The Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history has quite understandably been mined for entertainment purposes for centuries at the very least, so it should come as no surprise to learn that gaming has also used the setting for everything from serious stat-heavy historical simulations to coin-swallowing arcade fun too – that’s side-scrolling beat ’em up style arcade action like IGS’ fabulous Knights of Valour series or Capcom’s Warriors of Fate of course – a developer would have to be bananas to try anything more in-depth than that in an arcade, wouldn’t they?
Unless they’re Sega.
If there’s one company you can rely on to turn out brilliant games from concepts that sound absolutely terrible idea on paper it’s the company that thought giving an international release to a pair of Dreamcast maracas or turning their zombie-themed arcade lightgun smash into a typing tutor were good ideas.
And this is why Sangokushi Taisen is the name given to an arcade series of real time strategy games, expertly merging the thrill of bossing around groups of really aggressive tiny people with the lucrative money-spinner of the blind-packed physical collectable cards that form the player’s team of historical enemy-boppers. As unlikely as it may sound this setup’s been a very successful formula in Japan for a long time now, fuelling not only multiple sequels (and two DS games, one of which I promise I’ll start talking about soon… soon-ish… OK just keep reading and we’ll get there together, I promise) but even spawning similar-but-not-similar-enough-to-sue titles such as Square-Enix’s Lord of Vermilion series (and related PSP spin-offs) too.
It’s worth taking a little time to look over the photo below before ploughing ahead as the game’s got a rather unique layout:
The game is physically divided into two main areas – the lower “mat” (or screen, on DS) where you control the action and the upper screen that visually transforms yours and your opponent’s maneuvers into an exciting all-out virtual war. All battlefields possess the same standard features: To accommodate the fixed design on the lower play area they’re all rectangular fields of identical size split evenly across the middle into two halves with both players having to defend a castle wall that spans the full width of their end from their opponent’s attacks. Environmental hazards vary by location – some battlefields are plain old grass that offer no specific protections or difficulties but others might have patches of dense forest, deep snow, or even quicksand to take into consideration before leaping into battle. The main objective of each match is to whittle your enemy’s hit points down to zero (the green bar at the top of the screen) before they do the same to you within a strict ninety-nine second time limit, which is done by positioning your troops next to their castle wall and watching your generals chip away at it until there’s nothing left. Your leaders and their forces (which are really just a stylish representation of their health bars shown on the left of the lower screen, directly above them on the battlefield, and shown on their position markers on the map placed on the top-right part of the upper screen) are essentially infinitely expendable units – rather than die in battle they’re forced to evacuate when their health’s depleted, activating a timeout period before they can reenter the fray. This creates a nice baseline level of strategic thinking – do you pull a unit back to your castle early so they can regenerate their health (assuming they survive any pursuing attacks as they retreat) losing precious wall-whacking time in the process, or do you keep a powerful unit out there until they’re exhausted, maximising that initial rush of damage but leaving your surviving troops under-supported and your castle vulnerable to counterattack? As with all good tactical games there’s no one-size-fits-all “best” decision here, and as with all good arcade games reacting intelligently to your opponent’s moves as they make them is the surest path to victory.
Your troops are represented as cards – actual physical card cards on the arcade version of the game (instantly recognised when placed on the play area thanks to… mysterious Sega magic, probably), and identical digital equivalents on DS. Want to move a unit? All you have to do is slide that unit’s card to another place on the play area. As in a typical RTS movement speed is dictated by the type of unit and the current terrain it’s on as well as any tactician’s special effects or troop abilities that might currently be in play, which means getting around the map works in practise a lot like a standard “You, go over there!” kind of select-and-click system. Sega didn’t forget where this was being played though and knew full well that shunting cards around a beige rectangle wouldn’t keep arcade players coming back for very long, which is why they added real-time manipulation into the mix – cavalry units aren’t just fast, they also have a wide turning circle and do more damage (represented on screen by a distinctive whoosh-y aura) when they’ve had the chance to build up speed, and their natural nemesis, spearmen, can “stab” at their enemies if you give the card a quick “shove” in the right direction. These natural interactions with your troops make for a more personal sort of connection with the flow of the battle, giving the skirmish a feeling of active physical participation that the genre can sometimes lack.
To stop “whale” arcade-goers from buying a folder full of powerful units online and mindlessly crushing everyone in their path each general is assigned a points value between one and three, with the total cost for your entire team fixed at a maximum of eight. Whether you evenly split this into eight one-point units or channel it into a few potent cards is entirely at your discretion, and there’s no requirement to spend up to the points total if you don’t want to. Throwing a few expensive heavy-hitters into the mix may seem like the obvious way to go at the beginning but “weak” generals often balance out their lack of raw strength with incredible special abilities that can turn the tide of even the most lop-sided battle, or perhaps start off with the ambush trait, rendering them invisible until they are encountered (and that first attack being devastating for the opposing side), or be able to set up an effective barrier at the start of the match, funnelling enemies into a trap or forcing them to waste time knocking it down. That super-powerful card is probably really good at hitting things… and not much else.
Its these arcade-leaning ideas and interesting surprises tucked away in individual unit’s abilities that have kept me returning to the DS game for over a decade: Real-time tactics games aren’t usually my cup of tea if I’m honest – I’m generally happy to click around for a bit and then bail out when things get too tough or long-winded like the shameful casual I am. Sangokushi Taisen however feels very different – every match is so short and to the point, free from all of that base-building, resource gathering, and other fiddling around that I just don’t have the time or patience to learn – that I can’t help but get immediately stuck in and go for it. I’ll still lose because at the end of the day I have all the tactical nous of an upturned shopping trolley in a neglected canal, but I’d much rather lose an in-your-face clash that had me as an active participant for all sub-two minutes of it than find myself on the receiving end of some dull “turtling” or one of those copied-from-the-internet plays that rate wheedling some tedious victory out of an over-engineered situation above, I dunno, having fun or whatever other strange ideas I have about playing games.
And now we can finally get around to talking just about Sangokushi Taisen Ten! Released way back in 2008, it was the second of two DS Sangokushi Taisens and based on the arcade title Sangokushi Taisen 3, which was at the time the most up-to-date version of the game. The game’s arcade roots are clear from the moment you open the oversized box of the game’s special edition as in addition to the usual DS box/manual bits there’s also a playing card sized arcade starter pack containing basic instructions on how to play the game (which also serve as a handy quick reference guide for the home version too), an exclusive Ten-branded IC card for storing your personal arcade data on, and a few generals to get you started. There’s no direct interaction between the home and arcade games in the way there was with Sega’s earlier VMU experiments or the Gamecube memory card-accepting F-Zero AX but it still serves as a reminder of how closely intertwined the two games are, and how very much Sega wanted this portable taster to draw players in to their extravagant arcade experience.
To make that hopeful transition between home and arcade as smooth as possible the in-battle UI is an impressively close approximation of the arcade cabinet’s distinctive play “mat”/screen layout, and one too-rare instance of the DS’ twin screen setup genuinely offering an experience that couldn’t be easily replicated on another format with a few minor tweaks and a visible cursor (or the in-game map assigned to a Select button). There’s more to it than the novelty of holding a miniature arcade machine in your hands though and the layout is genuinely practical even on a portable scale – if there’s something you need to do, something you could do on it’s infinitely more expensive arcade-based original, then you can do it here with a simple tap of the stylus too. Whether that’s adjusting the camera, glancing at an overview of all your units health (and being able to click on their names to select them, should their card be obscured in a scrum), activating your tactician’s special ability or anything else, it’s all within easy reach even when things get hectic. The only thing that’s really been changed is the ability to twist cards at an angle due to the DS’ lack of multi-touch controls but even that’s still available, it’s just handled by a press of left or right on the d-pad.
Sangokushi Taisen is remarkable for two reasons: The concept shouldn’t work in an arcade but it absolutely does, and that concept shouldn’t then translate so well to a comparatively underpowered handheld with rudimentary online matchmaking capabilities and yet it manages to nail that too and make it look effortless at the same time. Before writing this it had been a long while since I last played the game but coming back it still feels as intuitive and fresh as ever – it’s not as unique as it once was due to a whole host of reasons beyond the game’s control but that’s a good thing in its own way because now I can see for certain that Sangokushi Taisen’s appeal was never dependant on being a weirdy DS version of an arcade machine I’ll never get to sit down in front of but down to the raw quality of the game itself. It’s odd, it’s hard to grasp if you’ve not played it yourself, and it’s plain old by this point, but I’d also say it was one of the finest examples of everything the DS can be in imaginative hands and a perfect showcase of Sega’s unmistakable talents.