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In The Beginning
In the late 90s there were many rampant trends in the video game industry. From Pokémon, to the N64, many would dominant the market but none would be as odd as the Sakura Wars series. A fusion of the visual novel and strategy RPG genres, the franchise had somehow taken ahold of Japan with an iron grip and refused to let go. Anime, spin-offs, merchandise and stage shows seemed to be bursting at the seams of the series, something that was rare in a franchise that was so young. The fantastical characters of the games had seemed to capture the eyes of a nation. But with two hyper successful entries in the series, the geniuses at Red Company had to find a way to continue the Sakura Wars mythos while also staying true to its legacy. Their answer? It was time to go abroad.
The Changing World
As always, new entries in new franchises take time to perfect so SEGA had to continue their long trek in other mediums. Out of the gates would come the sequel to Ouka Kenran, Gouka Kenran or “The Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms”. Coming out between December 1999 and December 2000 this OVA focuses on Ohgami reminiscing about various events that took place during Sakura Wars 2 in anticipation for the hotly anticipated sequel. While contributing less to the story the anime still provided fans something as they waited for the next entry. And that wait would be long indeed.
A dry spell for the series hit right after the commercially and critically acclaimed sequel. The Sega Saturn was on its last legs and had already fallen off the video game console wagon worldwide. Japan was just the last to go. But this did not spell the end for the franchise; on the contrary it was a saving grace. A mere six months after the sequels release SEGA’s latest entry in the console wars came about, the Sega Dreamcast. Boasting a cheaper price point and a brand new Sonic the Hedgehog title at launch the system would far exceed its predecessor’s dismal sales on the global market. With this new console in their hands the team at Red Company would need to take further time to develop their sequel with the new technology. To keep fans entertained for the time being the first two entries in the franchise were ported over to the new system. Taking advantage of the more advanced graphical horsepower Sakura Wars looked better than ever before and while selling less then the originals, the two redefined entries became solid titles in the consoles lineup.
Sakura Wars Mania Continues
This new technology was also a savior for the oft-beloved spin-off titles. A Sakura Wars renaissance was on hand, and what better way to start it than with the one that started it all? Sakura Wars Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2, released at the beginning of the new century, would bring more of the same falling blocks and LIPS gameplay fans loved with a few new added twists. Because of the new system graphics were significantly updated from the original with fancier animations included. Sakura Wars 2’s editions of Orihime and Reni were also along for the ride with the biggest twists of them all being online play. Because of the Dreamcasts brand new Internet functionality, a first for a console, it was now possible to fight other players over the now defunct SegaNet. This ultimately successful side series would lead way to even more bizarre ones.
The most bizarre, you could say, was Ogami Ichiro Funtouki. The game had everything, LIPS dialogue, and the full cast of characters. The catch? It was all done in live action. This most interesting of side editions was in fact a fully interact able version of the stage show, tasking you as Ogami with running a play and choosing how the plot progresses. The Sakura Wars Stage Show was a fully blown phenomenon in an of itself so it would make sense to make a game of it. The games surrealness of actors who play characters in a game playing said characters in costume within another game led Ogami Ichiro Funtouki to become the most bizarre yet one of the more interesting entries in the franchise.
The Dreamcast wasn’t the only place for the Sakura Wars renaissance sometimes even the biggest of competitors can play nice. And play nice they did as Sakura Wars soon entered the handheld gaming market with Sakura Wars GB – Geki! Hanagumi Nyuutai! for Nintendo’s very own Gameboy Color. Releasing in early 2000 the game would attempt to condense the Sakura Wars formula into a handheld format that seemed impossible. But Sakura Wars doesn’t know what impossible means and so they were able to achieve a similar experience to the main games. Casting you and not Ogami Ichiro as a member of the Hanagumi for a month you were tasked with doing similar things in different ways. For one tactical combat was thrown out entirely in favor of a more turn-based Final Fantasy fare. You still have a similar goal of managing your time wisely but you also have to worry about keeping up your various stats such as strength, intelligence, spirit, courage, speed, and dexterity. For a Gameboy Color title, the production values were stunning; with the series art style and music rendered lovingly in 8-bit and chiptune respectively. Not a year after a sequel to the mini-series was released. Sakura Wars GB 2 Thunderbold Sakusen would improve on the formula from the original and truly encapsulate the series in the palm of your hand.
The finale to the spinoff renaissance was a doozy in an of itself. Releasing just before the threequel to the main series Sakura Wars Online attempted to take the franchises online ventures to even greater heights. Comprising of less of the LIPS and Koubu combat gameplay fans knew and love, the game was comprised of tabletop and mini games, things that had been side shows inside of the games themselves. All of these can be played against others online or offline against the series heroes. All of this takes place in a bizarre amalgamation of Tokyo and the threequels location called Sakura Town. Every player gets his or her own personal room and customizable avatar to differentiate themselves from the crowd. While soon forgotten, the spin offs ideas would echo the future of the franchise itself.
A Daily Dose Of Sakura Wars
Sakura Wars Online may have been the culmination of spin off territory, the animation department said otherwise. Departing from its standard OVA adaptations a full 25-episode anime series was created. Retelling the original story the anime would try something no one had thought off, casting away its romantic subplots. Instead of Ogami in the lead role as usual, this time it was Sakura who took the spotlight. Sakura Wars TV was experimenting with something new, seeing if the series can last on just the characters performances and the plot themselves. This move, however, turned out to be a winning tactic. The Sakura Wars TV show soon became the pinnacle of animation for the series at large, setting the bar for those who would come after it proving once and for all that fans loved this series for its characters and less for the romance. While the OVAs had taken a minor stamp on the world at large the TV Show became something even bigger. What had once been a niche sector of anime had become a major contender overnight. Sakura Wars was known the world over for amazing animation, characters, and storytelling. It would seem like nothing could touch this franchise except solid gold. But could that gold translate into a successful sequel?
Is Paris Burning?
Once again Red Company was beset with another improbable task of creating a third success story but this time, however, the couldn’t do it on their own; a second developer had to be brought in. The developer for the Dreamcast smash hit Skies of Arcadia, Overworks, was brought on for the ride. Now with more manpower on their side they could take the time to craft an even better experience than ever before. But this time they would be building it from the ground up. New consoles means new engines but the first new thing that Red Company and co would truly need is a name. In true series fashion another war poem was picked, one that coincidentally had to deal with the sequels new location, Paris. “Pari wa Moteiru ka” or “Is Paris Burning” was a famous quote uttered by the epitaph of evil, Adolf Hitler, as he ordered German soldiers to burn the city down as they were fleeing the Allied invasion during World War II. The city did not burn, however, as the than general in charge, Dietrich von Choltitz, had grown to love the city for its beauty and couldn’t bare to tear it down due to the insane orders from the madman that was Hitler. Once again a piece of history agreed with Hiroi that his romanticized vision of the world was not his alone.
While Paris in reality did not have to rebuild, Hiroi’s Paris was just taking shape. Unlike the second entry in the franchise that had built atop the foundation of the original Sakura Wars 3 in all aspects was built from the ground up. The story would be similar to the original. Ogami is thrown into a similar situation as the first Sakura Wars as he has come to Paris seeking to study abroad not fight the demonic horde again. But life has different plans for him as he once again meets another clumsy hero in Erica Fontaine a klutzy nun with a tendency to run into signs and pull out her guns for no apparent reason. She isn’t the only unique member of the cast as it is the most diverse one yet. A Nordic Viking, a Vietnamese circus performer, a Romanian master criminal, and a French-Japanese widow round them out. While in the past the cast was primarily Japanese this time around they were as diverse in ethnicity and personality as they could be. At times the original Sakura Wars Hanagumi could be fit into various over arching stereotypes this time the were as unique as they could get. The story took a unique twist too. Instead of having a group of demons combat our heroes this time they were individuals seemingly attacking out of the blue in a more of a monster of the week style in true anime fashion as the series was wrote. This gave more time for the characters to develop as the new Paris Hanagumi were then unknowns.
Sakura Wars 3 was also a chance for Red Company to dive into Parisian culture and break away from their very present Japanese sensibilities. For example take the Chattes Noires, the theater that girls perform in. Unlike the Grand Imperial Theatre where Japanese and Western style plays are performed Chattes Noires performs cabaret, a variety show of sorts with music, song, dance, and a little bit of drama. Chattes Noires is based off of the real life Le Chat Noir. Located in Paris, the establishment is thought to be the birthplace of the first modern style of cabaret, a nightclub where the patrons sat at tables and drank alcoholic beverages while being entertained by the variety show on stage. The series new Parisian sensibilities plunges the player into a new exotic culture, one that is more understandable to a Western player than and Eastern one. French culture doesn’t just invade the story. This new aesthetic is carried over throughout the game, with Art Nouveau UI elements, French folk, classical, and stage musical styles, and the cancan flavor of the Chattes Noires performances. But the culture and plot weren’t the only things that changed.
A Parisian Twist
In a major departure from the original two, the isometric, top down, gameplay of yold was striped down in favor of a system that took advantage of the Dreamcast’s unique capabilities. Rebranded with its own acronym of ARMS (Active & Real-time Machine System) combat leaves the 2.5D dimension and finally enters the 3rd one. Instead of a grid like system determining your movement now the full 3D range was at your disposal. To keep the series roots intact action points were added in. These controlled how you moved and fought. Performing multiple attacks, one large super attack, or defending were just some of the options you had. This new system let Sakura Wars finally stand out from the strategy RPG crowd as it was something all its own.
Similar to the improved combat system, Sakura Wars brings along a fully revamped experience across the board, with the high resolution, full-frame art making a huge impact and causing the earlier games to feel cramped and quaint due to their hardware limitations. The free-roaming sections of the adventure section now take place not only within the theatre, but in a full 3D section of Paris. The result of all this makes clear how much the generational leap from the Saturn to Dreamcast meant for the series.
Speaking of which all of the Dreamcast hardware gimmicks are put to use. While the LIPS system is still similar in nature to the original a few new options take advantage of these gimmicks such as having a type where you use the analog stick to indicate not just what you say, but how strongly you say it – speaking not too timidly nor too forcefully for the circumstance. The Dreamcast new VMU that’s connected to the controller represents a mobile Kinematron communication device, a steam powered messaging system that was ever so slightly used in the second entry. Rounding out the gimmickry, Sakura Wars 3 introduced downloadable content to the series and was one of the first Dreamcast games to do so. Using the now defunct SegaNet players could purchase several self-contained scenes that had nothing to actually do with the plot of the game. As SegaNet wasn’t as successful as the company would hope for the game was eventually included in a bonus disc. Gimmickry aside with a new generation of consoles came a new set of sensibilities. The question was, would Sakura Wars 3’s Parisian influences drive away fans of old or bring them back for more?
Au Revoir, Paris
The answer is expected yet not as grand as you think. Selling less than the originals at 330,000, the threequel had many things to compete with such as a new console war and a brand new cast so its lower than average sales were to be expected. Still even at that number Sakura Wars 3 became the 8th highest grossing Dreamcast game of all time right next the originals with the same critical acclaim the series had previously earned. Sakura Wars 3 also became an accidentally miracle, as it was the first entry that could appeal directly to Western audiences. Sakura Wars, a series that had previously catered to Japan, was now in a position to take on the world.
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