Sakura Wars, released earlier this year on PlayStation 4, revived the long-running Sega series for Japanese fans and marked a new attempt to introduce itself to Western players. How did it happen? What was development like? In our Sakura Wars interview, we had the opportunity to talk to three people behind the game: director Tetsuya Ohtsubo, producer Tetsu Katano and localization producer Andrew Davis.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: Could you tell our readers a bit about yourself, your role in developing the new Sakura Wars game and your history with the franchise?
Tetsuya Ohtsubo, Sakura Wars director: I played the original Saturn releases of Sakura Taisen and Sakura Taisen 2 just as a regular game player, but I got the chance to forge a professional association with the series starting with Sakura Taisen 3, where I was the battle event screenwriter. I was also part of the development team for Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love and the spinoff title Sakura Taisen Online.
Tetsu Katano, Sakura Wars producer: I’ve worked on Sonic titles as a programmer, and I’ve also directed and produced various titles up until now. This game marked my first involvement with the Sakura Wars franchise.
It’s been over a decade between the new Sakura Wars and the previous one. Was it easier to localize the game for a new Western audience, since the game needed to re-introduce itself to Japanese players anyway? How did the worldwide release affect choices during development?
Andrew Davis, associate localization producer: Yes, Sakura Wars on PS4 was a great opportunity for us in the West. Since the series had been dormant in Japan for some time, the game was designed to carry the mantle of the old games while still being fully accessible to a younger Japanese audience that might not know the series’ history — the perfect chance to give Western players a fresh launching point! It was also an opportunity to reboot the inconsistent English terms from previous localizations throughout the decades. We tried to keep the ones that we felt made sense, but for other key terms such as the Imperial Combat Revue and spiricle armor, we gave ourselves the freedom to reconsider and establish a new standard.
As for the worldwide release, the trickiest aspect was simply coordinating localization on a moving target. Sometimes the Japanese scenes are rewritten or even re-recorded. This is a very normal part of game development. Games grow and change as the team shapes them! But it can also make the localization process more complicated, since translation work can be wasted if a scene is cut or rewritten. At one point, we paused our translations (and extended our production schedule) in order to give the development team more time to finalize their scripts.
At the same time, planning a worldwide release from the start gave the team the chance to consult with us and other global offices during development, helping them refine the experience to meet the needs of every territory. I remember that at one point the team reached out to ask for global feedback on certain gestures in each character’s repertoire. We asked our European contacts to review, and they pointed out that one of Hatsuho’s gestures — brandishing a fist, with the other hand clutching the first arm’s bicep — while called the “guts pose” in Japan, can be seen as the American equivalent of the middle finger in some regions of Europe. Since it was just meant to signify that Hatsuho was brash and confident, the dev team decided to adjust the animation to avoid confusing some of the Western audience. These kinds of conversations happen all the time as we move toward more globally-oriented development, and I appreciate that the teams in Japan are engaged and interested in the needs of overseas fans!
Since the release of Sakura Wars V, the franchise has regularly topped polls and had fans seeking its revival. What kept a new game from happening for so long? Was it just that 2016 poll that prompted revival, or had circumstances changed?
Ohtsubo: Ever since Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, there have been many discussions within Sega about how to revive the Sakura Wars franchise. I know of various attempts to pitch concepts over the years, but it was difficult to figure out a proper way to bring back the series.
In the midst of all this, we conducted the first Sega Fes Poll to gauge user opinions at Sega Fes 2016, and Sakura Wars came out on top in two categories: Most Memorable Game and Most Wished-For Revival. This changed the perception within Sega, and it just so happened that was right when we were preparing to pitch a PS4 Sakura Wars project. Thanks in part to those survey results, we were able to get the project up and running.
The new game seems to be careful about when it wants to lean into its history. How did you decide what elements to reference and when you wanted the characters to stand alone?
Ohtsubo: Although this title is part of a new series, the world it’s set in is connected to the past games, so we felt that we should be careful not to negate the past. We also didn’t want to shut down the possibility of meeting favorite characters from the older titles. We knew we had to treat the history of the series with the utmost respect and care. That said, we also wanted to give the new characters room to grow and flourish.
The Sakura Wars franchise as a whole extended well beyond the games to all sorts of media. Does that affect how you approach a revival? Was there pressure to bring back all those things too? Was it more intimidating because of that intense fandom?
Ohtsubo: As you may have already guessed from the various multimedia that this franchise has touched, the revival of the Sakura Wars franchise was never planned to be limited to a video game. We considered it an absolute requirement that the revival extend to a variety of media. This was part of the project’s vision from its very inception, and people from the entire Sega Sammy Group pitched in to work on it.
We knew this would be the fan expectation as well for any Sakura Wars revival, so I wouldn’t say that we felt pressure or intimidation so much as an intense desire to meet the high expectations of fans.
If we see more from the Sakura Wars series in the future, should we expect more of the classic cast of characters to make a return?
Ohtsubo: We can’t comment on that at this stage, but we are definitely listening to what fans have to say and taking that feedback into consideration.
The time passed in the in-game story seems to line up fairly well with the series timeline outside of it. How much of the story was influenced by how the team itself felt about Sakura Wars after all this time?
Ohtsubo: We were planning a new series with an all-new cast of main characters and a new premise, so we felt we had to do a certain amount of pushing the reset button on what had been built up over the previous games. That’s why we decided to let some in-game time pass since the events of the previous game—and yes, there was probably some inspiration from the real-world timeline as well!
Katano: Along with Director Ohtsubo, [Akira] Nishino and [Takaharu] Terada were part of the core development team throughout the series, and they were key to the new one as well. Sakura Wars has been living in their heads for a long time, even during this long dormant period, so maybe creating something that evokes the passage of time was part of our subconscious process.
A big part of the story of the new Sakura Wars is about the combat revue’s money troubles. It doesn’t seem to stop anyone from making outlandishly expensive decisions, though. What’s the deal with that?
Katano: I think it comes down to the wants of Sumire-san, general manager of the Imperial Combat Revue. I believe the game goes into further detail about this, so this would be just my personal interpretation, but I think Sumire-san has her own reasons for wanting to bring back Tokyo’s Combat Revue. Also, she’s the heiress to a large conglomerate, so when it comes to money, she may be a little bit out of touch with the common people.
The new game scraps the franchise’s signature strategy combat for third-person action. What about strategy as a genre didn’t fit with what you wanted to make? Why move away from the gameplay that made the franchise popular?
Ohtsubo: Strategy combat was the standard of the past games, but we also found it to be a factor that raised the barrier of entry. This is one reason we chose a more action-oriented combat genre, since it seemed to be the most compatible with the modern PS4 userbase.
In a wider sense, Sakura Wars is far from the first franchise to attempt to pivot to action combat. What do you believe is behind this trend? Is it perceived as a more accessible or successful genre in the Japanese game development world?
Ohtsubo: Compared to the gaming scene from a decade ago, there seems to be greater demand for simpler and more straightforward gameplay. In the Japanese market, the action game genre is viewed as more accessible than the simulation genre.
Should Western players expect to see the classic gameplay again, or even get an opportunity to play localized versions of the popular first four games that we never saw?
Davis: We’d definitely love a chance to share the older titles with Western players. We’re considering our options based on what will be feasible to bring to market, but certainly revisiting the old games is not off the table.
The new Sakura Wars transitions from longtime character designer Kosuke Fujishima to Bleach creator Tite Kubo. How did you decide to change this art style, and what made Tite Kubo the right choice?
Ohtsubo: Since we were rebooting the series, we wanted a fresh take on the designs that would serve as the public face of Sakura Wars, which led us to decide early on to bring on a new character designer. Tite Kubo is the world-famous creator of Bleach, and his style was a natural fit with the “traditional Japanese clothes plus sword” aesthetic we wanted from the game’s heroine, so we reached out to him to handle lead character design.
Is there a new character you wish players had been able to spend more time around and get to know better? What makes them interesting to you?
Ohtsubo: To be honest, if time had allowed, I’d have liked to spend more time exploring all the characters. Many of the characters have facets that didn’t quite make it into the game, and it’d be great to showcase some of that if we ever have the chance.
The new Sakura Wars game changes a lot of things, but it still embraces the tone and narrative structure of the ‘90s anime world in which it started. What is it about that era’s feel that works so well for the franchise?
Ohtsubo: These seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, but back in that era, it was standard practice for anime TV shows to include what’s called the “eye catch” in Japanese. That’s the short animation clip before and after commercial breaks, as well as the next-episode preview. Since the Sakura Wars series aims to evoke the lively settings typical of ’90s anime, we think these elements make a perfect match.
Speaking of its world: Sakura Wars is set in a version of a very specific era in Japanese history. What should players in other parts of the world know about the Taisho period to understand the game’s influences?
Ohtsubo: Within Japan, the Taisho era [1912-1926] is seen as a unique and fascinating period of history. The previous Meiji era [1868-1912] had marked the end of the national isolation particular to the Edo period, when the age of the samurai gave way to a profound cultural transformation. The influx of various Western cultural influences only grew more intense in the Taisho era, which led to the birth of a new culture blending elements of old Japan and the West. The world of Sakura Wars, in turn, adds a bit of a steampunk aesthetic into that mix. We hope this context will add to your enjoyment of the game and anime!
Thanks to Tetsuya Ohtsubo, Tetsu Katano and Andrew Davis for answering our Sakura Wars interview queries! Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.