Seeing Sega games on what could be considered rival formats may have been nothing new even as far back as the year 2000, when this Sakura Taisen game released on Nintendo’s unstoppable Game Boy Color, Sonic the Hedgehog had an excellent platformer on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and Sega’s own Dreamcast had players worldwide tying up the home phone line to spend all night on Phantasy Star Online: but it still feels weird to see something as wonderful and important to Sega as Sakura Taisen boot up on a Game Boy – even more so when you realise this is something that happened not once but twice. This particular spinoff takes place in a woolly non-specific month sometime before the events of Sakura Taisen 2 but after Satan tried to destroy the world (you know how it is) in the original Sakura Taisen.
In a twist on the usual series formula you aren’t filling Ogami’s boots this time around but, in a way, your own (so long as “you” are a guy, that is). “You” are a generic but promising (and nameable) new recruit who gets to spend a month training and living alongside the famous Hanagumi theatre group/earth-saving defense force – it’s your time to shine… or at least make a fool of yourself in an amusing way.
The game’s structure will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a stat/schedule-based dating sim before – Tokimeki Memorial and so on – as you walk the fine line of fulfilling your various daily obligations and raising your personal statistics (intelligence, spiritual strength, accuracy, etc) while all the while managing your limited free time and dwindling stamina to avoid passing out from overwork.
This sort of setup usually leaves my lovesick avatar shunned and alone in a very short space of time (honestly, I’m a terrible virtual date); mercifully the cast of Sakura Taisen have always been an easygoing bunch and this Game Boy outing is no exception to that rule. The biggest difference (and help) between this and similar games is that here you’re not supposed to be falling in forever-love or even mildly romancing any of the cast in the first place (let’s not ignore the fact that Ogami would shove you in a bin if you got too friendly with his ladies either); you’re there to train and learn, which within this series’ framework involves the power of friendship and a good work ethic above all else. This means that if you do make a bad choice or mess up then the game simply cuts that specific conversation or small chain of events dead (usually with humorous results) than having you become a permanent social outcast, to the point where even if you deliberately tried to tank your own reputation every new interaction is a fresh chance to impress and not an opportunity for the cast to kick you when you’re down.
A typical day looks like this:
- Morning walk around the theatre/Use a special gift item (Ex: Read a book loaned from Maria, tend to herbs given by Sumire)
- Training (Fixed schedule based on the day of the week)/Rest
- Walk around theatre/Use a special gift item
- Training (Optional free training with anyone you like)/Rest
- Evening walk around the theatre
- Save/sleep (proceed to the next day)
Saturday adds a Koubu (steampunk mechs) training session to the mix, and Sunday is your one day off.
A “day” at the theatre generally takes mere minutes to clear so even though you can only save before going to bed (in any of three slots; and you’re free to create duplicate copies or delete saves if you wish) it doesn’t feel restrictive at all as you’re unlikely to lose more than fifteen minutes work if you do have to unexpectedly turn the game off, but the gap’s still enough to force all but the most stubborn of players to live with any decisions made during the day.
Sleeping may not restore your stamina (that always feels a little strange to me…) but you do have two chances to restore half of your energy every single day (training reduces it by around four to six notches, so it’s possible to go a day or two without resting at all), a free training slot so you can either specialise in one area or cover a current weakness, and most importantly have plenty of time to interact with everyone: There’s absolutely no way you can see and do everything you’d like to in a single play-through but this is not a game that’s interested in setting you up to fail.
The game even treats you kindly if you do find yourself over-tired and with too much to do: If you drag yourself to a training session with dangerously low stamina the character will comment on you looking exhausted and ask if you’d rather rest than train today, and you’re genuinely free to choose either option. If you do decide to push through you regardless you get the stat boost from the practise but then immediately collapse and spend the rest of the day recovering after receiving a visit from Ogami, who’s only come to visit to make sure you’re OK. The very next day you bounce back with three-quarters of your stamina fully recovered – a slap on the wrist for not planning ahead, but no serious damage done.
While the mainline entries are a mix of adventure and (deliberately easy) SRPG battling Sakura Taisen GB leans heavily on the conversation side of things, employing a basic version of the numbered entries’ L.I.P.S. system – that’s… hang on… “Live & Interactive Picture System” – that adds a short timer to the standard multiple-choice dialogue response prompt, forcing you to pay attention and think fast. It doesn’t sound like much on paper but in practise adds a brilliant little spark to your chatter, as if the beautifully drawn pixel-person in front of you is actually waiting for your reply.
And you’ll want to respond to these wonderful characters because the events and interactions in this game are as charming and engaging as any of the free time events found in its console/PC counterparts: Do you buy a bromide of your favourite performer? Lug equipment up to Kohran’s room to help her out (make sure you remember to bring the right things!)? Help a sleepy Iris find her precious lost teddy bear, Jean-Paul so she can go to sleep? In a lesser series such light-hearted scenes would feel shallow and inconsequential but here there’s a real joy to be had in seeing Sakura smile as you compliment her ribbon, or watch the somewhat aloof Sumire go from being someone who can’t even be bothered to remember your name to inviting you into her room for a chat about tea (she will not be impressed if you forget the tea-knowledge she graciously imparted to you in a previous event, however!).
This journey of progression and improvement shows up visually in your training too, the team going from polite exasperation at your clumsy attempts to learn to nods of approval and enthusiastic encouragement afterwards – it’s a small thing, but these minor touches go a long way to giving your daily routine some variety and make these repeated scenes worth keeping an eye on instead of watching once and then skipping through (holding down the B button at any time speeds up all text and animations – handy!) because you’re sure you’ve seen them all before.
The only slightly disappointing aspect of the game are the weekly Koubu sessions, which ditch the usual SRPG-stylings of the main games (and their fantastic getting-ready sequences) for a duel against a single adversary. There’s some small strategic elements here – if you chose to ride in Kanna’s close-combat Koubu you’ll need to move in before you can attack, for example – but it’s not anything to write home about. On the other hand these scenes are short and infrequent, so there’s no real danger of them dragging the rest of the game down.
The game was released alongside or optionally bundled with a “Pocket Sakura” accessory (shown above) – a repurposed (colour) Pocket Pikachu that allows you to virtually walk Sakura (and only Sakura) around Teito and earn money to transfer back to the Game Boy game (via IR) to spend in the main menu’s shop; unlocking sound tests, bromides you missed in-game, that sort of thing.
The Pocket Sakura itself is… OK. As with the Pikachu-flavoured original it’s basically a glorified pedometer, tracking the number of steps taken as you walk around/furiously shake it/attach it to the dog. As there is no Tamagotchi-like need to check in on Sakura there’s no feeling of being nagged into doing any extra real-life work – always a good thing – but on the other there’s very little to actually do with the device even if you’re using it in tandem with Sakura Taisen GB, and the novelty of having portable access to Sakura herself is very much diminished by the existence of the already portable game this is supposed to be a companion to. Ultimately it’s the sort of thing that you should try out for a bit of fun if you already have one around, but if you don’t then you’re honestly not missing out on anything in-game and it’s not really worth putting too much effort into tracking down.
At the end of your month with the Hanagumi you’re given a rank/job title based on your final stats and behaviour during the game. I thought I’d done a pretty good job of it but… well… I’m only good for handing out flyers, apparently. Still, there’s your replay excuse right there, and the game even encourages you post-credits scroll to have another go and see if you’ll fare any better – not that most fans would need much encouragement to take this game for another spin.
It’s quite a “small” game – no days out in the park, no world-ending threat, no major theatrical performances for you to worry about – but it still works. There’s a level of craft and polish here, from the speech samples and hummable recreations of classic songs to careful recreations of key artwork, that makes this feel as enjoyable and authentic as any other Sakura Taisen experience, and the compartmentalised nature of the days and weeks means it suits its handheld format well.
Having said that for all of this praise it’s worth highlighting that this definitely shouldn’t be anyone’s first Sakura Taisen game, no matter how appealing the concept may sound: There is no real introduction to the cast or the setting and the game expects you to be reasonably familiar with both from the off (and as by the time this game came out it was a hugely popular franchise, it was not an unreasonable expectation on the developer’s part). This game is very much for pre-existing fans, but there’s no question that if you are one it will definitely hit the spot.