Analyzing Dynasty Warriors and its Spin-Offs: A Warrior Worthy Of Ten Thousand Foes
One Versus All-The Beginning Of The Epic Battle
Dynasty Warriors and its spinoffs, produced by Koei-Tecomo’s Omega Force, have very peculiar characteristics. While being criticized for their repetitive gameplay and other quarks, they have proven to be immensely popular among gamers. The Dynasty Warriors series itself had seven titles and expansion packs. You may ask why there are 7 titles when the latest in the series was called “Dynasty Warriors 8“. The difference in numbering is caused by the US titles. “The first title” of the series was Dynasty Warriors, which was called Sangoku Musou in Japan. This can be roughly translated as “Unrivaled in the Three Kingdoms”, signifying the player character is supposed to be the greatest warrior. Direct translation would have been difficult. Unlike its successors, it was a one-on-one fighting game. The series took a drastic turn with Shin Sangoku Musou(roughly translated as “Truly unrivaled in the Three Kingdoms”), which was supposed to be a “relaunch” of the series, but which the US market labelled as Dynasty Warriors 2.
As stated above, the original Dynasty Warriors was a fighting game, and it was neither impressive nor successful. However, the series received another chance with the drastic changes, this time with more fitting gameplay. Instead of typical one-on-one fighting, the new Dynasty Warriors 2 fitted one warrior against the horde of soldiers. It is common for the player’s character to defeat hundreds of enemies, and even kill up to 1000 enemies to hear the character boast of his/her might. While this concept may seem to be a ridiculous and absurd concept, it is actually based on classical literature trope of East Asia.
Historical Overview Of Popular Depictions
As many people are aware, Dynasty Warriors series is based on Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel The Romance of The Three Kingdoms. This novel was written in late Yuan-early Ming period though the source material was based on the late Han and the Three Kingdoms period, which was about 1200 years earlier than the book’s publication. The history of the Three Kingdom era, where the three dynasties, called Wei, Shu(or Shu-Han), and Wu, split the territories of the late Han, was recorded by Chen Sui’s The Record of the Three Kingdoms, and later more histories were written about this era. In addition to this, popular culture revisited the episodes from the Three Kingdoms era for entertainment, and the adaptations of this era became very a popular repertoire for the popular audiences throughout the ages.
Since this period was full of war and conflicts, many dramas and stories based on this period involved battle scenes. However, due to the realistic limitations, the storytellers or the theatrical companies could not employ thousands people to enact the scene, so many battles were summarized by the duels between the warriors. In the historical records, there are rarely any episodes of duels between the generals. Guan Yu was said to have charged at the enemy force to kill their leader, and Cao Ren dived into the enemies to save his troops. The epithet, “The warrior who could match ten thousand soldiers”, which was originally attributed to Xiang Yu, the rival of Han Gauzu Liu Pang(the ancestor of Liu Bei), was later used to describe Guan Yu and Zhang Fei; but it would be more likely to describe their skills as field commanders. Some sources recorded that Lu Bu defeated Guo Si in a duel, and Zhao Yun escorted the family of his lord Liu Bei to safety when Cao Cao’s forces chased them in Zhang Ban, though none of the records said that there was an actual fight between Zhao Yun and Cao Cao’s army. Many fans were disappointed with the lack of epic battle, while there were others who praised Zhao Yun’s rational assessment of the chaotic situation and responsibility.
When the stories of the Three Kingdoms were compiled into a novel form, it was very exaggerated. Sanguoshi Pinghua, which was created during Song and Tang dynasty, put Zhang Fei as the true star of the story; Zhang Fei would “appoint” Liu Bei as the commander of the voluntary troops, he singlehandedly defeats and humiliates Lu Bu, and even declares himself an Emperor at one point. The story even glorifes Zhang Fei further by calling his spear “the greatest spear ever created” and having him penetrate Lu Bu’s surrounding force six times in total (three round trips) all by himself to get help from Cao Cao. Pinghua did nothing original though; Zhang Fei was very popular among the commoners, and it would be natural for the writer to cast Zhang Fei as the invincible warrior.
Luo Guanzhong tried to depict the events with more reasonable descriptions, but he still kept the exaggerated exploits of the warriors. But at least he kept it more reasonable for the most of time. Lu Bu might be able to kill another general in a single clash, but when he was fitted against Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, he had to retreat. Yet there are still one-versus-all exploits exhibited in the story, especially in the battle of Zhang Ban. Here, Zhao Yun alone charges into the myriads of Cao Cao’s forces (said to be made of 1 millions soldiers), and butchers hundreds of soldiers and kills several generals while obtaining Cao Cao’s legendary sword in the process of carrying Liu Bei’s infant son to safety.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was immensely popular in East Asian cultures. Not only Chinese loved it, but Koreans and Japanese were fascinated by the tale. Korean admiral Yi Sun-Shin made references to The Romance in his diaries and letters, and Tokugawa Ieyasu’s general Honda Tadakatsu was called “Japan’s Zhang Fei”. To this day, the characters and episodes from the Three Kingdoms era are constantly alluded to by young and old alike.
Dream To Reality-Koei’s Obsession With Historical Romances
Koei first started their historical simulation franchise with 1983’s Nobunaga’s Ambition, which was the strategic game based on Japan’s Sengoku era. But it was 1985’s The Romance of The Three Kingdoms (ROTK) that completed the formula. Unlike Nobunaga’s Ambition which featured only Daimyos in the early series, ROTK’s characters all had unique portraits and stats. ROTK featured several playable characters, from cunning Cao Cao to benevolent Liu Bei, as well as tyrant Dong Zhuo or treacherous Lu Bu. The series continued to evolve along with Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise. As of 2015, The Romance of The Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition are two main historical simulation franchises that are still developed regularly; The Genghis Khan series became obsolete after the 4th game, L’Empereur, the strategy game about Napoleon Bonaparte, never got any sequels, and The Uncharted Water did not get the sequel after the 4th installation until recently.
One thing to note about Koei’s historical simulation is that they do not aim to be 100% historically accurate. In fact, they are willing to go along with the popular dramatization of the historical figures, as perceived by Japanese. For example, Koei started to turn Cao Cao into an Oda Nobunaga clone, due to many Japanese considering Cao Cao to be the Chinese equivalent of Nobunaga despite their many differences. This is evident in the change in the portraits and the growing similarities between the characters’ mannerisms; early versions of Cao Cao had a thick beard and sometimes even a condescending smile at one point, but later versions depicted him with less facial hair and a pokerface, which is how Oda Nobunaga had been depicted in the past Koei games. In addition to this, although it has been academically accepted that the duels between the two generals were extremely rare, Koei continued to include romanticized actions in Romance of the Three Kingdoms series.
Dynasty Warriors‘ “one versus all” gameplay was an extension of such tendencies. It emulated the epic actions the gamers might have read about and gave them opportunities to experience what it would be like as the mightiest warrior in the era. It was definitely unique at the time; even to this day, action games usually offer handful of enemies at once to fight, and maybe about 20~30 depending on the performance of hardware. But Dynasty Warriors threw hundreds and hundreds of enemies in front of the gamer, but they fell like dead leaves at the player character’s attacks. Many gamers and critics criticized the game’s repetitive gameplay, but the simple gameplay also made the series accessible to the new gamers. Instead of inputting back-forward+weak attack or dodge at the exact moment to avoid the enemy’s attack to expose the weakness to land an effective hit on one enemy, Dynasty Warriors simply let the gamers defeat about five to seven enemies at once with simple commands such as weak-weak-weak-strong combos.
The players can exhibit superhuman exploits like the heroes of the ancient myth with simple commands, and this can be extremely empowering. Dynasty Warriors does it well by letting you step into the shoes of the famous warriors and relive their legendary deeds. Now you no longer need to passively listen or watch the story of Zhao Yun fighting through the myriads of Cao Cao’s troops; you can be Zhao Yun himself battling against the battalions and emerging victorious. Although there were many other games based on movies or other medium that let you play as the famous characters, they often set the adventures before or after their famous deeds or made the gamers strictly follow the directions. But Dynasty Warriors makes it easier to play the role of the character through simple gameplay where anyone with any skill level can be the epic hero.
Perfect For The Romance, Perfect For What-Ifs
The biggest perceived weakness of Dynasty Warriors, or any of Koei’s historical romance series was that they used the exact same materials over and over again. For example, Koei made at least 26 games based on The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, with each game Koei tried something different; some games might focus on the typical strategy gameplay, some offered Fire Emblem-like SRPG experience, as well as story based tactical games. When the same series went on for more than seven or eight titles, Koei changed the interpretation of the characters.
The series had a “traditional” perspective on the characters up till Dynasty Warriors 5; although Cao Cao’s character was more akin to Japanese tendency to equate him to Oda Nobunaga, the most of the characters, especially Shu officers, followed the traditional stereotypes that were recognized in East Asia such as wine loving Zhang Fei, old warrior Huang Zhong, or wise Zhuge Liang. But for less established characters, Koei poured their imaginations based on little details. The most infamous case was Zhang He.
Zhang He was not a tall narcissistic man as Dynasty Warriors depicted. However, considering that he had no other signature features, such as Xu Huang’s ax, Koei turned him into a wacky character completely different from the historical figure, or other depiction of the same character from their other games. However, such characterization helped different characters to stand out while new characters were constantly added to the roster and now the Dynasty Warriors series boasts a large number of playable characters.
When Dynasty Warriors began its first spin-off with Samurai Warriors, it was initially Sengoku version of Dynasty Warriors; instead of Cao Cao, Oda Nobunaga took the place of the charismatic central antagonist, and Sanada Yukimura took the role of the poster boy. However, Samurai Warriors started to develop its own distinctive system and feel. This helped Samurai Warriors to become another hit series in Japan, although it was less popular than Dynasty Warriors in other countries, such as Korea, due to historical conflicts; many characters in Samurai Warriors, including Shimazu Yoshihiro, Kato Kiyomasa, Ishida Mitsunari, Tachibana Muneshige, and Date Masamune invaded Korea under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s order and caused much damages and massacres, which included cutting off the Koreans’ noses and ears as trophies. Each of these characters were depicted as kind or honorable characters (especially Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was depicted as a merciful man who does not like to cause unnecessary casualties), which made the Korean audiences uncomfortable. But it was not really intended for oversea audiences anyway.
After one spinoff, the developers started to make spinoffs after spinoffs, such as Warriors Orochi, which was intended to be the all-star casting of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors. Then came the collaborations with other franchises, such as Pirate Warriors, Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, and Hyrule Warriors. To the harsh critics, they might seem like repackaged versions of the same game, but the beauty of these series lie in the drama they create(in addition to new gameplays, such as Zelda-like boss battles in Hyrule Warriors).
Each Warriors game turn the gamers’ fantasy into reality by allowing different perspectives, and showing alternative scenarios. The titles in the series allow the player to play as the most of the characters from the source materials, whether they are good or bad, main or supporting characters. For example, you can change the familiar story by defeating the boss with different characters; historically Guan Yu was captured and killed by Wu army under Lu Meng’s command, but the player can control Guan Yu and change the course of history by surviving the assault or even defeating Lu Meng himself. With 30~40 characters available for players, the games offer opportunities to turn the story in favor of their favorites. Those who wanted to see Liu Bei restore the Han Empire can do so by choosing Shu side, or they can bring peace to the land under the new order as Cao Cao’s Wei forces. Neither scenario happened, but Dynasty Warriors and its spinoffs let you play through such what-ifs. Even if the story mode does not offer alternative stories, it is still great for fans to play as their favorite characters, who might not be the central protagonist.
Take Hyrule Warriors for example; in this game you can play as Link, but you also have an option to play as Princess Zelda, Impa, or even Ganon. All these are options which were never offered in previous Zelda games. Yes, you can play as Zelda or Ganon in Super Smash Bros, but you get to witness their power in Hyrule Warriors. Instead of letting Link do all the fighting, Zelda in this game takes charge and fights the monsters herself. Ganon can show his might against other monsters as he defeats one boss after another. In Hyrule Warriors Legend, Linkle, who was initially designed to be Link’s sister, was added to the roster. Fans were excited as there had been constant demand for female Link, and Linkle was a good way to satisfy them.
Allowing the players to play as different characters is inevitable for Dynasty Warriors and its spinoffs. After all, the gameplay itself is simple, so the easiest way to add playtime is to add more characters with distinctive characteristics. But, for the fans, being able to experience the events from a different perspective is refreshing, and also exciting.
Dynasty Warriors and its spinoffs continue to prosper. When you thought there was no way the developers could make the fresh game out of the material they recycled seven or eight times, they kept the series going by inviting other series into their own. Despite the criticisms, the developers delivered excitement to the fans by providing them chances to change history or play as that cool character the original developers never allowed you to play as. But in the core of it all, the series is pure fun. It is liberating to break through the barriers of soldiers and other obstacle as the ultimate one man army who can match 10000 men.
In the old days, the audiences had to be satisfied to see their favorite stories unfold in plays, or novels. But Dynasty Warriors let the fans take a step further by letting them participate in the course of history/literature, and even changing the events. A gamer might be able to fulfil the unrealized dream of a historical figure in a virtual world. Dynasty Warriors series and its spinoffs not only let you fight the army, but also defy the history and the fate as well.
If you have not had a chance to feel that sentiment, just give it a try. You might discover your hidden ultimate warrior.
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