After Decades, This Frenetic Japanese Game Genre May Finally Be Ready For Its Moment
The battlefield is turning on a narrow point, and I am a whirlwind of swords, the center of a raucous, violent symphony. Nameless soldiers crowd around me in the hundreds; allies in blue, and enemies in red. Mounted cavalry charges a closed-off outpost as I cut through a nearby mage. Then I charge, my legendary hero taking down ten, twenty, fifty enemy soldiers with every wild strike. I burst into the outpost and sow chaos. I’m a bull, and every inch of the map is my own personal china shop.
Fire Emblem Warriors, released earlier this fall for the Nintendo Switch, is an amalgamation of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series of medieval fantasy-themed tactics games. It gives the player control of one of a number of powerful, heroic characters in the middle of large-scale infantry combat scenarios; as a superhuman warrior-god, the player’s goal is to guide their side to victory, switching between several heroes on the battlefield at will, nudging combat this way and that to ensure victory.
But while Fire Emblem Warriors is compelling, its most salient trait is that it’s far from the only game out there like it. By my count, it’s the forty-seventh.
In 1997, the Omega Force development team and publisher Koei released Sangokumusou (“Three Kingdoms Unrivalled”) in Japan, a one-on-one fighting game that in its later Western launch would receive the name Dynasty Warriors. Featuring stylized re-imaginings of characters and settings from the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, the game featured heavily weapon-oriented combat. It was a fairly technical game, reliant on parries and precise timing; while well received at launch, it was far from a trend-setter.
The next time Omega Force approached this setting, in 2000, their approach was different. They kept the aesthetic, which merged Chinese history with the operatic mood and visual stylings not entirely unfamiliar to fans of, say, Final Fantasy, but they ditched the core fighting element. Instead, the game was a more open-ended 3D action game. As in the original, you took the role of a hero from the Three Kingdoms era; this time you got to lead your kingdom to victory in group combat, recreating battles from history until fighting your way to dominance over all of China. The core of the experience was a story mode, mixing pseudo-historical narrative intrigue with the adrenaline of leading digital troops into battle. Called Shin Sangokumusou in Japan, the “shin” marking the game as a spin-off from the main franchise, it was released in the West as the comparatively more straightforward Dynasty Warriors 2.
This time, something clicked. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely why Dynasty Warriors 2 stood out, but it did. Reviewers at the time were impressed by the sheer amount of action on the screen (it was no small feat in 2000 to feature fully three-dimensional combat among dozens of enemies, all moving and fighting at once). Additionally, though, there was something magnetically frenetic about it all, the high-speed combat merging with the grandiosity of the setting to build a kind of high-action ballet: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by way of the old-school beat-em-up.
Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo
Regardless, the game was successful enough for Omega Force and Koei to make another. And then another. And another. And a spin-off, featuring Japanese samurai instead of Chinese warlords. Then sequels to the spin-offs, and then tie-ins based on popular Japanese franchises like Gundam and One Piece, Berserk and Fist of the North Star. As of this writing, counting spin-offs, I was able to pinpoint nearly 50 titles on the market right now following the formula set by Dynasty Warriors 2, with at least five more slated to be released in the next couple of years. Once a small lark by a mid-tier developer, the Musou series, as it’s come to be called (a rough Japanese equivalent to the Warriors naming convention), is now a reliable workhorse of Japanese gaming, a series that’s gone strong for 20 years and shows no signs of stopping.
And yet it’s also moved out of sight. In 2017, Musou games are a paradox, popular enough to continue but rarely discussed, possibly the most prolific franchise in all of gaming but without any of the cultural cachet similarly robust sagas possess. Musou games are the dime novels of gaming—nobody sings their praises, but people sure are buying them.
Even as an adherent, it’s difficult to explain what keeps Musou games compelling to their fans two decades later. The series has barely evolved over the years, keeping the same core gameplay tenets in place over each iteration. There are always heroes to choose from, with even more to unlock along the way. There are always big, busy battles to cut through. And really, that’s it. Musou games are simple undertakings, repetitive and largely pretty easy. If you’ve played ten minutes of one game, you’ve played every hour of every Musou game ever made.
So what’s the appeal, then? Why have I spent the past two weeks churning through battle after battle in Fire Emblem Warriors, luxuriating in every moment of my long campaign against fantasy villains whose names I can’t even remember?
Critic Janine Hawkins describes the appeal in terms of noise. “Not just sound,” she writes, “but visual noise, tactile noise. Numbers all over the screens, swarms of enemies animating in unision…whirling fans and magic and nonsense.” That noise, though, is controllable, a stream that the player can guide with grace. To master a Musou game is to be a conductor of a symphony no one can hear but you.
Musou games also serve as a powerful exercise in metaphor. In Fire Emblem Warriors, player direct troops that are controlled by AI; with that sort of overwhelming power, the important question becomes not if to apply it but where. Each choice in a Musou combat encounter is a tactical exercise made physical, a commander’s impulse about how to direct a massive conflict condensed into a single swing of a sword or axe. Musou games offer a fantasy where every player is both hero and general, both the wide receiver and the star quarterback, choosing how to shape the possibility space of simulated war and then making that choice reality in a violent instant. The immediacy is intoxicating.
That power is unique to Musou games, and it’s one that Nintendo seems best equipped to finally pull into the mainstream. Over the past couple of years, Nintendo has made the surprising choice to license two of its most popular franchises—Fire Emblem and The Legend of Zelda—to Koei Tecmo in order to create unique Musou titles exclusive to Nintendo’s consoles. The results were remarkable: Hyrule Warriors was one of the last compelling games on the Wii U, and has had a second life on the Nintendo 3DS, while Fire Emblem Warriors is possibly one of the most compulsively playable Nintendo Switch games currently available.
The Musou series may be a bargain-bin saga in the West, but Nintendo, with its singular combination of brand prestige and aesthetic polish, has the chance to pull Western audiences toward Musou games in a way that Koei hasn’t managed in decades. After two decades of constant battle, it’s well earned. The warriors might finally be hacking and slashing their way to the top.
Powered by WPeMatico