The Onimusha series was borne out of accident, and before you joke about how most of us are born that way, allow me to explain. When creating the 2D backgrounds for future Resident Evil game back in the PS1 era, Shinji Mikami (the Director of the RE series) experimented with designing Japanese mansions as opposed to the Western Mansions featured in the game. The result was excellent, but the idea was scrapped because it didn't fit in with the series's lore.
However, these 2D images inspired the creation of a Sengoku (Japan's warring states period 1500-1615) Resident Evil by Yoshiki Okamoto. Seeing promise in the idea, Keiji Inafune OKed the development of the game for the PS1. Being in the Sengoku era, the game borrowed a lot from established Japanese mythology about the first conqueror of Japan, Nobunaga Oda, also known as the demon king.
Based on that, Onimusha was designed as an alternate history take, where Oda really does command an army of demons (Oni in Japanese), creating a unique horror element to the games. Because this was medieval Japan, melee combat was central to the game, which is why the series had realtively more action than Resident Evil.
In the end, the game was actually released on the PS2, where it went on to massively succeed spanning an entire series, one that became Capcom's sixth biggest franchise in comparatively little time. It was a critical and commercial stalwart for the company, and innovation in the games inspired other Capcom games such as Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 4. Therefore, it is inexplicable that Capcom simply didn't release any actual game after 2006, a mere 5 years after the series's birth.
Just what the hell happened here?
Many Onimusha fans might consider the main series to consist of three games, as the fourth entry deviates a lot from the style the series is known for. However, it is not treated as a spin-off by Capcom, and is included in the main series, making the number of main Onimusha games total four. Additionally, there are two spin-off titles, and one browser game which was ported to mobile.
All critical ratings are from Gameranking.com, and sales data is from various sources and research by yours truly.
A) The Main Series:
All games in the main series are action-adventure games, with both action and puzzle solving emphasized along with the macabre environments of a demon infested Japan. The third game in the series focused more on the action, and the fourth game is more a character action game with little exploration and puzzle solving.
1- Onimusha: Warlords:
When playing the first Onimusha, it is obvious how it is directly influenced by Capcom's main horror series. All environments are composed of meticulously detailed 2D art, while all other assets are 3D polygonal objects moving in that 2D background. The Camera angel is usually fixed, and there are man puzzle elements accompanying the action. However, with added power of the PS2, Onimusha moves and looks much better than the earlier RE titles.
In the first game, the Samurai Samanosuke Akechi eventually gains the power to defeat demons who have run amok, and are trying to resurrect a powerful demonic entity. Meanwhile, the Sengoku era conflicts were brewing on the background, resulting in the demonic resurrection of the warlord, Nobunaga Oda.
Besides its unique setting, the Onimusha series translate the excellent gameplay of RE to feudal Japan quite well. In this first game, Samanosuke has access to several weapons, and attacks in basic combo moves. Enemies are inspired by mythyical Japanese Oni, and fighting is more tactical land slow paced that character action games. Outside of combat, you explore several areas based on feudal Japan, solving puzzles to progress.
In its day, there wasn't really any game like it. It felt like a 3D Castlevania that didn't suck, and while it wasn't graphically anything special (being developed for the PS1), it had a unique art style and setting.
2- Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny:
This is my favorite game in the franchise, and that's mostly to do with how it focused the most on adventure and exploration. Actually developed concurrently with the first Onimusha, Onimusha 2 was made by a different team, and had a different focus. Still, it looks very similar to the first game, and evolves a little bit of the Action gameplay found in the first title.
While in the first game, Nobunaga Oda was really more of a background villain as opposed to the ancient demonic evil being resurrected, this time around, he is the main villain of the game. After the village of the main character, Jubei Yague, is destroyed (of course), he vows revenge against the Oda. Realizing then that he has the power to defeat the Oni demons summoned by Nobunaga, he embarks on an adventure to bring him down.
As I said earlier, the game focused more on adventure and exploration, and you can see that in the addition of four other playable characters, who you control depending on the actions you take during gameplay (you might control Character A instead of B for instance). These character added another sense of scale to the adventure, something that was lacking in the relatively empty first game.
3- Onimusha 3: Demon Siege:
Onimusha 3 was a huge deal for Capcom. Just go look at the trailer of the game, and you will understand just how huge of a deal it was. Seeing the success of the two Onimusha games before it, Capcom were a little disappointing at the NA and Eropean sales (which were equal to the Japanese sales), and so wanted to appeal more to the Western audience. As a result, the increased the budget, had half of the game's setting in Paris, and recruited the services of celebrity French actor, Jean Reno.
It didn't actually work out well for Capcom. Sales actually sharply decreased in both Japan and NA, and stayed the same in Europe.
With more advertising, more action, more graphics, and more everything, Onimusha 3 sold less than half on what an upgraded PS1 game sold. Inexplicably, this wasn't because Onimusha 3 was a bad game. On the contrary, it was just as excellent as the two that preceded it. It was the first game in the series to be developed from the ground up on the PS2, and as a result is one of the best looking games on the console.
Paris (and Jean Reno) are incorporated into the plot through a time travel warp, which allowed Nobunaga Oda to send armies of Oni to invade Paris in 2004 as he controls Japan in 1582 (why?). This time, there is more action, and this is helped through the addition of a lock-on system, and a more combo-oriented gameplay.
There were still the horror and adventure elements present in the first game, as well the ability to control other characters besides the main two. As I said, this wasn't commercial failure due to bad game design, as this was (and still is) a great game. However, even though it was the game Capcom put the most effort in, it sold the least of the main trilogy.
4- Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams:
This is a game that resides in a weird situation. In one hand, Capcom treated this as continuation of the series, in the other, they did not add a number to the title and they completely changed the gameplay experience. It was made purely because of fan demand, and yet was deaf to what the actual fans wanted.
The end result is a pretty good Action game that is really a poor Onimusha game. Eschewing the adventure part of the series, as well as the puzzles (making them optional), the game became more like some corridor or arena brawler. With expanding action and control, as well as controllable camera, the game plays like a poor imitation of Devil May Cry instead of an Onimusha title.
Still, the combat is good, and the production values (except the VAs) are top notch. But this wasn't where the series was supposed to go, and it suffered accordingly.
B) Spin-Off Titles:
These titles are very different from the mainline games, but share the same universe and characters, as well as explore similar themes.
1- Onimusha Tactics:
Since it is set in Sengoku era Japan, it made sense for Capcom to make a Tactics game of the Onimusha series. However, their effort was seriously underwhelming.
Really, there is nothing much to say about Onimusha Tactics. Other than the fact that it exists, there is nothing remarkable about it in any way.
2- Onimusha Blade Warriors:
This is a game that showcases the difficulty of making a good fighting game. Its not only about having a bunch of avatars beat the tarp out of each other, and mimicking the intricate fighting systems of other games might be attempted, but the result is mostly going to be disappointing. There is a lot of balance, and the difference between a good fighting game and mediocre one could be very minimal.
Onimusha Blade Warriors is simply a mediocre fighting game, that exists for the sol reason of pitting Samanosuke against Jubei in a fight.
C) Browser and Mobile Games:
The only browser title released for the series really is only linked to it in themes, setting, and name.
1- Onimusha: Soul:
One thing interesting about Onimusha Souls is that it is the first browser/mobile game attempted by Capcom. In a way, it makes sense that a company tries a new gaming style with one of their lesser-known (but still good) franchises. Only released in Japan, Soul actually had a good reception, and a semi-dedicated fan base.
From what I managed to dig up though, it had little to do with the franchise, and it really could have had any name behind it.
When analyzing why any series die, the most obvious answer would be a financial decline. Sometimes, that decline is related to the series itself, or it is related to the developers and/or publishers of the series. Still, it is always interesting to research those exact trends, and learn the reasons behind such a decline. In many way, we wish the gaming industry would actually do this to learn lessons, but we know that they unfortunately rarely actually do so.
Downward Commercial Trend and the Under-Performance of Onimusha 3:
Right off the bat, you cannot say that the main Onimusha series performed bad at all. All four games were critically acclaimed, and three of them sold more than a million copies. However, we cannot look at the series's performance as a whole. We need to look at how it was trending, and from the sales data, it was obviously trending downwards as you can see in the graph. The first two games probably performed much better than anticipated by Capcom, who did not spend as much money on both development and advertisement. They were still considered a "Triple A" title by the company, but both titles were basically and upgrade of abandoned PS1 projects.
When Capcom saw the great sales of both games, they went all out for the third game. In analyzing the sales data for the first two, Capcom identified a "weakness" in the sales in the west, especially Europe. Accordingly, Capcom made a conscious decision to focus on appealing to Western gamers. As a result, they upped the advertisement budget, incorporated a Hollywood actor into the game, and spent a lot of money in making expensive CGI scenes. The result was Onimusha 3 selling less than half of the first Onimusha; selling much worse in both Japan and NA while not selling any better in Europe.
Doubling down on their strategy, Capcom even went further away from the series's roots in the fourth game, and that one sold the lowest. By the fourth title, the series retained only 20% of its initial sales.
The Effect of Western Pandering:
Even though the dip in the sales data coincides with Capcom's bizzare decision to "appeal to Western gamers", we can't really draw a definite causation relationship between the two. What we can see however is a curious correlation. Both the first Onimusha games sold more than 2 Million copies, with Japan contributing a Million sales to each title. The sales on the NA and Europe counted for half the sales of each game. Somehow, Capcom decided that performance wasn't strong enough.
With common Marketing theory, we should expect that an increase in the marketing budget should cause an increase in sale. However, whatever Capcom offered did not actually "appeal" to Western gamers. What they offered before already appealed to them. If anything, their attempt at appealing to non-interested parties, only managed to alienate those who were interested in the first place.
Both NA and Japan's sales went down by half of Onimusha 2's sales, and further declined for Onimusha 4. Despite making an excellent game, Capcom somehow lost the fanbase, and that's an own goal if I ever saw one.
This is not an attempt to pin the failure of the franchise on one man. After being very dominate in the video game market for nearly two decades, Capcom started to make a series of questionable decisions at the end of the PS2 era. Central among the figures responsible for Capcom rise, and then decline, Inafune was also central to the Onimusha series.
After the brilliant conception of the Onimusha series under Inafune's guidance, it was under his same guidance that it attempted the disasterous "appeal to Western audience" crap. However, you cannot fault Inafune for Onimusha 3. It was an excellent game, and Capcom as a whole were responsible for the alienation of the Onimusha core fans.
So, when the same fans went asking for an Onimusha sequel, I entirely blame Inafune for the lackluster result. Simply put, Onimusha 4 was not a continuation of the series, even if it was a good game. It attempted to be a DMC-lite game, and it abandoned most exploration (and all puzzles) associated with the series.
To highlight his tone-deafness to the entire situation, when asked about the under performance of the game, he said the game "lacked characters based on real actors" and this missed some "entertainment value". This might be one of the most ridiculous reasons cited for the failure of any video game. Continuing on in the same interview, Inafune expressed interest in continuing the franchise, but that he was too busy working on Mega Man Legends 3 at that moment.
If a series doesn't deserve to "live" then we wouldn't be upset when it stops. This is not the case with Onimusha, a franchise which I think still can offer gamers a lot of great titles, and has both the critical and commercial potential to satisfy both Capcom and fans. Here is why I think Onimusha deserves a resurrection.
Unique Setting Offers a lot of Possibilities:
The initial creation of the Onimusha franchise happened because Capcom thought it would be interesting to have a horror setting in a feudal Japanese mansion. Their star horror series being a modern one set in the US; it was natural to use the idea for another series. Consequently, the Onimusha series always flirted with survival-horror theme, even if it didn't actually commit to them.
We can see attempt at creating truly horrific creatures to fight, and with rich Japanese mythology, and today's increased capabilities, an Onimusha game might be just as atmospheric (and terrifying) as Bloodborne.
With the time travel elements introduced in Onimusha 3, the series really can be set anywhere, as long as demons are involved.
A Lack of Action-Adventure Games:
For some reason, the Action-Adventure genre, which was dominating sales in the PS1 and PS2 genre, just vanished. Instead of the close environments of the AA genre, and the impeccable level design, a lot of the game that would have been such titles are opting for an open world design. While there are merits to both systems, gaming companies seem to have just ignored the first system all together.
There is something to exploring expertly crafted levels that is not seen in open world games, and an Onimusha game that continuous on the style of the first three games will be bringing something back many are missing.
Ieyasu Tokugawa is Yet to be Featured in the Series:
The first two unifiers of Japan, Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyatomi were both featured in the game, both being influenced by demons, but the third unifier, and the one who ended up establishing the Shogunate is yet to be featured. Ieyasu Tokugawa could be an interesting villain, if only because the plot could deal with his transformation latter in life (Ieyasu became much bloodier after becoming Shogun). Many of Ieyasu's retainers have been featured in the games, such as Tadakatsu Honda and Naomasa Ii, but one important retainer is missing from a series he could fit in like a glove; Hanzo Hattori (Oni Hanzo).
I am not a soothsayer, and these are just hopeful predictions based on little facts. For a series like Onimusha, it is either the console space or nothing, because its spin-offs were basically useless, and the core game cannot be translated to the mobile space. With that in mind, there are really two possible futures for the franchise other than oblivion.
Capcom Actually Does Something with It:
For those keeping track, Capcom have been trying to get back in gamer's good graces again. While it doesn't even come close to early Capcom, they are attempting to appeal to fans by remaking games from their golden past. Such games that might be remade are the first 3 Onimusha game, which would be an olive branch to the fan-base.
Very recently, Capcom filed for a trademark regarding the series, and that could mean anything from a remake to a new game. However, based on Capcom's recent penchant to re-relaese the gems of the past, I would expect a remaster more so than a new game. Maybe then, if the remaster get enough love, we could be seeing the long-awaited revival of the series.
Another Inafune Kickstarter:
At this point, many are probably pissed of at the idea of another Inafune KS trying to make a spiritual successor to a Capcom victim. Until Mighty No. 9 is released, Inafune's name wouldn't be trusted for a while. Depending on how MN9 performs, Inafune might be galvanized into another Kickstarter campaign.
However, a 3D action-adventure is of a different magnitude to Comcept's previous efforts, and I doubt they could secure the funding through KS alone. Also, I am not sure Onimusha is high enough in Inafune's priority list, after all he is thinking about Mega Man Legends 3.
The "Where the Hell is" is going to be a series where I discuss the decline and disappearance of game franchises that interested me greatly, and now are gone. For a series to be covered, it needs to have three or more games, an unresolved conclusion or different storylines, and is a series I somewhat played. Please feel free to give me any feedback or recommendation, as I always try to write better blogs.