsu, and embrace the tropes of each so tightly that it almost hurts. They’re glorious, and we’ll get to them in due time.
But for the moment, let’s cover this stage’s players, who along with Shinjiro make up the New York Combat Revue!
Ensemble Cast, Go!
A narrative-based game is nothing without its characters, and while the ones that make up Sakura Wars games can be tropey and archetypical, they also contain more hidden depth than the characters that even show up in the games of today. Written as characters fitting a long-form anime season first, and “video game characters” second, these characters are an overwhelming source of charm, relatability and even pathos, who open up the more Trust you gain from them via your interactions. This even includes the “player character” protagonist, Shinjiro.
All of these characters are important, all of them have deep inner pain due to how their lives played out in one way or another, and all of them are people. When the chapter comes around that’s their designated “focus episode”, it’s your job to support them in their darkest and brightest hours.
The Leader(?) of the Bunch
Shinjiro is the player character throughout the course of the game—that is, he is you, and you are he. He’s also the Red Ranger of the group, and thus, going by squadron rules, he’s the de facto leader—but with a twist. Unlike his uncle Ichiro (the past protagonist of SW games), when Shinjiro gets to New York to assume his leadership position, he actually isn’t respected by anyone on his supposed team. But he’s all the NY Combat Revue gets, so he’s going to have to pull himself up by the bootstraps, prove that he’s a competent leader, and rally the troops to repel the demonic invasion of New York City.
This means that all of the decisions made through the game are through his eyes, and with your mind and heart. When tackling situations with Shinjiro, you and he will have to play in sync—he’s not just a blank slate for the player to graft themselves onto. Keep in mind he’s got a pure heart and always wants to do the right thing. This requires being straightforward and somewhat naïve at times. Genre-savviness is not Shinjiro’s specialty, even if yours is.
Justice From The Streets
The heavy-hitting, uh, Brown Ranger (and you thought Saban had committed a faux pas back in the day), Cheiron takes no stuff from anyone. Being from the mean streets of old-school Harlem, she’s seen tons of injustice firsthand growing up and thus clawed her way up the ranks to be a big-time lawyer. She will use her knowledge of the law, and her strong-willed passion for fairness and justice, against evil and Shinjiro for much of the game, without caring at all about your feelings. However, if you can reach her during her focus episode (during which you should remember that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was actually a big name in gaming when this title was localized), you’ll have an easier go of things. If you can remind her of why she got into the business of law in the first place, she’ll know you understand her. Meanwhile, use her powerful Highway-STAR mech to wreck demons during battle sequences with impunity.
An Enigma Wrapped In Another Enigma Further Wrapped In Secrecy
Being a devotee of Japanese Noh theater, Violet Ranger Subaru is the graceful speedster of the group. Subaru is high-class and never afraid to tell Shinjiro exactly what they think of him—which, if you’re not careful, may be the entire game. Getting Subaru on your side is a delicate game of standing up to them, while also knowing when to step aside and let them take the reins of a given situation.
You’ll notice I’ve been using gender-neutral pronouns this whole time. This is because it’s worth noting that, in a gaming genre where romance and relationships are present, Subaru may well be one of the earliest example of a non-binary option in the medium. Subaru wishes to be not held down by masculine or feminine norms or pronouns, to the point where their personal catchphrase is “I am Subaru, Nothing More, Nothing Less”. The game sticks to its guns here as well, going out of its way in its dialogue and visuals to play up Subaru’s graceful, feminine tendencies, while simultaneously using a fair amount of “boy’s love” fiction genre coding when dealing with them.
In summary, dealing with Subaru as a person, to say nothing of choosing them as your relationship route means throwing caution to the wind, being flexible, and accepting them for who they are. Both on and off the battlefield, Subaru’s story is arguably the most rewarding in the game from an emotional standpoint.
Rosarita “Rosita” Aries
The Tiniest of Terrors
We kid—Rosita’s actually rather adorable. But she’s also a little girl who carries twin pistols and did we mention she’s an actual bounty hunter? She also might not be alone upon immigrating to the big city. We’ll leave it at that.
Being so young means that she’s also not very complicated. Be her best friend, and she’ll reward you with the longest attack range in the Revue as its Green Ranger. Points go to this game for having the class to make her “relationship path” consist of just adorable friendship and absolutely nothing else.
Blue Ranger Diana is a living shell of irony—she’s earned her medical degree, but due to her own body not being very strong (forcing her to be in a wheelchair except in the best of circumstances), she can help everyone around her with their ailments except herself. In other words, Diana is the white mage of the group, and how—but emotionally, she’s already thrown her life away. It should be easy to figure out how to get Diana to value herself, and feel like she’s one of the family—and you’ll want to anyway because, outside of being just an almost impossibly nice person, she’s your team’s Mercy and will be instrumental to keeping the Revue alive in the later missions.
I have been waiting to use that pun for years.
Gemini Sunrise is your Orange Sixth Ranger who shows up near the final third of the game, which is hilarious given that she’s officially the “face” of Sakura Wars V, both in Japan and in crossover games like Project X Zone (where Ogami shows up, but Shinjiro is nowhere to be found!) There’s no way around this one: she’s a ditz with the thickest, hokiest Southern accent you ever did see, and on top of that she’s a total Japan fangirl, to the level of the sort you see on the Internet. She’s essentially a much cuter Rising Zan.
That said, amidst all of her clumsiness, naivete and fish-out-of-water shenanigans, Gemini is fiercely loyal and is eager to prove herself, while also wanting to make it big in New York. Sound familiar? Letting Gemini know that Shinjiro shares solidarity with her, and she’s the easiest of the Revue to win over to your side—which is a good thing because her attacks hit hard, outclassing even Chieron in some respects.
There’s also someone running around NYC who looks just like her, only wearing a mask and far less nice, so, yeah. You’ll have to solve that mystery as well.
At the beginning of the game, Periwinkle Ranger Ratchet is shown to be the leader of the New York Combat Revue—but soon, her magical powers fade and Shinjiro has to step up and be her rookie replacement, to the joy of nobody else whatsoever on the team. In other words, she spends the majority of the game as a “supporting” cast member.
Ratchet is catnip to completionists, as she actually can be brought back into the Revue… in a fashion. She’s the final hidden relationship path in the game, accessible only by beating the game once and starting a New Game Plus, going through the entire game again and winning her over to Shinjiro’s friendship circle. I won’t say anything else in the name of avoiding spoilers, but the touching moments that result are absolutely worth going through the game twice for them.
Ratchet is the surrogate mother of the Revue through and through, always providing emotional support whenever she senses it’s needed. Thus, Shinjiro needs to take notice of this and reward her for her efforts with attention, appreciation, being a team player, and realizing that one person can’t hold an entire team together alone. Let her lean on you as much as everyone’s leaning on her, and a great character arc is yours for the witnessing.
The Rest of the Crew
The Combat Revue could hardly run their headquarters of the Little Lip Theater by themselves. Fortunately, it’s got its own motley crew to help out.
First up is Mr. Wong, who manages maintenance of the STAR mechs. He’s wise, a savant of Easter medicine, and comes up with all of your tech. He’s also assistant to Commander Sunnyside—more on him below.
Cherry and Anri are the waitress and vendor of the Theater respectively, and a fun odd-couple supporting cast, with Cherry being overly friendly to Shinjiro and Anri outright hating his guts. While they can’t be romanced, they are part of Shinjiro’s overall friendship quest, so he’ll have to get on their good side as well.
Finally, there’s Michael Sunnyside, who runs the Little Lip Theater and commands the Combat Revue, and also… just has to be seen to be believed. He talks like a shyster, but is actually just one step ahead of everyone and everything. It’s hard to tell whether or not he’s on your side, and quite frankly, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. At least with him around, things are never dull.
Mechanics, Form Up!
The characters may be a huge part of what makes Sakura Wars engaging and enthralling, but as the previous sections have stated, this game is all about how interaction with those characters makes the magic happen. Here’s how you’ll do it.
Living In The City
The Adventure mode coves all of the non-combat roles of Sakura Wars games, including this one. In the Adventure segment of the game, you’re given a limited amount of time to run around New York City, talking to people, making dialogue choices, getting to know your teammates and coworkers, ranking up your friendship with said teammates and coworkers, and having miscellaneous slice-of-life adventures. You can visit various homes and buildings, and even just talk to people on the street.
A LOT of crucial choices and meetings happen in adventure mode, so it’s best to explore every nook and cranny, as well as to know as much as you can about the people you meet, so you can make the right decisions. This is Shinjiro’s opportunity to build “Trust” with his teammates, and that Trust is what determines the STAR Division’s prowess in battle, going so far as to determine character levels in place of grinding.
Work It Out
As just mentioned, the Adventure Mode of this game is deceptively deep, and that all comes down to its LIPS (Live & Interactive Picture System) mechanics. Events will occur that require direct and decisive action. These can range from simple dialogue, to inspection of a person or area, to playing a minigame using the controller to help resolve a surprise situation. There are absolutely hundreds of these, and it’s impossible to see all of the different branches in one go.
When All Else Fails…
When demons attack the city, it’s time for the New York Combat Revue to jump into their STARs and fly into action! Combat in this game has once again, its own set of mechanics, dubbed ARMS (Active & Realtime Machine System). The closest relative this system has is actually found in Valkyria Chronicles’s BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zones) system—yes, these developers really do love giving their mechanics quirky names.
Using a combination of movement points, as well as strategic attack and defense options, powers unique to each character, and even team-up maneuvers, players acively maneuver around the battlefield and battle the demons. This battlefield can take place either on the ground or in the sky—usually they’ll start at the former and end up in the latter once the Baddie of the Week has had enough playing around and jumps into their own giant robot, Dekaranger-style.
The extra-fun part of battles is that sometimes LIPS interactions will come up in between them, meaning that the interpersonal dynamics aren’t sequestered in their own little corner. This gives an even greater feeling of leading our squadron, both in and out of battle.
Letting The STARs Shine
When all of the powers of these seemingly disparate characters and genres combine, an exquisite drama unfolds. A drama where you get to direct your very own series, featuring all of the twists, turns and action that one comes to expect from any of the year-long seasons of the genre series we love so much—complete with eyecatches and episode recaps, no less!
Even in the new millennium, Sakura Wars remains unique among its gaming peers for being such a total package, and if you’ve ever wanted more than a passive experience from your toku, then high odds are that Sakura Wars—despite being an ink-and-paint production—is absolutely up your alley. Pick up a used Wii (or Wii U) or Playstation 2 and give it a shot yourself!