a review of Musou: Orochi (Warriors Orochi)
a videogame developed by omega force
and published by koei
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation portable
text by tim rogers
Musou Orochi is the latest in Koei’s line of sleazy hit games with the word “Musou” in the title. Every time one of these games is released it spikes to the top of the sales charts for a week and then disappears. This game did exactly the same thing. It may just be the same half a million people playing these games over and over again; Koei plays its audience the way a young Korean girl plays the violin, or perhaps the way you play that one friend who bought you six consecutive dinners in a row and genuinely didn’t notice.
Koei floundered for years as a company that just wanted to make games about actual historical events when everyone else was Scotch-taping adjectives over side-scrolling platform game design documents. As a game designer, Koei was always quite unique — one might even say that their works from the pre-Famicom era right up to the release of the PlayStation 2 were exceptionally focused on getting non-gamers to pick up a controller. Over a decade before Gran Turismo would sweep in and prove it was possible to get automobile junkies to buy a videogame console if you showed them enough numerical details, the progressive, hungry Koei was making the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. These games were positioned on pedestals worldwide for their devotion to actual names, places, and approximated numbers, even if the critics weren’t familiar with the historical events being portrayed. For early players of Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition, or (my favorite) Bandit Kings of Ancient China, three games that are more or less alike, the basic requirement for enjoying the game was that you’d read more than two books about each of the names floating up on the screen at any given time. Test your knowledge of a particular historical battle by employing similar tactics (via menu selections), win, and feel really smart. It was a weird rush — different from Civilization or Sim City as Dragon Quest was different from Ultima. For the painstaking sensations they evoked, Koei’s efforts went on to find a niche even in countries where no one know who Liu Bei or Cao Cao were. Soon, Koei was making games about World War II — like the excellent P.T.O. II — and were even experimenting with making backgrounds that weren’t completely black. They were on something of a roll.
Blame Final Fantasy VII if you want; around 1997, all of Japan breathed in the same bus fumes and got to feeling loopy: something shat in the pool and told them that they could, if they wanted, enjoy more success than the niches they’d settled into. Perhaps this accounts for the first Dynasty Warriors game on the original PlayStation, or perhaps it doesn’t: it was a one-on-one fighting game in which historical figures from the Chinese civil war of the second century punched or kicked each other slowly over techno music that occasionally featured pan flutes. The game was high-budget enough to open with a computer-animated scene of such ferocious blockiness it could constipate the viewer for weeks or even months. The wasn’t much of a financial or even critical success. The same team was asked to make another game in a different style, using more or less the same characters, for the upcoming PlayStation 2. Rather than simply call the game Sangoku Musou 2, they decided to call it Shin Sangoku Musou — “REAL Dynasty Warriors”. When it was released outside Japan, the game was still called Dynasty Warriors 2, and this fact is kind of crucial.
The game was something of a lukewarm miracle. One might even say it changed the face of gaming. Imagine that — the first “Musou” had been a one-on-one fighting game just because one-on-one fighting in 3D was all the rage. The second game created a new genre — that of the 3D battlefield brawler. As far as new genres go, though, it wasn’t much. Essentially, it was just a thematic license to make a platform game in 3D, with no platform jumping. The “genre” that issued from Dynasty Warriors 2 is probably the same genre that the makers of the midget-punching Total Recall game for the NES would have made if they’d had better hardware: wide, empty spaces, characters who look like people you recognize if you’ve read the right book or seen the right movie, tons of faceless, motiveless enemies rushing at you and then stopping dead and waiting for you to hit them, et cetera. The posters could read: YOU play the part of the HERO! OBLITERATE the stuntmen!
“Musou” is a Japanese word meaning “peerless” or “matchless”. A “Musou” warrior is one whose name is whispered among grunt soldiers everywhere. They’re known for having killed a hundred opponents without flinching, or whatever. How can we dare say that such men did not exist? Novels like Three Kingdoms are able to list the names of every warrior that died at every battle in the war; the Chinese have always had an ear for history and an eye for detail. Names like Lu Bu surf atop the tides of generations, centuries, and millennia as the names of men who were essentially invincible in combat; they were detached from their own mortality in such a way that they could not fear death, or something. Combat, like any sport, is mostly mental, anyway. Think about all those characters in horror movies that viewers always yell at: “Don’t go that way! Shoot him!” Those characters are based on real-life personalities as well — they are the types of people who would not last on a battlefield. Certainly, there’s a little psyching up that happens prior to donning the armor and shaking a spear in the face of danger, though it was seldom ever enough for a farm boy to take down a legend. (See David and Goliath for an example of a farm boy who became a legend by taking down a legend.)
Any review — whether it’s a blurb in Weekly Famitsu or an Amazon.co.jp staff review, or even an Amazon.co.jp reader review — of a Musou game will mention the word “Soukaikan” — “Refreshing feeling” — in the first sentence. This may be a clue that someone in the PR industry is first-degreeing the murder of good natural human conversation, and at that we can only groan: Japanese people using a buzzword in their user reviews is nothing terrible, compared to, say, global warming. Examining the term closely sure makes me feel kind of lonely, though. They say they feel “refreshed” when they play a Musou game, and it scares me that I can recognize why. A Musou game puts you in the buckled boots of a peerless warrior — the man on the battlefield who gets things done. This appeals to so many tens of thousands of Japanese casual gamers simply because to some people games are not life; they are escapism; and the majority of the human population are or were not the type of twenty-two-year-old Ivy League college graduates to walk into his first day at work at a large multinational corporation in a leather jacket and ripped jeans and perfect hair, ignoring the dress code (tie, suit, bald), and flip off the boss and say “You old codgers need to change your game” and end up the CEO and the proud owner of a yacht within six months. We can’t all be rock stars; we can’t all be legendary warriors; we can’t all be Bill Gates; Musou games let us experience a world with the invincibility code turned on, where enemies stop and sputter before us, technomental canaries flying against the glass walls of an AI script that says “Even on hard difficulty, give him four or five seconds before attacking him”. This sort of medulla oblangata massage wouldn’t have worked on Super Famicom, because the graphics weren’t real enough. (Pseudo-ironically, the Gameboy Advance Musou is probably the best one in the series, because it uses Super Famicom-style graphics.)
I mentioned that Musou games sell about a quarter of a million to a half a million copies and then vanish from the sales charts. This could be because the majority of copies are sold back within a week of release; this isn’t because the games shock and repulse players with their shoddy shallowness — it’s because the players are not necessarily gamers or game collectors. They don’t let the games stock up on their shelves, they don’t show them off to friends. They play them the way a moviegoer watches a DVD: clear it once, check out all the special features, put it back in the case, tell the wife to return it, get yelled at and called lazy, take it back themselves. It’s not ironic, or hardly even funny, at all, that Koei has decided to start their own game rental service — called RentaNet, which is a (***) name — to rent out any games by any publishers who sign on the dotted line. Game rentals have been illegal in Japan ever since Nintendo whined up the government’s leg back in 1984. Keep in mind, this is also a country where CD rentals have been legal forever — for about two US dollars, you can rent a CD, rip all of the tracks into iTunes, and take it back the same day. Because the value of owning a CD started to descend through the floor, Japanese record labels began to offer special premiums — stickers, posters, big shiny boxes to contain the CD case. No special premiums, however, were premium enough to defeat the idea of CD rental and an MD player (and eventually iPod). This is why the price of a CD in Japan rose slowly to an average of around thirty US dollars. And thirty US dollars, I swear, is a big price to pay for much of the bullshit they call music over here. Record shops started importing foreign CDs from their countries of origin, to save themselves and the customers money, much to the anger of the local Japanese label that would be releasing said CDs for a higher price in Japan, hence foreign artists always being encouraged to include a bonus track on the Japanese release of an album. New tracks means more complicated rights, means higher prices. Around and around it goes.
Why is Koei trying to bring back game rental in Japan? The simplest answer is because used game sales, which account for most game sales in Japan (if you’ve spent two minutes in a used Japanese game shop, you cannot doubt this), never count toward official sales rankings. The CD analogy continues further: in order to encourage players to buy new, Koei has been releasing “Treasure Box” versions of every Musou game since the bigwigs became confident that the series was a qualified hit. These boxes are full of the most carnival-prize-esque trinkets — mouse pads, et cetera. The games themselves are soaked in enough tacky “extras” — unlockable art galleries and/or voice clip playback devices — for a shadowy reason: keep the players playing more than a week, long enough for the used shop buyback rates to go down. That first weekend is a big’un — if a hopeful buyer can’t find the game used because someone who bought it new is still unlocking costume colors, that’s another new copy sold — that’s another tick-mark on the Famitsu ranking! If the roots of Koei’s rental service were to plant themselves fully into the earth, that would make a new ranking chart for Famitsu to report every week: the rental chart. A-ha.
The more complicated answer would be “Because of Musou Orochi“. It’s precisely the kind of thing no corporation, even one with a tacky goldfish pond in their headquarters’ lobby, one with a little wooden bridge to walk over and everything (yes, I’ve been there), could possibly muster up the anti-conscience to only sell to people, unless they’d been ordered to do so by Satan himself.
Over the years, Koei has been called masters of “historical detail”: in the Gundam Musou expose in Weekly Famitsu earlier this year, the press-release-language said that Koei had been drafted to apply their expertise with regard to historical detail to the entire “Gundam” story, in order to make the most accurate “Gundam” videogame to date. This was a hell of a polite nod to series fans — Omega Force and Koei would be giving the “Gundam” story the same historical treatment that they’d given the great real-life battles of the Chinese Three Kingdoms period and the Japanese Warring States period.
That treatment includes setting each battle up with a map screen and a talking-head dialogue sequence that goes on a minute too long, before plopping the player, boots and all, into the ping-pong-ball-on-mouse-traps of a lively battlefield. Back two decades and an aeon ago, the history lessons had been the thing; now, our fingers have evolved, and we are no longer apes: we are chimps, and we are chumps, and we have transcended pushing buttons to stay alive — we are pushing buttons to kill. In short, it’s nonsense. The violin has been purloined, and replaced with a kid in a purple sweat suit, with eraserhead hair and tinted glasses, banging out a math-rock solo on a Casio keyboard.
It used to be that anyone and everyone could shrug and exhale and let these games exist because hey, at least the history spoken in slow words at the start of the battle is based on real events. Yeah, and the same people could debunk the game design worth of more exhilarating and crunchy games like Onimusha because they portrayed real-life fifteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga as a crazed, frothing, rabid old madman who commanded a legion of zombie samurai against Jean Reno.
Musou Orochi files this justification under the heading “bullshit”; just as Omega Force got hungry for fighting-game fame with the first Dynasty Warriors, they jump straight into the Kingdom Hearts pool with Orochi — its story centers on a evil, demonic warlord named Orochi, who creates a rift in space-time and sucks the warriors from the 2nd-century Chinese civil war (Dynasty Warriors) and the warriors from the 15th-century Japanese civil war (Samurai Warriors) into the same grey-area time period, where they . . . do what, exactly? Battle against one another? Do the bad guys from the 2nd-century Chinese civil war team up with the bad guys of the 15th-century Japanese civil war, despite the obvious language barrier and disagreement on fashion or fighting techniques? What about ideals? Might it not be possible that the good guys from the 2nd-century Chinese civil war might agree with the bad guys from the 15th-centry Japanese civil war? And who says any of these people are “bad” anyway? “History is written by the winners” is a Western proverb, after all; centuries later, the Japanese were and are able to see the good points of the ambitious men who lost to more or less ambitious men in their own national history. We’ve seen plenty of videogames heroizing Toyotomi Hideyoshi, for example, and that man might have been fucking looney tunes.
No, though, in Orochi (to be titled Orochi Warriors for Western release, although “Orochi” isn’t an adjective, though I guess we can pretend: it sounds like something you’d call a hobo), the warriors form quick and dirty alliances in favor nothing in particular, and continue their internal conflicts while being confused about their surroundings. Orochi himself steps in to a couple of battles, and the audience members so inclined will clap their hands to see that new, large, red blip appear on their radar: a boss approaches! A boss approaches!
Dynasty Warriors 2 was interesting because it let you ride a horse and traverse battlefields, whilst killing — among the only other games available for the PlayStation 2 at the time was SSX, which was about snowboards: where’s the killing in that? Every once in a while, a large red blip appeared, and by that blip, a name — the name of someone you’ve read about in a book. It might be Lu Bu, even. You’d chase him down on your horse, and have a back-and-forth throttle-around with the only other guy on the battlefield who seems to know how to press the square button. This mechanic was enough to keep the game interesting for many players because these minibosses were always people you knew about outside the game world. In Gundam Musou, it works better, because the boss characters are not just approximations cobbled together from history books — they are based on a television show, so they look exactly like every fan knows they look. There’s no internet arguments about beard length or color of cape. In Orochi, the celebrity factor doesn’t work nearly as well; it feels made of cardboard. When you throw historical figures through a time rift and onto the same battlefield, you cheapen the idea of historical accuracy; you hover a magnifying glass over the flimsy paper plate onto which you’ve dropped this wedding-cake-chunk of a game, and the frosting starts to smolder.
Perhaps fearing that their fan-savants would some day begin to complain that these games were getting too boring and/or easy, Koei started to shoehorn “strategy” into the battles — every once in a while, one of your fellow Important Characters would get into a rough spot, and you’d have to fly across the battlefield to rescue them. I’m not sure if this is or is not a blatant insistence on Koei’s part that Chinese warlords had ready access to wireless radio communication, or psychic powers, or what. Either way, in Gundam Musou it works best, probably because giant robots have computers on board — boost-run across that epic battlefield, maybe crushing a few skulls on the way, and there’s your ally, rendered in high-definition glory, surrounded by ten to twenty enemies who are mostly just standing there, not attacking. If you had stayed where you were, on the other side of the battlefield, your ally’s life bar would deplete until he died. Saving his life takes about a quarter of a second, and makes you wonder if he was drunk or something. If you let him die — aw, shit, Jack, you’re going to get a lower ranking at the end of the battle.
Thanks to this mechanic, Musou games of late have often required players to play each battle enough times to know where each Important Character will be when he needs saving, and at exactly which point in the battle this will happen. I might have been inclined to call this a reasonable facsimile of strategy if there was any topography to speak of: the battlefields are still flat and spare. The very sight of a wall is a blessing. Or if the act of running from one side of a battlefield to another wasn’t boring or tedious. If there was any joy in your character’s plodding movement, yeah, this might be a strategy. Instead, as what it is, it’s like a chocolate bar made of shit instead of of chocolate; it doesn’t encourage rock-solid nerves-of-steel gamer skills like, say Ninja Gaiden, or even stat-mongering devotion like Dragon Quest. It’s just a weird kind of fetishism, and the setups are too ridiculous too often.
Atop this pile of a half-baked game concept, Orochi throws the spear that breaks the aircraft carrier’s back: multiple characters. Using the L2 and R2 buttons, you can now switch between characters! Take three characters into each battle — when you’re not controlling a character, the computer controls him for you! Maybe he’ll get in trouble, so if he does, you can switch to him and let him take care of himself. This is sham-fisted game design as plotted by wrongheaded focus testing and/or men who took six years to obtain their bachelors’ degrees in “PowerPoint Presentationology”. They graduated with 2.5 GPAs and their fathers probably consistently score at least ten strokes above par on whole games of golf (front nine holes, two-hour cigarette break, back nine holes). The short of this is: you can write this shit in a design document, and you can program it into a videogame, though ultimately you’re only going to end up with pink vomit and/or a Jagermeister logo on your T-shirt, and if you can’t tell, on paper, why this game concept is flawed, then some part of your house might actually have been on fire for perhaps several years.
Games like Sengoku Basara (“Devil Kings”) or Drag-on Dragoon 2 were able to take the should-be-gleeful Musou formula and split its atom over and over again, simply by introducing little quirks like “imaginative scenarios”, “actual dynamic storytelling” (as opposed to talking heads in front of a map), a flying dragon to ride and scorch foes, a “block/parry/evade” system that lends fierce crunch and snap into each of the hundreds of encounters in every battle, and — get this! — enemies that actually attack you. And the king of this genre that would be Jesus, Spartan: Total Warrior, grinds many of Musou‘s concepts down to a razor edge, all while throwing out the unnecessary things. You will never find a sharper game than Spartan: Total Warrior, unless you’re slitting your wrist with a DVD shard.
I can buy the explanation that Koei makes its Musou games with a purpose — to entertain the refugees from life that find invincibility codes “refreshing”, the kind of souls who can’t quite put their finger on the fact that they possess the personalities of machines at a cardboard box factory and that this is what bothers them at all times, even while using the toilet. Musou is a sweet palliative for people who can’t be bothered to press a block button; it’s Campbell’s Chunky vegetable soup for the soul, for people who don’t have enough teeth to eat a steak. I’m not about to suggest that they make the games tongue-bitingly hard; I’m just saying they should at least conscientiously add some snap, and/or quit lying to themselves and us. These games are big soggy bowls of schlock and have been for years; the more they try to complicate them, the more ass-faced they look. Please Koei, give up the ghost. Cut these games back to their essence. Stop tacking on meaningless extras and/or art galleries and touting such flimsy bullshit on the back of the box — we’ve seen Cao Cao before, man!
If the Musou games are truly the Madden of Japan, then “harder hits” and/or “more brutal tackles”, at least, are in order. Under the present game design circumstances, should any publication respectable enough to feature advertisements for videogames in addition to reviews of said videogames ever score a Musou game (Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors, et al) higher than a four out of ten ever again, they will be placed on the Action Button Dot Net Sworn Enemies List, and we will proceed to find their staff members’ Xbox Live usernames and leave them all belligerent, unintelligible voice messages with diarrhea frequency from tomorrow until eternity.