Our story begins in 1994 with a phone call. President of SEGA, Shouichirou Irimajiri, was calling Ouji Hiroi, a well-regarded writer and producer as well as being the found of game developer Red Company. Irimajiri wanted to fill the adventure game gap in the Sega Saturn’s first-party lineup and thought that Hiroi and his company were fit for the job. Hiroi would agree and the two started to work at a furious pace and soon had a mountain full of ideas. Hiroi’s first contribution was a scroll of his own calligraphy, a poem he had made to set the tone of his project. Upon seeing a tabletop war-game being played in the office, not unlike Dungeons and Dragons, the two decided to add tactical combat to the their adventure concept. Early on they recruited legendary Japanese manga artist Kousuke Fujishima to lend his sentimental style to the character designs, and Kouhei Tanaka, known for his work on the One Piece series, as the composer to provide a fantastical score. Tanaka finished the theme song early, and it served a similar purpose as Hiroi’s calligraphy, giving the team a symbol to take to heart. Fujishima brought aboard animator Hidenori Matsubara to help with the massive amount of in-game art and animated sequences. Futoshi Nagata was also brought on to provide the iconic retro-futuristic mecha designs the series is known for. Continuing the all-star recruiting, writer Satoru Akahori was brought on board to start on the scripts. Because Akahori felt most comfortable writing anime scripts, he simply wrote in an episodic format, to the degree that at the end of each episode there was a preview of the next one. This was known as an eyecatch. A process developed: as Akahori wrote, Hiroi edited, to make sure the script fit into his perfectionist vision of the game world. This led to the creation of four games’ worth of scripts, which were then aggressively pruned down to the very best material.
The game would star Second Lieutenant Ichiro Ogami who had just been transferred to Tokyo’s secretive combat squadron, the Flower Assault Troupe. What follows are what seems to be a bunch of mistaken coincidences. He meets Sakura Shinguji, a young girl who like she shouldn’t be in the military, and follows her to the local theatre. After meeting some of the many main protagonists he finds that he’s been assigned to the theatre as a ticket clipper. The groups name Teikoku Kagekidan is a play on words and can either mean Flower Assault Troupe or Musical Theatre Troupe so it seems at first that he’s been sent here as punishment. But as a crisis hits the group reveals that it was all a ploy to make sure he was right for the job and send him and his new team out to fight the occult threat of the Black Nest Society and their demonic summoning’s.
But as they delved into their games world and characters it was soon time to look for the actors to play the roles. Securing a top-notch voice cast was crucial to the games design. Because music and stage performance are central to its theme, Hiroi Ouji scouted many of the cast by going to live music performances and looking for women who could really sing, rather then just going through voice-acting agencies. He also sought out people who could “speak as if they were singing”; that is, people who had a lyrical quality to their voices even when talking normally. This importance placed on the voice acting is evidenced by the precise synchronization of the onscreen portraits’ mouth movements with actual phonemes being spoken which is still not done in many games today and was near impossible to achieve in 1996.
The inspiration behind the games world and setting was grounded in reality and idealism. Sakura Wars takes place in a romanticized alternate-history version of the 1920’s Tokyo and nothing says Taishou Democracy like a Western-style musical theater interpreted with a Japanese sensibility. The Teikoku Kagekidan or Imperial Revue is a musical theater troupe that serves as the protagonists cover while they pursue secret military operations against the demonic horde. It is heavily inspired by the Takarazuka Revue. a real life theater troupe that has been performing in Kansai for the past century. Both perform spectacular Broadway-style musical theater. Both are ALL FEMALE. With some women specializing in male roles. Both are divided into sub-troupes including a hanagumi or flower troupe; this is the division that Ogami, the protagonist you play as, and the other 6 heroines belong to. The flower theme that comes with the title pervades the series, with all of the main characters being named after flowers. Sakura is named after the cherry blossom flower, Iris, the iris flower, Sumire, a type of violet flower, Maria, a type of citrus flower, Kanna, the Canna Lily, Kohran, the crimson orchid, and so forth.
The series itself is inspired by the Taishou era, resting exactly between World War I and World War II. After World War 1, Japan enjoyed increasing importance and recognition in international affairs. Its urban citizens became more prosperous, cultured, modern, socially aware, independent, and cosmopolitan. This optimistic romantic, “Taishou Democracy”, to Hiroi, represented the starting point for an ideal future for Japan. He wished to rewind to that moment in history before Japan’s loss of innocence in World War II, to a time when Japan was an eminent member of the world community on its own terms, just as much as our culture and Europe’s. Everything in Sakura Wars is infused with this Taishou-Era flair. Text in the scene is written right to left, as was the custom of the day. Even the game manuals are printed with their spines on the right since left-spined books wouldn’t be around for a while. In some of the games even numbers are written in kanji instead of the modern day Arabic numerals. This Taishou aesthetic permeates the design, typography, music, and dialogue. This mostly-authentic Taishou Era setting is combined with absurdly advanced steam-powered machinery and reiryoku or spirit power. This is what makes Sakura Wars unique.
The tactical combat took insight from tabletop role-playing games but also from popular video games of its time such as Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Using a grid like system and isometric view the player had a set number of actions to use each turn. Instead of commanding an army, a party of 7 was in the player’s control. With this setup Sakura Wars strategy rpg gameplay became a hybrid in an of itself. Instead of worrying about how much of an army you have it was replaced with health bars and magic meters. That is not to stay that the strategy was completely torn away. With only 2 moves per turn you had to plan ahead to make sure they were used well. Traditional experience was also thrown out in favor of having your decisions in the rest of the game affect your party’s performance. If a party member falls in battle it could severely determent the next conflict. Now the whole game became a strategy rpg in an of itself. Outside of combat, however, Sakura Wars trademark LIPS or Live-Interaction-Picture-System is the main gameplay standpoint. As you wander the Imperial Theatre during the day and night you come across all of the games colorful characters. Where as in other visual novel type experience you would just sit and watch the story unfold this time it was your job to determine the outcome. A variety of LIPS exist in the Sakura Wars world but in general you would be given three options and a timer. Choosing the correct choice is crucial as choosing the wrong one could affect your relationship with one of the characters. For example if you’re hurtful or ignorant to one of the characters they can remember it later on. Unlike other visual novels, however, the “dating” aspect is the most minute point in the series. Generally it is more important for you to understand the psychology and mindset of the characters. Sakura’s afraid of lightning, Iris wants to be older, Maria is scared by the death of her own captain etc. etc. That is what makes them so memorable for people who play the games.
With all the pieces in play it was time to unleash the series onto their own little world. The results were staggering. What had at times seemed like a over-ambitious project, doomed to failure, ended up being a huge hit, selling out on the morning of its release. As the Sega Saturn began to fail the West the East said differently. Selling a whooping 550,000 units in it’s run the original Sakura Wars cementing itself as an instant success and a classic SEGA series among the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog launching a media storm like no other. Merchandise, stage shows, audio dramas and such. Sakura Wars was truly a fully blown phenomenon, one that SEGA had not expected. With a new icon on their side it was time for the Saturn to take back Japan from the other consoles that had run past it.