The Forgotten: A Storm of Romance Under the Banner of Love

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Can something be “forgotten” if you have yet to be given the chance to remember it?

According to Famitsu, it is one of Japan’s most beloved franchises. It helped make the Sega Saturn, had its very own themed cafe, and scored several takarazuka-syle theater adaptations. It has action, adventure, pseudo-MMO, puzzle game and even dungeon-crawler spin-off titles. With millions of sales, it is all but a household name among Japanese gamers.

It is known…as Sakura Wars.

Unless you’re an anime connoisseur or importer, that name is unlikely to ring a bell. Ironically, nearly every other Sakura Wars property has crossed over to American shores. The TV series, the movie, the OVAs, and the manga, all have made it, and managed moderate success, to boot.

But why have none of the actual source materials – the games themselves, ever made the crossing? Few of the adaptations I mentioned above can actually stand apart from their sources, and yet viewers liked them enough to warrant distribution to this day. Why? Why, why, why?!

Coming soon. Don’t let me down, people.

For those in the know, some of those reasons why are fairly clear. From its eroge-style core gameplay and anime visuals to the involvement of…ugh….reading, the list of potential stumbling blocks is significant.

And yet, Sega’s ham-headed dismissal of the property, especially in a climate that is friendlier to “quirky” Japanese-y games than ever, stands as an inexcusable disgrace to its own legacy, an insult to gamers’ intelligence and tolerance. I’m frankly of the mind that the Dreamcast might have lived just a tiny bit longer in the US if Sakura Wars had come out, further tapping the Japanophile audience devoted to the platform. It might have even made it onto Topher’s grand list.

Wishful thinking, I know, but those games captured me. It was solely for them that I bought a Dreamcast long after it had lost commercial viability, and still they remain the only Dreamcast games I own. Hell, I was so captured that I wrote the entire first draft of the series’ goddamn Wikipedia page.

I’m not just saying this as a hopeless weeaboo fanboy, but as a gamer who wouldn’t mind a few new genres tossed into the mix every so often. I often wax eloquent about games I admire more than enjoy, but Sakura Wars is not one such series. Since the announcement, I’ve given thanks to various Gods and Devils that NIS-America went and honored Sega’s past when Sega itself would not.

Simply put, I like these games very much.

Let me tell you why.

Morning commute = 12 seconds.

Note: I’ll be discussing the series in general rather than any specific title, unless stated otherwise. Any video clips will also be from games unlikely to ever see a western release. I could (hopefully) be wrong, but even then they’re more or less spoiler-free.

Heavy on Steam, Light on Punk

Sakura Wars

alternate-1920’s world may be one of magic power and frequent demonic incursion, but it is in no way “gritty,” “realistic” or “edgy.” In fact, it seems to take the idea of being steam-powered as some sort of clearance to go absolutely insane with its setting and design. Brass tubes, rivets, pressure gauges and valves adorn every surface. Steam-powered PCs and video cameras hoot and hiss when activated, and battles are fought in tank-sized, can-shaped mecha.

It doesn’t stop there. A giant, robot-launching cannon lies hidden under the Arc de Triomph in Paris. A battleship-sized fighting train is dropped down a mile-deep spinning launch tunnel, conveniently located under the Grand Imperial Opera House. The walkways of Asakusa’s Sensouji Temple simply flip up, like the pages of a comic book, allowing an ironclad battle-blimp to take flight. Entire levels of metropolitan infrastructure are seemingly devoted to helping a squad of nine-foot-tall robots fight off the evil invaders. All of this, done in secret. That’s akin to having Batman in charge of Gotham City’s Urban Development Council. Batmobile tunnels everywhere.

Riding the Rainbow

As an artifact of culture, Sakura Wars feels like it’s been stuck in a time-bubble for the last ten-odd years. That’s not particularly surprising, since it debuted way back in 1996, and its fifth installment (the one that NIS-A is bringing to you) is almost five years old as of this writing. Its heroes are unabashedly heroic, fighting for love, truth, justice, and the peace of Japan, France, or America. They wear elaborate, color-coordinated uniforms as they rush into battle, yelling out florid attack titles as they engage flamboyant, cackling villains intent on world domination. They even have themed names! Everything bursts with color, sheen and an air of simple, gee-whiz positivity that seems to make no sense in the gray-brown, postmodern, morally compromised world that today’s games are enamored of.

The sweet madness applied to Sakura Wars‘ landscape persists when taken to the personal level. The cast members live double lives, celebrities by day and demon-hunters by night. Tokyo’s greatest opera singers enter battle as the Imperial Assault Troupe (get it?), Paris’ defenders perform nightly at Les Chatte Noires cabaret, and the New York Combat Revue headquarters under Times Square’s Little Lip Theater.

To get to their briefing rooms, they dive down twisting tubes, switching outfits in freefall. They come from the most colorful backgrounds known to man. One is a Russian-revolutionary-turned-mafia-enforcer-turned-actress/robot-pilot, and another is a nun-in-training who wields a double-barreled machine gun. Yet another is a Texan cowgirl taught the way of the samurai, keeping her trusty horse in a 6th-floor Manhattan loft.

Better still, few of them are the emotional teens that populate contemporary JRPGs. In between acting, beating villains to a pulp, and goofy slapstick, there’s no time for (much) existential angst. They don’t need to know what they’re fighting for. They fight for peace, love, justice, etc., and those that would threaten it, such as a man named “Blue Satan,” hailing from an organization known as “The Hive of Blackness.” Evil has yet to be more easily defined.

It gets better.

Saturday-Morning Steambots

All things considered, Sakura Wars feels more like a sentai series born from the unholy union of young boys’ and girls’ fantasy scenarios:

Boy:“Yeah, they’re kick-ass robot pilots!”

Girl:“But they sing and dance!”

Boy:“They launch from a secret base…”

Girl:“…that’s right under the opera house!”

And so on. In fact, that’s how the games treat themselves: as cartoon shows of a sort, except with multiple endings, one for each character.

Just as WET or House of the Dead: Overkill share the mindset of violent grindhouse b-movies, Sakura Wars reveres the cheesy, uber-campy, all-ages super-team extravaganza.

Its production values are feature film-grade, its interface oozes brass-and-steam style. Opening with powerful theme songs about destroying evil and fighting for love, it moves by the “episode,” with a quick preview of the next chapter at the end. And when the smoke clears, everyone strikes a group victory pose.

Sakura Wars doesn’t aim to subvert old tropes and cliches. In fact, it helped establish them, gleefully butchering foreign cultures and great works in pursuit of silly fun. Sakura Wars games may well end up feeling fresh and innovative to you precisely because they devote little energy trying being so, unconsciously proving that “everything old is new again.” Games that are so naively honest with themselves, and their players, are hard to find. Games that do that and still succeed are even more rare.

More where that came from.

Flapping LIPS, Swinging ARMS

While I said just now that Sakura Wars don’t try to be new and fresh, I did not mean that the games are derivative. Quite the opposite, in fact. Being lucky enough to experience it early on, I was made aware of just what it does that, to our eyes, will feel so novel. Several of its key features are only now worming their way into into the newest, most “evolved” western-style RPGs..

Sakura Wars‘ Big Idea is expressed in dialog interaction, via “LIPS”. Standing for “Live Interactive Picture System”, LIPS makes up the bulk of gameplay. Rather than a banal eroge-style conversation tree, LIPS injects much-needed variety into the talky-talk by turning it into a sort of minigame.

LIPS events come in various flavors, but the main type is a timed dialog response. Players must make their choice before time runs out. The difference is that letting time run out is also a valid answer, sometimes interpreted as stoicism or even indecision. That indecision can even change responses. An imperative order might change into a polite suggestion if the player waits too long enough. Other forms include the Dreamcast-introduced Analog LIPS, wherein the player determines the force of his response by playing with an analog gauge. Up high, a hot-blooded yell. Down low, a smug whisper. Still others mimic QTEs. All of them affect the player’s relationships with the cast, adding (or subtracting) invisible “trust points.”

Up-to-date gamers might recognize LIPS interactions, as similar to the new hotness that brand-new RPGs like Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect 2 will bring to the table. Welcome to thirteen years ago, guys.

It’s better to experience the games’ “ARMS” battle system live, and as such I’ll leave just these four points:

1. ARMS stands for “Active Real-time Machine System.”
2. The roots of Valkyria Chronicles‘ BLiTZ (“Battle of Live Tactical Zones”) system lie here.
3. LIPS choices affect performance by granting stat boosts to the happiest characters or changing the style of the player’s attacks.
4. Triggering a special attack is legendary.

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

This Memory Lane Leads to the Future

Sakura Wars

, basically speaking, apes our anime childhood (and was part of it, in my case). It channels a rose-tinted, nostalgic time, when things seemed less cynical or postmodern, less dedicated to emotional sophistication, ethical quagmires, deep meaning, or sharp social commentary. All it wants is to sing, dance, and put on a good show for the audience. To quote its slogans, Sakura Wars wants to be “A Storm of Romance amid the Taishou Cherry Blossoms”. It wants to stand “Under the Banner of Love”.

I fondly remember it that way and fortunately, you may too get that chance. I encourage you not to pass on it.

Watch this trailer, at least. Fear not the dub, for come release the original Japanese voices will be available.

If you need yet more, try watching the clip below, taken from the game you’ll be getting. It’s a little taste of the title’s peculiar brand of culture-shocking awesomeness.

Mild Spoiler Warning. Also rudimentary subs.

Whomever they choose to dub this guy had better be FABULOUS.

P.S.: It’s also a great gateway eroge. If you’re cagey about explicit content or if visual novels are too much a leap of faith, try this first. If you live through the sugar shock, you’re good for it. Then try the 8-disc song box vocal collection.

Josh Tolentino
When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh served as Managing Editor for Japanator. Now he mostly writes for Destructoid's buddies at Siliconera, but pops back in on occasion.