Sakura Wars is back, and though Graham has the scoop if you’d like to learn about the upcoming PS4 exclusive, there’s plenty more Sakura Wars where that came from. That’s where I come in, with Siliconera’s quick primer on the franchise as a whole. I’ll tell you a bit more about the history of Sakura Wars, from its early days as a Sega Saturn stalwart to its present as a beloved classic. Beyond that, I’ll also highlight some relevant side material you might want to check out if you’d like to know more about the world of Sakura Wars.
Sakura Wars 101
Sakura Taisen, as Sakura Wars is known in Japan, came about as a gambit by Sega to help shore up its RPG selection for the Sega Saturn. Developed by Red Company and led by creator Oji Hiroi, the original Sakura Wars released in 1996. At the time, it was one of the most expensive projects Sega had ever undertaken, but the gamble paid off; The game was a wild success. Players loved its successful merging of a number of prevailing trends in Japanese gaming at the time.
Sakura Wars merged the framework of “bishoujo games” (also known as “gal games”), an emerging subgenre of adventure game focused on interacting with attractive women, with the tactical combat of games like Front Mission and Fire Emblem. Genre hybrids like it weren’t exactly uncommon in those experimental days, but Sakura Wars set itself apart with its heretofore unprecedented quality of production. It was, in a word, lavish. The game was heavy with voice acting and animated cutscenes, taking cues from Hiroi’s own Tengai Makyou RPG franchise. Well-known voice actresses played roles in the cast and sang songs, and luminaries like Kosuke Fujishima and Hidenori Matsubara (creators of the super-popular Oh My Goddess!) designed the characters.
All of this was combined with a little bit of imperial nostalgia: Sakura Wars takes place in a world where the Taisho era, an early 20th-century period in Japanese history that saw the full emergence of Japan as a world power, never ended. Japan is still an empire in Sakura Wars‘ alternative 1925, and its mastery of steam technology to power everything from cars to computers suits would ensure its prosperity, if not for all the pesky demons. The player character for four of the six mainline Sakura Wars games is Imperial Navy Ensign Ichiro Ogami, assigned to lead the Imperial Combat Revue. Inspired by the real-life Takarazuka Revue, all of Sakura Wars’ Combat Revue members are women celebrities of the stage and screen, operating out of the Great Imperial Theater in Ginza, Tokyo. Mecha-piloting and demon-fighting are their side jobs. Together, Ogami and the Flower Division defeat supernatural threats to the Imperial Capital.
Mechanically, players would also woo the girls of the Flower Division via Sakura Wars‘ innovative dialog system. Called the “Live Interactive Picture System” (LIPS), the system manifested as the now-familiar combination of lightly animated character cutouts, with dialog scrolling in a text box underneath. Players could, under time pressure, also choose Ogami’s responses when prompted, giving Ogami the opportunity to curry favor with his conversation partners. The girl pandered to the most for that chapter would also enter combat with stat bonuses, and ultimately, the player’s actions would determine who Ogami would end up with at the end of the game. Sakura Wars‘ success on the Saturn would ensure the production of a sequel: Sakura Wars 2: You Shall Not Die. It was much the same as the original, though it added two new characters, and famously, could read a player’s Sakura Wars save and surface additional dialog based on who Ogami hooked up with in the first game.
Sakura Wars would get two more games after Sega debuted its Dreamcast console in 1999. 2001’s Sakura Wars 3: Is Paris Burning? Sees Ogami transferred overseas to whip the fledgling Paris Combat Revue into shape. 2005’s Sakura Wars 4: Fall in Love, Maidens was intended as a swan song of sorts for the franchise, bringing all the girls from across the series together to, among other things, finally decide who Ogami would go steady with, once and for all. Sadly, Sakura Wars 4‘s development was rushed, thanks to the Dreamcast’s fading market prospects and the franchise’s fading popularity.
The eventual death of the Dreamcast didn’t spell the end for Sakura Wars, though. One could even say that it pioneered the trend of remaking JRPG classics for new platforms, as the first game got a full remake on the PlayStation 2: Sakura Wars: In Hot Blood. The remake adapted the original plot and cast and combined it with the battle system and graphics battle system used for the Dreamcast games.
2005 would be the last hurrah for the franchise for more than a decade, in the form of its first “soft reboot”: Sakura Wars 5. Set in New York, the game evoked shades of Apollo Justice by introducing a new protagonist: Shinjiro Taiga, newest recruit to the New York Combat Review. Unfortunately, So Long, My Love failed to make much headway domestically, and Sega shelved Sakura Wars in 2008. Thus the license was actually dormant by the time NIS America picked Sakura Wars 5 for an English release (and a Wii port) in 2010. The localization was also the longest and most intensive NISA had undertaken at the time, famously producing two different localization based on if players were playing the English or Japanese-dubbed versions of the game.
Supplementary Sakura Wars Material
While Sakura Wars has been absent from the English-speaking landscape for much of its existence, it’s been a surprisingly reliable presence in anime form, with most of the franchise’s animated spinoffs making it overseas. Though some of the material is currently out of print, the series’ popularity still makes it easy to find via online retailers like Amazon and RightStuf.
One strange aspect to this is that with the exception of the TV series adaptation, very little of the produced anime stands independently. Viewers of the late 1990s and early 2000s anime boom were buying side stories from a game they would never get a chance to play, except through fan translation. For example, the four-episode 1997 OVA series Sakura Wars was released back in the days of VHS, and famously included a sticker proclaiming it to be “Based on the Best-Selling Video Game!”, despite the fact that the game would never be released in the US. Even the story is largely setup, detailing the first few months of the Flower Division’s operations, before Ogami is assigned to lead it. The sequel, which was also released in the US, is even harder to comprehend without playing the game, as its stories are largely disconnected adventures placed at various points during Sakura Wars 2‘s main plot.
An easier (and more accessible) experience is the Sakura Wars TV series adaptation. That’s still in print and tells a more or less complete story loosely based on the events of the first game. Unfortunately, directorial and writing choices trade the franchise’s trademark ’90s silliness for psychodrama more akin to Evangelion, losing some of the spirit that made the franchise popular in the first place.
Lastly, the new Sakura Wars game has its own, ongoing TV anime series currently airing. Thankfully, you won’t need to track down obscure DVDs to get it, as it can be viewed for free on Ani-One‘s Youtube channel. Newer viewers should beware, though: It’s more of a companion series that appears to take place after the events of the game itself.
Despite its status as something of a soft reboot, the new Sakura Wars game is heir to a long and storied history, one that is in large part invisible to people outside Japan. Whether it can make a big enough impact to make the franchise as famous overseas as it is in its home country remains to be seen.