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In The Beginning
With a release day sellout and a total run of 550,00 copies it was clear to SEGA that a sequel to this newly beloved property needed to be made. But games take time to make and the company needed a way to keep the hype going so it was time to expand into other territories of media. Their first foray into another medium came with the release of the prequel OVA, or original video animation, Ouka Kenran or “Cherry Blossom Magnificence”. Coming out between December 1997 and July 1998 in order to keep fans interested before the second games release, Ouka Kenran would give further insight into the characters backstories that were not explained in the games such as how Sakura and Sumire came to join the Flower Troupe among other tales. This and the other eventual anime adaptations came to introduce the rest of the world to the Sakura Wars series. While popular in Japan itself, after being released and localized by ADV Films worldwide the series soon gained traction in America and Europe. While fans in Japan knew the cast because of the games, if you asked someone in America they might say they watched the anime. The fantastic late-90s animation, voices, music, and storytelling made the Sakura Wars anime eminently enjoyable whether you knew their context from playing the games or not.
A Franchise In The Making
As fans began to emerge from the woodwork from each side of the pond spin-offs became inevitable. The first of these works was Sakura Wars: Hanagumi Taisen Columns. Released in 1997 as an apparent cash grab from the other video game crazes of the 90s, Tetris and columns, it was actually a surprisingly well-put together product. On the surface it had the standard falling blocks puzzle gameplay of Tetris with a Sakura Wars theme, however, there were a few changes. For one a story mode was included. It follows one of the six heroes in a similar style to the main games with LIPS dialogue choices in tow with little chibi versions of the characters reacting to the match and competing against each other for glory. A Cinderella mode was also included allowing you to pit each of the girls against each other for the role of Cinderella in a play. With similar dedication to the main series Hanagumi Taisen Columns would become an interesting side edition to the series at large.
With Hanagumi Taisen Columns small success many other side projects came to fruition. One such edition had become just as if not more popular than the franchise itself. Starting in 1997 a full-length semi annual stage show went into production. Pulling from the plays that already existed within the games the show full realized the theatre aspect of the franchise giving the voice actors a wide breath for their vocal range. Donning the garbs of their in-game personas the group, eventually including Ogami’s voice actor himself, turned into a true musical theatre troupe performing plays from comedies to tragedies along with fully vocalized renditions of the series themes such as the famous Geki! Tekigoku Kagekidan. The popularity of these plays could be played up to Japan’s rampant Sakutai frenzy but is more likely another testament to the talent involved in the project as the actors were quickly becoming as popular as the characters that they portrayed. Even years after the series has passed on the stage show continues to press onward towards even greater heights.
The culmination of the nations rapid interest in the series came with Taisho Romando. Running for nearly a decade between 1998 and 2008, this dedicated Sakura Wars shop and café operated daily in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. The store, a Sakura Wars fan’s dream, was crammed to the brim with merchandise, organized by each heroine of course. Human sized statues of the characters and Koubu were on display with the staff wearing Sakutai cosplay and apprehensively declining to being photographed. At the café, a small menu of tenuously designed character-themed sweets and drinks were available. The shops dedication to the series could not last, however, as a decade in it had to be closed down. These multitudes of side distractions had been hyping up the true reason fans were eating them, the inevitable sequel.
Sakura Wars 2
Beginning production immediately after Sakura Wars success, Hiroi and his team were put in the difficult position of creating a second smash hit. But how to improve on perfection? To Red Company it had to start with a name. Instead of just titling it the ordinary moniker of 2 the team gave it the subtitle of Kimi, Shinitamou Koto Nakare or “Beloved, You Must Not Die”. Named after the controversial wartime poem by Akiko Yosano, made during the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s as a form of anti-war protest in response to the bloody massacre during the Siege of Port Arthur. The history of the poem gave credence to Hiroi’s romanticized vision of Taisho era Japan so the name stuck, starting the trend of subtitling the series after poems that exists till this day.
With the tone of the game set it was time to drum up a new story. It seemed like your standard sequel fair. Our hero Ogami has been away trained in South America for a year and had just returned to Japan in time to face a renewed and more powerful Black Nest Society with new arrivals, Orihime and Reni along for the ride with the original cast in tow. Just like before it was up to the now 9 member Flower Troupe to save the capital once again. But the surface of the sequel was deceiving the darker portions in the depths below. Death and rebirth became constant themes throughout, and characters crucial to the plot could face one or the other. Politics were introduced into the fray with the very idea of the Hanagumi being threatened. Story also took center stage. Whereas in the original characters own stories were all on there own with the plot being secondary this time the plot and the heroes became intertwined and essential to each other. The Sakura Wars franchise had truly grown up with its fans over the past two years giving them the darker, and more plot driven version that they needed. The scale of the game has also been increased lengthwise, too, occupying three discs instead of two. Even a hot springs vacation is included, a Japanese staple. Furthermore it was now possible for the Sega Saturn to read your save data from the original Sakura Wars unlocking new scenes and allowing you to continue to cultivate your relationship with whichever heroine you’ve picked thus far. A feature like this was revolutionary for its time and was not seen for many years since.
Sakura Wars, Refined
The game systems also received further refinement from the formulas introduced in the original. The LIPS system is back with several improvements and editions. For one the conversation mode is introduced involving you going back and forth between the characters until the situation is resolved or falls apart. Another type changes your options half way through, making you decisions all the more difficult as it has the potential to help you or harm you. One more gives you an overarching time limit that counts down while you deal with several individual time-limited LIPS choices. All these, along with the original system, are overshadowed by the new personality gauge. Tracking your progress from the bottom right hand corner, the personality gauge shifts from red to blue depending on your actions to certain choices. Different characters prefer you to behave in different ways. Will you be a kind and gentle captain or a strict and stern one?
Combat also receives its improvements within the game. The gameplay has been speed up immensely from the original. Battles flow more fluidly than ever before with 3D cut-ins to the 2D fights being ever present. Active characters in battle show a full high-res bust, broken out of the UI, rather than a tiny portrait. The Koubu themselves have also received an upgrade to the Koubu-Kai or “warrior of light, revised”, slightly supped up and more badass versions of the originals. A new feature is also added to spice up the battle. The command option allows you to change the way your team members fight in four distinct ways. Do you prefer to go on the defensive and forgo offense? Then “Mountain” is your preferred way of fighting. These new options added a new layer of tactics to the series giving the player even more options than ever before. These grandiose improvements seemed like a shoe win for the success of the sequel. All Sega had to do was release onto the hungering masses and watch how they responded.
A Smash Hit
Releasing for the Sega Saturn in April of 1998 the critically and commercially acclaimed sequel sold a mind blowing 530,000 units making it the one of the best-selling Sega Saturn games of all time, right next to the original. The original Sakura Wars wasn’t just a fluke; it was a storm waiting to happen. A media storm like none other. Placing itself among the likes of other 90s hit franchises such as Pokémon and SEGA’s very own Sonic the Hedgehog Sakura Wars fever had spread throughout Japan and showed no signs of stopping. From anime to stage shows, from side projects to the main series itself the appeal of the franchise seemed to have no bounds in Japan and even the outside world.
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