This is an account of my geeky adventures in Japan in 2002, particularly relating to the Sakura Taisen series of games. It was written in 2003, with the aim of capturing the spirit of my experience before the freshness of the memories faded. Reading this will not spoil Sakura Taisen for people who haven’t played it; you might run out and get it after reading this and I wouldn’t want to ruin your fun. If you came to this file through some roundabout way, you can find my main site at metalbat.com.
I often wish I had met Andy Szymanski a few months earlier. In the summer of 2002, I had finished my first semester as an exchange student at Sophia University, my roommate Tets was gone catching butterflies and malaria in Myanmar, and I was by myself in Tokyo with nothing to do. The phrase “in Tokyo with nothing to do” seems implausible, but one can only wander the streets and be ethnographically awed so many days in a row before one realizes that it is appropriate only as a supplementary form of entertainment.
Every day I would wake up (at around 13:00, as I tend to do when I have no schedular obligations) and wonder what to do. I could go to Harajuku and look for goth-lolis to photograph. I could walk into Shinjuku and check the used CD/game shops to see if they had anything new since I had last been in there two days before. I could put on my iPod and ride my tiny, tiny bike to the local Book-Off and stare at the thousands of comics, waiting for one to call out to me, as is the way I find new reading material.
On many days it was hard to work up the motivation to do much of anything at all. With three major convenience stores (7-11, 3F, and Daily Yamazaki) nearby, each three minutes in a different direction, and a Matsuya (home of ¥290 beef bowl and curry) ten minutes away, I spent a lot of time just in my immediate neighborhood. I won’t say that I was bored, as I agree with my friend Jon who says boredom is always a choice, but I was often pretty lonely. The Rush fan and Ayn Rand reader in me would like to think that he doesn’t need other people, but there were a lot of days when the only word I spoke was a mumbled “doumo” to the guy at the convenience store, and that caused me some despair. IRC was often my salvation, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
My Xenosaga guide on gamefaqs.com led me to become acquainted with one Wyrdwad, known in RL as Tom Lipschultz. He was an English teacher living in Sendai under the JET program, and when he notified me that there was a copy of the Xenosaga Limited Edition box at his local game shop, I hopped on an overnight bus to go get it. Actually, I missed the bus and ran around lugging my, uh, luggage, in the pouring rain until I found a kindly driver who let me get on his bus. Anyway, it was nice to see another major Japanese city, and it was nice to get my hands on a Xeno LE box, but most of all it was nice to finally make a good friend in Japan. Now, of course, “normal” people intimidate the heck out of me, and I feel more comfortable around geeks, but it’s hard for me to find people who are just the right flavor of geek to get along well with. Some geeks, like the tattooed guys who play Magic at the Rogue Trader in Green Bay or people who go to anime cons, make me feel like I’m not geeky enough to even talk to them. Other geeks, like the kid who lives downstairs from me here in Ashwaubenon, don’t seem to have enough of a social consciousness for me to develop a friendship with them. Tom, though, was just the right kind of accepting, interesting geek for me. He told me all about his obsession with the experimental cult video game outfit LOVE-de-LIC, and even snuck a copy of their parody RPG moon into my Xenosaga box. He showed me his Dance Dance Revolution skills, and introduced me to the bewildering music of Shinohara Tomoe. One night, we were wandering Sendai when we ran into one of Tom’s JET acquaintances coming out of a nightclub. She asked if we wanted to come with her to Shaft, another club, and we said we were planning to go to an arcade. “Oh, Arcade? Where’s that one?”, she asked, thinking it was the name of a bar. “No, see, we’re nerds...”
So, it was a fun weekend in Sendai, but I could not impose on a new friend all summer. I came back to Tokyo, and it was not long before Tom called to tell me that he and all his gaijin buddies were going to the Tokyo Game Show. We made arrangements to meet at Shakey’s in Harajuku the night before the show, and I hoped I wasn’t getting myself into something too scary.
We met, and I was introduced to some of the most flagrantly geeky people I’ve ever known. It became apparent almost immediately that Leah and Shannon from Pennsylvania and Kendric from Ohio were discussing homebrew gay anime porn. I thought it might have just been a passing topic, but time would tell that to hang out with these three people is to hear about homebrew gay anime porn. It took some getting used to.
A couple of Tom’s level-headed friends from Sendai, Canadian Lawrence and Hawaiian Arron were also present, but as they lived so far away I did not see much of them afterwards. To tell the truth, I did not expect to hang out with Leah, Shannon, and Kendric much either, as they were terrifying, but they became some of my best friends. I guess I can’t really accuse them of extreme geekiness; my main reason for being at TGS was to photograph cosplayers. Anyway, it became apparent that because we were all to meet again the next day, Leah and Shannon would be better off staying downtown (if Tokyo can be said to have a downtown) than returning to their distant suburb. I invited them over and conversations ensued that brought me to like them quite a bit. I guess their openness made up for their wackiness. As it turned out, they were very into roleplaying, and we agreed to start a campaign in Leah’s massively creative near-real-world-setting. After Tom and his Sendai buddies left Tokyo, our roleplaying group started meeting once a week at the lion statue outside Shinjuku station’s East exit.
The campaign was based on several famous mythologies, and my character’s story ended up revolving around his discovery that he is some kind of pseudo-vampire. My near-total lack of familiarity with commonly accepted vampire lore and our timidly bumbling nature made Ashtray Wilkinson’s coming-to-terms with his own vampirism quite comical.
The only place in town where we knew we could sit down and hang out for hours was the 2-story, recently remodeled, surprisingly nice Nishi-Shinjuku McDonald’s. We’d get our meals (I was fond of the recently-introduced-in-Japan Quarter Pounder with Cheese), find a table, and then sit there all day chatting, roleplaying, cracking up loudly, and getting looks. We tried other places, but always ended up back at Mickey D’s. Coffee shops were too crowded, parks were too populated by vomiting humans, and my own apartment contained an annoyable roommate.
It was fun, but it was just a weekly thingo. Most of my days were still spent alone. In retrospect, I guess I should have called my girlfriend Hiroko in Green Bay more often. More often than never.
The fall trimester started. In the Spring I made the mistake of taking Japanese Religions, Linguistics, Studies in Poetics: East-West Comparative Literary Theory, Philosophical Approaches to Buddhism, and my Japanese language class all at once. Don’t ever try to research Japan’s scary religious cults, argue about the origins of words, discuss James Joyce and Japanese linked poetry anthologies with horrifyingly cerebral people, memorize esoteric Buddhist texts in Chinese, and try not to get laughed at by your Japanese language teacher all at the same time. This time I took more reasonable classes, and only four of them this time: Japanese, Shakespeare, Tokyo Urbanism, and Japanese Women’s History.
It was in that last class that one day the professor mentioned something about one student wanting to become a game designer. I almost just let it go, but later I saw that student in the foyer of our campus’ main building getting his brella or something, and I brought it up.
“So Dr. Fuess says you want to be a game designer?”
“Yeah, I don’t know where he got that. I just wrote a paper about the video game industry for his class last semester.”
This Andy guy and I had a brief, polite conversation about video games and parted. A few days later I saw him at the local KFC. We sat together and he told me how he’s into campy Japanese action movies. At some point it came out that he’s completely fluent in Japanese. At that point I was thinking that he was a pretty interesting guy, and that was all. A couple of chance meetings later, a couple of trips to KFC, and I’d found out that he was married to a Japanese woman 10 years older than him, asked his advice on a number of life dilemmas, and lent him my copy of Xenosaga. I think it was at that point, the first time I saw him post-Saga, that we first had some kind of friendship-chemistry going on.
The two of us sat in KFC between classes, and gushed about what we both were convinced was the best video game ever. He invited me to come by that night to watch him play. I did; his apartment was a tiny, tiny one that the two of us barely fit inside. Its single room contained a rug decorated with astrological symbols, a large Sony TV on a stand, a PC on a little desk, an office chair, a little rack holding books, and a low bean-shaped table. Andy demonstrated Battlefield 1942 to me, and then I spent a few rounds shooting randomly, throwing grenades at myself, and crashing various expensive military vehicles.
Once we got down to Andy showing me how he was doing in the Saga, it became clear that we wanted to play through the rest of it together. He agreed not to advance without me, and I agreed to come by whenever possible to watch. One night when I was over there and realized that I had missed the last train, and other nights when Tets requested exclusive use of our apartment for parties or romantic encounters, started the trend of my staying at Andy’s more nights than I stayed at home.
We played through the Saga, we watched The Practice on Fox thanks to Andy’s fine cable service, we watched the hilarious Pussuma, featuring Yuusuke Santa Maria and my favorite Japanese idol, SMAP’s Kusanagi Tsuyoshi. Pussuma is a show on which the two stars team up against two guests in contests where they do things like blowing up Kusanagi-san’s car in order to scare him or going out in the street to find office ladies (generally pretty but with no domestic skills) and asking them to cook or convincing them to wear certain swimsuits.
Our nourishment consisted mainly of noodles from local ramen joints, tonkatsu bentou boxes from Saboten, and nikuman from the ten-steps-away Lawson convenience store. The Lawson employees came to know us as the weird foreigners who came in three times a night and spent fifteen minutes contemplating and discussing whether we wanted the Van Houten cocoa (because it had the last name of the female lead from Xenogears), the Karin juice (because it has the name of my favorite Street Fighter character), or the Bee-Up (because it was awesome). Andy’s neighborhood, only 2 stops away on the Marunouchi subway line, was infinitely more happening than mine. 3 convenience stores, 2 bentou shops, 3 ramen joints (one with a comic book library), a great Chinese restaurant, 2 yakiniku places, and a discount grocery were all within a 5 minute walk.
We went on like that for a while: we’d email each other’s phones to arrange how we’d meet up after class, then we’d take the Marunouchi subway line back to Andy’s. Sometimes we’d stop off at The Juke, as we called Shinjuku, one of the more happening areas of Tokyo. The Juke contained Trader and Sofmap, two excellent used-game shops, Liberty, a pretty good used-game shop, and another shop that consisted of some shelves on the side of a building. We’d scour these shops and then eat at the McDonald’s or one of the several conveyor-belt sushi joints.
With all the talk of my favorite game Xenosaga, at some point Andy told me about his favorite game Shenmue. He’s a Dreamcast fan, and tried to tell me about how great Sega and the Dreamcast are, but the Windows CE logo on there always turned me off. One day we were in Sofmap looking at the Dreamcast games, and I came across Sakura Taisen. The package was pink-themed with attractive character designs. I remembered hearing about the anime, and seeing displays for the recently released Sakura Taisen 4, and thought it looked kind of neat. I held it out to Andy.
“Hey, is Sakura Taisen fun?”
“Sakura Taisen is the bomb!”
That moment began my obsessive research period. When I’m interested in a game, a CD, a book, or whatever, I go through a long ritual that includes compulsively vistiting the store and staring at the product, reading web sites, trying to rationalize the purchase out loud to my friends, and going back to the store for more staring.
Three of my IRC friends from Singapore had been planning a trip to Japan, and I offered to let them stay at my place. Qiang is a little guy with spiky hair who, when he wakes up in the morning, starts rambling on about something without any regard for whether anyone is listening, and continues until he falls asleep at night. At first Andy and I were taken aback at his extroversion, but we soon became endeared to it. Drew and Sean are more soft-spoken and tended to hang out in the background adding comments occasionally. The three of them, my roommate Tets, Andy and I, when our schedules all matched up and we were all in our little apartment, made a motley crew. Sleeping arrangements were like Tetris, and we all raced to fall asleep before Tets started his infamously chainsaw-like snoring. Tets may be the most interesting person I’ve ever met, but if I start trying to describe him I’d need another very long essay. During the week Qiang, Sean, and Drew were around, I took them around to many game shops. Their interest in niche games, particularly Qiang’s finding Digicommunication for GBA and the huge ridiculous pink special edition of Tokimeki Memorial 3, fueled my own game-geekiness. While they perused games, I stared at Sakura Taisen regular, memorial, and limited editions, Dreamcasts, and official ST accessories. Finally, one night at Trader, I broke down and had the following internal monologue:
“All right, let’s get it. It looks really fun. We can just get the first game and if it’s great we’ll get parts 2-4. If it’s not great there are plenty of other good Dreamcast games. So we’ll just get the Dreamcast and the game. Er, but should we get the regular or the limited edition game? Well, the LE is only a little bit more and it comes with a VMU. A pink VMU. Awesome. We would need a VMU anyway. Hm, the 2nd game’s LE comes with a (pink) Puru Puru Pack. We wouldn’t want to play all through the first game without a Puru Puru Pack, and we might as well get the pink one to match the VMU. But the 2nd game’s LE is so expensive. But we can’t get the LE of one without getting all the LEs. Then the games wouldn’t line up right on our shelf, and we’d have to get separate, non-matching accessories. We’ll just have to pay the extra money for both LEs. But if we’re going to have the pink accessories, we can’t be putting them in a standard white controller. We’d better get the special pink controller too.”
I had stared at these items a number of times in stores by myself before, but this time I had three outside voices encouraging me to get them and making it much easier for me to rationalize the purchase to myself. Qiang especially, his brand-new huge pink 2000 yen Tokimeki Memorial 3 Limited Edition box under his arm, acted as the little devil on my shoulder telling me to buy the games.
In retrospect I wish they’d had the pink Dreamcast too. It sometimes bothers me that there is a LE Sakura Taisen Dreamcast and I don’t have it. Sometimes I’m bewildered by my own geekiness. [Author's note: Now I have two.]
Anyway, I got the first 2 Sakura Taisen LEs, the Sakura Taisen controller, and the first-run Dreamcast with the orange box. The shop clerk, a guy with long bleached hair, was pretty pleasantly surprised when I carried the pile of stuff up to the counter. I was a little light-headed at making such a purchase, and while it wasn’t really an impulse buy it was a gamble, and I felt some guilt. Most of all, though, surrounded by three Singaporean game geeks I felt pretty excited at entering both Dreamcast geekdom and Sakura Taisen geekdom.
It rained, but the store clerk had draped little plastic bags over the products in my shopping bags so that they wouldn’t get wet. We wandered around a bit more in The Juke, looking at some more shops and waiting for the rain to die down. When we made the 25 minute walk back to our apartment, my hands hurt from carrying the heavy bags. It was a welcome pain, though, when I thought about how every heavy pound of mass in that bag equaled so many hours of fun.
Andy and I made a pretty big deal about the quantification of fun. When making plans, we were very precise about maximizing the possible fun given our options. We would itemize all of our possible fun sources, the lengths of time available to us, and other obligations we needed to work around, and then build intricate agendas to achieve fun efficiency.
This mentality gave birth to Andy’s Theory Of Fun: “The more fun you are having, the less it matters how much sleep you get”. It’s true, too. When he first postulated it, we thought it seemed pretty accurate, and all experiments since have supported it. Think about it: If you are spending unfun days, doing nothing but going to school or work and tending to obligations, you will wake up tired and feel lethargic all day even if you get nine hours of sleep. However, if you are on vacation or are otherwise in a situation that provides prodigious quantities of fun, you can get by on as little as two to five hours of sleep a day. We used Andy’s Theory Of Fun as the pivotal element in our plans to maximize fun. Andy would say, “All right, you do your homework now and I’ll finish up some stuff for work. Then we’ll go to Saboten and get bentous that we can eat while we watch Pussuma. Then we’ll have four hours for Sakura Taisen before we need to get to bed, and we’ll be fine with just four hours of sleep because of Andy’s Theory Of Fun.” Actually, most plans were much more complicated than that and often included lots of excuses and rationalizations for shirking responsibilities.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Andy wouldn’t have rationed out Sakura Taisen time because at this point he didn’t know I’d bought it yet. Let’s return to the night I made that fateful purchase. As soon as we got home, Qiang and I both performed the sacred ritual of opening new video games. Qiang put in TokiMemo 3 and played it a bit; we all cheered him on and tried to help him solve the game’s bafflingly difficult wear-the-appropriate-clothes-for-the-situation system. After a while I put in ST1 just to get a taste of the game. The game did not make an immediate impression on me as being particularly great or not; mostly I was alarmed that the conversation system was timer-based: if you do not answer in time, characters will get upset at you.
I suppose I should explain what kind of game Sakura Taisen is. At its simplest, it is a love-sim/strategic-mech-combat hybrid. Yeah. You are the male commander of an all-female squadron of steam-powered-robot pilots in Japan in the 1920s. You have to earn these girls’ trust in the story-portions of the game so that they will perform well in the battle-portions of the game. As an added effect of your living and working with these girls for a year, you will probably fall in love with one of them by the end of the game, and the path of the game will change depending on who you choose.
What you don’t get from that simplistic, objective description, and what Andy and I had no idea of before we got into it, is that Sakura Taisen is no ordinary video game.
Let me get back to the story. Singaporean folks went back to Singapore, and I headed over to Andy’s apartment with a “surprise”. He had a vague idea of what it was going to be, but I don’t think he was expecting me to show up with a bag containing a Dreamcast, the LEs of the first two games, and the special controller. From the first time we put the game in, Sakura Taisen became the focus of our days, and indeed of our entire friendship.
Andy, a fierce Dreamcast fan if ever there was one, was very happy that I’d decided to buy his favorite system. To be honest, I had been turned off by its Street-Fighter-unfriendly controller and the Windows CE logo on the unit. It has, however, since become my favorite console by far.
Anyway, we played Sakura Taisen every day. When we weren’t playing, we were trying to figure out how we could play more. One by one, we met the game’s characters and became familiar with their situations. Ôgami, the barely-there protagonist, exists as a vessel for your own superimposed personality, but is still somehow so cool. At first, most of the other characters had something preventing them from being totally likable, and a few were downright irritating. Of course, it was just the game conveying a sense of unbelonging and unfamiliarity, which is exactly what one would feel when transfered into an already-existing top-secret squadron. In retrospect, it seems impossible that any of those characters were ever strangers to us, or that we ever disliked any of them.
As we met the characters, got to know them, and went through the story’s trials with them, we became closer to them than I think you can become to, say, movie or book characters. In a movie or book, regardless of how much you may identify with someone, you are not a part of the story yourself. In Sakura Taisen, you are making major decisions and the other characters are depending on you. Movie characters don’t die when you screw up, and book characters don’t swoon when you save their lives. Furthermore, there is the love-sim aspect. By the time we had met the game’s six main girls, I was sure of which one I wanted to pursue. Andy had his own preferences but insisted that it was my game and that we should follow my path. Kouran is the geeky engineer from China who maintains the squadron’s giant combat robots. She’s a lot of what I dig in a girl; once she showed up it took me about fifteen seconds to decide that I liked her. So we chose to focus on her. One of the biggest joys of Sakura Taisen is that, while there are many characters and you are bound to like them all, there is a special excitement when your girl of choice is on-screen, and when you might have a chance to find a special event involving her and possibly earn trust points with her. It’s part of the appeal of the game that you really feel like what is happening, is happening just for you. There are many dozens of scenes we never saw because they were along story paths we never chose. What you do in the game truly makes a difference, and there is a thrill every time you hear the chime indicating the increase of a girl’s trust for you, or every time you unlock some special scene that could only be found via the specific path you took. So while we were pursuing Kouran, the other girls Sakura, Iris, Sumire, Maria, and Kanna all also had their own charms.
We liked the game. Before we were halfway through it, Andy prepared for me a surprise of his own: when I walked into his apartment one night, there on the bean-shaped coffee table were lined up the boxes for my Dreamcast and the first two Sakura Taisen LEs, plus the LEs for Sakura Taisen 3 and 4, plus four more Dreamcast games and a Dreamcast S-Video adapter. He’d bought them all for me, as an early Christmas present. The four other games were ones he remembered from when he first got his Dreamcast: Sonic Adventure was a surprisingly dazzling game considering its age. Space Channel Five was the most gloriously kitschy thing I’d seen in a long time and struck me as what Pizzicato Five would come up with if they made a video game. Sega Rally 2 was a racing game, which I tend not to dig, but its Game Over screen with the guy singing, “Game Over, Yeahhhhhh!!” still cracks me up. The last game there was Shenmue, Andy’s favorite game of all time until I showed him Xenosaga. He figured that since I’d showed him my favorite game, he ought to show me his. Shenmue was put aside to be our next quest after finishing all four Sakura Taisen games, and the others would serve as gaming-snacks for when we didn’t have the time or the required attention span for a Sakura Taisen session. Seeing all the Limited Editions lined up on the table there psychologically satisfied some part of me that loves to see collectible items in their collected state.
Our ritual continued. Each night we’d plan our activities, put in the game, and watch the opening movie. Part of the fun was learning the gloriously catchy theme song. Each disc of the game opened with a slightly different movie and a different verse of the theme song sung by a different character.
The game itself is divided into episodes, like an anime series. Each episode follows a pattern: first a quiet period during which you can wander around and deal with the squadron’s front-organization, a theater troupe. Build sets, clean up the prop room, or help the girls with their lines for the next big play. Often a chapter focuses on some problem with one particular girl.
The way you interact with the characters is a system called LIPS, which stands for something ridiculous and contrived. As silly as the name is, the system is fun. When you encounter one of the girls, you have a cursor that you can move around the screen and activate to do different things. Near the girl’s mouth, the cursor becomes a talking mouth and you can talk to her. Near her face, it becomes an eye so that you can look at her. Before you ask, yes, moving the cursor over certain bits of a girl turns it into a blushing face. I’ve always been too afraid to use that one. Anyway, while you are talking, at key points in the conversation, a Time-LIPS dialog will appear: you must choose from up to three possible responses, and these responses are the main way you can affect how the girls perceive you. This system is actually a lot more fun than it sounds, and some of the LIPS situations were even more exciting than the battles.
Later in the chapter, something catastrophic happens, usually involving some huge robots or monsters attacking some part of Tokyo. There is an eyecatch screen just like in an anime, you have a chance to check the trust levels of each of the girls and save your game, and then you sortie in your steam-powered Koubu, defend the city, and reconcile your squadron’s personal problems as well.
The battle system is a pretty standard turn-based strategy system: you have a menu of commands for each unit, like attack, defend, and move. Characters have hissatsuwaza (deathblows) that probably looked really spectacular when the Saturn was in its heyday (ST and ST2 were originally for Saturn and later were ported to Dreamcast). The battles are really where the game shows its age, but that we didn’t care is a testament to how great the game is.
Before long we reached the turning point, and the game we thought was already as cool as any game could be, got cooler. I’m trying not to give too much away, in case this essay encourages you to play the games yourself some day, but know that it contained a flinch-and-smile-inducing turning point scene. It was probably around that turning point that we realized that this was no ordinary game, and that the series would probably find itself solidly locked into our top three game series of all time.
We finished the first game, and had our first official discussion session. We talked over a meal, probably hamburgs or steaks at the local hamburg/steak joint, and gave each other our impressions of the game as a whole. We were both pretty overwhelmed at how much fun it was. We were excited to be able to experience the whole phenomenon game-by-game as it unfolded, because we were not very familiar with the series yet. ST has always been about earning and pleasing fans, and has spawned anime, comics, side-games, many, many licensed goods, and even a series of stage dramas starring the game’s voice cast. Sakura Taisen is an empire of fandom, and we got to go back in time and discover it bit by bit. Most of all we were thrilled at the thought that this was only the first game and that the series was only going to get better.
We jumped straight into ST2, possibly the very same night we finished ST1. Looking back, ST2 was probably my favorite of the series. Technically it was a small improvement over the first game: it added Variable LIPS in which the answers change while you are trying to decide what to say, and it added a little “Taichou-meter” (Taichou is your position: the head of a military unit) that keeps track of what kind of personality you have in interacting with your squadron. The battle system is pretty much the same, except with the addition of an option to change the overall strategy of your units to be faster, more defensive, more offensive, or balanced. All in all, it was still very obviously a ported Saturn game, but again it was so fun that we just did not care.
Part 2 introduced two more characters, Orihime and Reni. Both seemed to push the limits of the initially-difficult-character-who-grows-on-you precedent that the game had set for itself. Most of the game was just a continued exploration of what the first game had introduced. A couple more characters, a couple of game system enhancements, and a slightly longer story. The game’s length and the way it took its time to stretch out and present more deeply the characters and the game world are probably what made it so fun for me. Any game where you get to take a vacation in the middle and just hang out at a hot spring resort with the characters is right up my alley.
We continued on through ST2 with more and more amazement at how much fun it was. We pursued Kouran again, and contrary to my girlfriend’s perception of the game as a bawdy cheat-fest, it took all the way until the very end of the second game to get so much as a tiny smooch.
After ST2 we were both pretty flabbergasted at how much fun was still waiting for us. Not only were we only halfway through the series, but we were about to play the technically-far-superior Sakura Taisen 3 and 4. ST3 was the first ST game native to Dreamcast and on top of that it left the beloved setting and cast of the first two games for a whole new story in Paris. Starting Sakura Taisen 3 was disorienting in the best way. Full-screen, very high-resolution character portraits, gorgeous voices and music through Andy’s big stereo system, the ritz of Paris as compared to Tokyo, the thrill of meeting a whole new cast one by one, and even a brand new theme song were pretty much a massive overdose of fun and we both died.
No, we didn’t die. But the technical and thematic leaps forward seemed too good to be true, and there was a kind of giddy disbelief at how much fun we were getting ourselves into. If you hadn’t believed it yet, yes, we are geeks.
We met all the new characters of the Paris cast: Erica, Glycine, Coquelicot, Lobelia, and our new interest, Hanabi. Hanabi is the only Japanese character in the new cast. She’s a quiet, gentle type, but is also a master of archery with a sad past. ST3 also introduced some all-new LIPS system types, like the analog-LIPS in which you have to use the analog stick to indicate how strongly you say something. Also introduced was the inexplicably brain-dead click-on-random-characters-to-discuss-something-and-reach-a-consensus LIPS that literally put both of us to sleep more than once. Most noticably, though, part 3 added the ARMS battle system. ARMS is still turn-based like the previous systems, but is in gorgeous 3D and is based on an AP gauge (kind of like Xenogears/Xenosaga) rather than a flat 2-actions-per-turn limit.
The opening to Disc 2 of Sakura Taisen 3 might have been the single greatest moment of the whole series. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but Andy and I just looked at each other and freaked out. Andy tried to commit seppuku with his cell phone. I probably waved my arms around like a small child. We were very pleased.
So we played through ST3 quite happily. This was the new generation of our game and despite the huge potential for disappointment, we were not disappointed. When it was over, we were more excited about ST4 than we had been about any of the games. We knew that part 4 united the Paris and Tokyo casts for a total of 13 girls, each with her own story path. We opened up the LE box and admired the cell-phone strap with 16 different metal attachments, looked in the game box itself and found... One GD-ROM. We had been expecting at least three, possibly four discs. It was an utter mystery. Had they found some crazy new compression scheme that let them put four times the data on one disc? Was the bonus disc somehow involved? Had they taken out the FMVs in favor of more gameplay? Was there maybe a secret compartment in the box containing the remaining discs? What was going on? We did the only thing we could do: we put in that sole disc and started playing.
Seeing the full cast in glorious high resolution and fighting with everyone in the lovely 3D ARMS system was a thrill. One nice thing was that nearly every line in the whole game was voiced. It wasn’t too long before we realized that Sakura Taisen 4 is less of a game and more of a final shout-out to the fans. The main theme of the game is how great Ôgami, the protagonist, is, and by extension, how great you, the player, are. The characters are constantly talking about how well you’ve done leading the squadron over the years and how they couldn’t have done it without you. You can almost see the Red, Overworks, and Sega employees bowing to you and saying, “Thanks so much for buying our games. It has been a great few years.”
Apparently ST3 was supposed to be the last game in the series, but fans were clamoring for one last go with all of their favorite characters. Therefore there’s also an increased emphasis on pleasing the player: the game is actually very short, but can be played through differently with each of the 13 girls. Like all of the sequels, it remembers what you did in previous games, and the story changes: since you had to choose a Tokyo girl in ST1 and ST2, and a Paris girl in ST3, ST4 makes you ultimately choose one or the other, and the one you leave behind gives you a little speech about how she understands and is happy for you. There’s also plenty of eye candy and the near-full voicing satisfies fans’ seiyuu-appetites.
At first we were not sure what we thought of ST4, and Andy was particularly worried about its quality as a ST game. In the end, though, we both really appreciated its purpose and were glad to have it. It really is a great synthesis of everything that makes up the series, and thus it is the game I tend to use to demonstrate the series to people.
Finally we were done with the whole series. It was a little sad to think that it was over, but it was a good feeling of accomplishment to have finished all of the games before I had to go back to the US. We also knew that the games still contained considerable quantities of fun in the form of replayability and extras, and that there were still ST animes, comics, and side-games.
Andy rented the first anime series and we watched it. It was a nice supplement to the game, and filled in some of the spaces between the stories. I’d like to write for a minute about Sakura Taisen fans who have never played the games. It baffles me how anyone could get into ST just from watching the animes created to fill in gaps between the games. It’s like building a house out of mortar. Or something. I also have to shake my head at reviews of the anime that treat it like a stand-alone piece of entertainment, and thus complain of “too many characters with too little introduction” in an anime that exists solely as a product for game fans who wanted to see more of characters they already loved. I guess the main problem is that an anime like Sakura Taisen should never have been brought to countries that didn’t have the games in the first place. This is the kind of thing that, while I love the entertainment itself, turns me off of the fandom.
After many days and nights of gaming, many many trips to Lawson for “drinkis” and “snackis”, a couple of trips to yakiniku for Thanksgiving and Christmas, a few incidents of Andy freaking out at some great part in a game and trying to commit seppuku with his cell phone, a couple of instances of Andy catching me subconsciously making weird noises under my breath “because I was having so much fun”, more than one time at which we played so long that we both fell asleep at the blinking cursor, and my left lung collapsing spontaneously, it was time for me to go home.
Now I’m back in the US, but my ST experience has not ended. First I went through the games’ extras, which are way deeper than I’d imagined. Each game includes a “long day” mode in which you can just wander around talking to characters and enjoying the extras you’ve unlocked. You can listen to any of the music in the game, watch any cinema sequence, play any of the many great mini-games (one for each girl), or just hang out with your favorite characters. In addition, each game has some special additional features. ST1 has a hanafuda tournament, in which you play the Japanese card game against all of the game’s characters to unlock rewards. ST2 has a daifugou tournament. ST3, though, is a treasure trove, a cornucopia of extras. The amount of bonus material in this game approaches unbelievability. A full-fledged fighting game, three whole casino games in which you can play against dozens of characters in several modes, with a partner of your choice, to earn chips with which you buy more secret features, playable “drama” side-chapters with multiple endings, and a downloadable-to-VMU pocket game for each girl, are just some of the things you have to play with after you’ve beaten the game proper. I actually still haven’t gotten through it all, and so I don’t even know what’s in store for me in ST4’s extras.
In March, a remake of ST1 was released for the PlayStation 2. I had Andy get me the First Printing Limited Edition, of course, which came with a DVD history of the series, a very nice pocket-watch, and a huge pink heart-shaped alarm clock. Yes. It was fun to play an updated and expanded ST1; I could write pages comparing it with the original, but I will just say it was very fun. The PS2 version is apparently intended as a catch-up device for people new to the series who will want to play next year’s Sakura Taisen 5, which will be on the PS2. Sega seems set on making Sakura Taisen into a more popular, mainstream kind of franchise, and that includes both adding action games to the series and bringing the series to the USA. I’m not really sure how I feel about that, and I try not to think about the likelihood of Sakura Wars 5 sitting on the rack at Wal-Mart next to a Spongebob Squarepants game.
I did eventually play through Andy’s beloved Shenmue and Shenmue II. They won me over, and now Andy’s top three games and my own both contain Xenosaga, Sakura Taisen, and Shenmue. During a time when my girlfriend, my roommate, and my best friend for 50 miles were all in Japan, and I was longing for that country as well, Shenmue’s immersive Japaneseness was just what I needed.
This summer I took a little trip back to Japan to hang out with Andy one last time before he and I both got too busy with work and before his wife moved back in with him and ruined any chances of us having all-night gaming sessions. We visited the Sakura Taisen shop and cafe in Ikebukuro, the Taishou Romandou. That a niche video game series can have its very own store pleases me to no end. We went, we bought silly trinkets, we ate dishes associated with our characters, we signed the guestbook with silly drawings, and we shunned the store’s no-photos policy.
Lately I’ve taken to collecting some ST trinkets like figures and plastic models. I’ve collected all of the gachagachas (capsule figures) including the apparently quite rare ST3 series, and I’m currently working on building a model of Kouran’s Koubu. Hanabi’s Koubu-F is next. I’m looking forward to Sakura Taisen 5 and the other games of the Sakura Taisen World Project, which I hope is not code for the Sakura Taisen Sell-Out Project.
I guess that brings us to the present. Oh boy, I love presents.
[Author’s note: a decade later I wrote this article on the Sakura Taisen series for Hardcore Gaming 101.]