30 Days of Dreamcast: Day 9 – Sakura Taisen Complete Box

Sakura Taisen Complete Box
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Red Company/Overworks
Genre: SRPG-Dating Sim Hybrid
Release Date: 03/21/2002

There’s no better Dreamcast title to highlight today on 09.09.09 than the Sakura Taisen Complete Box. Not only is it one of the rarest and most expensive Dreamcast titles of all time, but as the Sakura Taisen series eclipsed even Sonic in terms of sales, ancillary items, and even had an entire store in Tokyo devoted to it, it’s not hard to say that yes, this was at one times, Sega’s biggest and most popular franchise. Of course we never got it in the US thanks to amazingly bad strategy by Sega of America, a trend that continues now under their current overlords of Sammy. Did Sonic get his own personalized Dreamcast? Did Sonic get his own store? Did Sonic have every single game in his series make the “Top 100 Games of All Time” as voted on by fans back in Japan? Ha ha…no. Hell, when Sega first started making games for Nintendo what was the first game Nintendo specifically requested they do? No, not a Sonic game. It was Sakura Taisen for the Game Boy Colour. That tells you the power of this series. Of course Sammy has seemed content to let the series disappear into the sunset, engaging in yet another massive disservice to long time Sega fans and their own pocketbook.

The first two games in the series were originally released on the Sega Saturn, and remain amongst the most popular and critically praised games for that system. ST 3 & 4 were the next generation’s entry. Even SW5, which was the first game off a Sega system (and coming to the US four years later for the PS2 and Wii…FINALLY. Thank you Nippon Ichi.) received nearly perfect scores from Famitsu and yet is considered the weakest game in the series. Yes. The weakest game is considered “nearly perfect.” That tells you something about this franchise.

Because the Complete Box contains all four games, I’ll be touching briefly on everything as an in-depth review of all four would take forever. I also realize that as most of you reading this are neither import gamers nor speaker Japanese, so you’ll probably never play this amazing collection, but please, for all that is sane buy the US version of Sakura Wars V when it is released later this year. Send a message to Nippon Ichi that we want the earlier, better games in English and more importantly send a message to Sammy Sega that they royally screwed up yet again by denying us Sega’s most popular franchise across the pacific for well over a decade.

Let’s Review

1. Story

It’s Roaring Twenties, but not the ones you know from your history books. Indeed, the world of Sakura Taisen is a world of steampunk. Not the crappy Steampunk you see as all the rage with the goth-industrial scene these days. ST was steampunk before most people even knew what that genre was. Indeed, the current faux-steampunk craze could learn a lot from one of the originators, which is generally happy and brightly coloured instead of looking like fanart for Gears of War. One day in 1918 a big demon sauntered into Tokyo. It was repelled, but only at a great cost to the Japanese military. Because Tokyo seemed to be a nexus for giant monsters and demons, an international coaltion was formed to protect the area from nefarious ne’er-do-well’s. The result was the creation of the steam-powered mech battle suits by Kanzaki Industries. For a long time there was a misconception that only very special girls had the spiritual energy to power these suits, but this would be proved wrong when one particular male showed that he too could power these suits.

Your main character in all four games is one Agami Ichiro. He is a Lt. Junior Grade (although he starts as an Ensign in the first game) in the Japanese Imperial Assault Force and is chosen to lead the Flower division of the the Imperial Assault Force. The flower division are special people from around the world who possess the ability to drive then steam powered mechs and are then used to fight demons.

In order to properly fight the demons, the troupe posed as a group of actors in Tokyo. Here they gathered the positive emotions from their patrons which they used to power their spirit armour. Another reason is that it appeared song and dance and other positive celebratory activities had a negative effect on demons. So, the Flower unit ended up killing a bird with two stones, which isn’t quite the metaphor you were probably expecting.

The third game follows Ichiro to Paris where he trains a European squad of girls and the fourth game is basically a fan service ala the Shining Force 3 mail away disc. Here both Euro and Japanese teams get together for one giant demon killing bash.

One of the neat things about the plot is that each of the four games is told in episodic format similar to what Ubisoft did with their Lost video game for the 306 and PS3. The game features “eye catches” or what we’re used to seeing before and after a cartoon goes to commercial, and even previews of the next “episode.” It’s a really great format and it was so unique back in the mid to late 1990’s, that it’s so surprise it caught on.

I’m a huge fan of the first two Sakura Taisen games stories as they were some of the best told adventures in all of video game RPG’ing. ST3 was enjoyable as well, even though it was mostly new character and the final game in the quartet really didn’t have much of a story, but it was still a lot of fun.

For the Complete Box and the eventual separate DC remakes for ST 1 & 2, a new piece was added to the games that pretty much changed everything. Previous you got an ending in each game based on which girl (if any) you had a high rating of trust/emotion with. Each game was stand alone, so if you made whoopie with Iris (you sick pervert) in ST1, you could end up with Sakura in ST 2 with no mention of the previous occurance. Not so here. With the four Dreamcast games, your LIPS Rating (more on that later) carries over from each game and you’re given a degree of continuity between them all. For that reason alone, the Complete Box is my personal favorite version of the Sakura Taisen quartet ever.

With some of the most memorable stories and popular characters in all of video gaming, there’s no doubt that Sakura Taisen has earned its place in the annals of video game history. It’s honestly hard to think of a franchise that offers every TWO amazing stories back to back, much less four.

Story Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

The Sakura Taisen games easily offer the best graphics on the entire Dreamcast. I would honestly put the anime bits up there with anything on the 360 or PS3. The visuals were that far ahead of its time and honestly, if you did a direct port of the DC versions over to our current generation of console, you wouldn’t hear much, if any, complaining about the graphics.

One of the big things that shows how far ahead of its time these games were was with the battle graphics. You see, if you’re a long standing SRPG gamer like myself, then you’re aware of one big flaw with these games: The visuals tend to be pretty crappy compared to what you know a system can do. Indeed, even today the graphics still seem to be stuck in the 16-Bit era. Look at this year’s Devil Survivor. An amazing game in every respect, but still looks like it could be originally from the SNES, TG-16 or Genesis. Not so with the Sakura Taisen series. These games blew me away back on the Saturn (Compare the visuals here to my beloved Shining Force 3 and see how Red stomped Camelot a mudhole in this department). The Dreamcast versions of the games were that much better. Honestly, even with my PS2 I have a hard time thinking of a single game that might equal the animation quality of ST 3 & 4.

Of course, artistic styling is all opinion, but I am confident that you won’t find a better looking game for the Dreamcast or anything that pushes that loud little system’s processors to the max like the Sakura Taisen Complete Box.

Graphics Rating: Unparalleled

3. Sound

Here’s the thing. I’m not your typical gamer. I work out a lot. I’m a bit of a jock. I’m more of a casual gamer than the rest of my staff. Yet I’m the one that raves about the Sakura Taisen franchise. It’s almost impeccable in every way. Chief of amongst this series strength is the soundtrack. I would honestly say the soundtrack for the very first game is the best in all of gaming. It’s that good. I have it on my Ipod when I’m lifting or running. I have it when I’m hiking or doing crunches. It’s not really workout music, but it’s so good, I like to have it on hand at all times. I’ve even been caught singing/humming the title track and people have asked me what it is because it’s so catchy. Every song in the score is not only memorable and fun to listen to, but it will make you strongly considering tracking down the soundtracks for these games. Or you can do what I did and just rip the music from the Saturn and/or Dreamcast discs. Oops.

Voice acting is amazing as well. Over the past thirteen years I’m come to know the Floral Assault Unit pretty intimately, having engaged in everything from SW Online to SW Columns. The voice acting cast of these four games do an excellent job of displaying a wide range of emotion for the characters and really making you care about each and every member on your team. Each voice is distinct, unique and a lot of fun. You can tell the cast of ST care about the games as much as the fans do and they really give it their all.

So you have some of the best voice acting and music on the Dreamcast bundled into one large package. How can audiophiles not love this thing? Much is such an integral part of the story of these games, much like Nippon Ichi’s Rhapsody that the music basically had to be epic in order to live up to the rest of the game. Thankfully it succeeds and then exceeds all expectations.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control and Gameplay

The games have two distinct modes of play that switch off as you progress. You have Dating-Sim mode and you have Battles. Because the battle system changes significantly between the first two and the last two games, let’s start with the Hoochie Koochie.

As Ichiro, you’ve have the ability to talk to people in various locations between battle. You’ll interact with these characters through LIPS (Live Interactive Picture System), which is a fancy way of saving “Dating Sim.” What will happen is that when you initiate conversation one of your lovely ladies will say something and you are given a choice of responses. Remember that each girl has their own personality and what is right for one is most assuredly NOT for several others. The choice you make will either add or subtract points for the trust value your character has for you. Trust points not only determine how a character does in battle, but their emotional connection to you. Inevitably this also determines which ending you get. If you’ve played Shining Force 3, it is somewhat similar to the trust rating there where nurturing relationships between characters can get bonuses in combat. However there may be times you want to foster a negative relationship with one of your girls, but that comes more into play with STV, which came out years after this collection. Inevitably, the dating sim aspect is one of the most memorable pieces of this game and provides a lot of the laughs and love people have for the ST series. In fact Red tried duplicating this magic on its own with Thousand Arms. It was a more fantasy game and had Turn Based battles (and a lot of them. Honestly, it features the most random battles I have ever encountered in a game) but it just wasn’t the same. Still a cute game though.

Now for combat. In the first two games, play was in standard SRPG fare. You had a grid based maps. Characters moved a certain number of squares in the grid. What differs is you have separate groups on your map and you can only issue two commands to eat group per turn. This adds more of a level of strategy than in your normal SRPG, but when you have more than two character in a group, this means someone doesn’t get to go that turn. This is where the first two ST games prove to be as challenging as they are cute and sometimes hilarious. Make no mistake, this is a tactician’s game through and through. Losing a character massively drops their trust points with you, so losing one of your teammates may not be as permanent as in Fire Emblem, but it does prove to be as brutal.

ST 3 & 4 dramatically changes battle gameplay with something that Phantom Brave or Makai Kingdom fans might find more to their liking. Here the series introduces ARMS which stands for Active Real-time Machine System. Here the grid system is done with entirely and each character on your team has a certain number of Action Points. There’s a bar at the bottom of the screen to remind you how many points you have. As long as you have something in the tank you can move, attack, or what have you. With enough AP, you can do a combo attack with another character or a special attack if you have the AP and their trust level for you is high enough. This is a wonderful invention and it really revolutionized SRPG’s as we know it. Of course, the vast majority of the games since have stuck to the grid format and more’s the pity. ARMS is a wonderful engine and although I wish more games tried something like this, it just helps to ensure the uniqueness (and awesomeness) of the ST franchise.

Two very different but solid engines coupled with the awesomeness of LIPS. As much as I love the Shining Force franchise, the Sakura Taisen really offer the best SRPG experience out there. There’s nothing quite like it.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

Well, you have four games, each with multiple endings and thanks to the Dreamcast, your Trust Points can carry over between games. Really, do you HAVE to ask about the level of replay value here? With this one purchase, if you can find it and know enough Japanese to get through it, you pretty much have all the gaming goodness you’ll need for months. Each game also contains a lot of extras, such as unlockable films, mini-games and so on.

What’s interesting to note is that ST1 is two discs, ST2 is three discs each and ST3 is a whopping 4 GD-roms. Wow. ST4….is only one. Weird, eh?

Replayability Rating: Unparalleled

6. Balance

Normally SPRG’s require a specific mindset in order to get through them without real difficulty. Not so with the ST games. Although some battles can be pretty tricky, especially towards the end of each game, Red Company’s made sure the first few missions help explain the basics and how to properly get through these games so that even a first timer to this genre can enjoy them, even if they do lose character after character and thus have little to no Trust Value.

I honestly think the hardest part of the game is going through the Dating Sim. There are so many characters and it’s hard to keep them all happy at once. It’s even worse if you’re unable to read Japanese. Those of you who can’t are in for nothing more than a guessing game here. However, even if you can, getting some of the questions right can be tricky, even if you know the girls pretty well.

If you’ve ever played an SRPG, you’ll adjust to the battles in ST 1 & 2 pretty easily. At first you might forget the command limits, but that won’t really matter in the first few battles. Adjusting to ARMS might be a little harder due to having to break the grid based SRPG paradigm in your head, but once you do, you’ll find the system to be not only awesome, but freeing in terms of all the options it opens up to you.

There is a learning curve, especially because of the innovation, originality, and the lack of experience most gamers having with the Dating Sim bits, but as long as you can fuddle through Japanese, you’ll do fine.

Balance Rating: Great

7. Originality

Although ST 1 & 2 are remakes of the Saturn versions with a few new bits, 3 & 4 were designed specifically for the Dreamcast (and have yet to leave it). These games also gave us one of the best SRPG engines of all time.

The Sakura Taisen series is one of the most innovative and outside the box things Sega ever published. So of course…US fans never got to sample it. Oy.

Originality Rating: Good

8. Addictiveness

I have to tell you, I’ve never really been into Bishojo, Galge, or Ren’ai games. I’m not a huge importer as I’m mainly stuck to a few RPG’s or NJPW/AJPW games. I don’t cosplay, I’m not a big JRPG person and I definitely didn’t learn Japanese to play video games. That being said, the Sakura Taisen franchise sucked me in like no other series. Valkyrie Profile may be my favorite RPG, Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment may have the best story I’ve ever encountered in a game and Guardian Heroes may be my favourite game of all time, but nothing, NOTHING has captured my heart like this franchise. Everything about it is amazingly done. It’s quality from beginning to end with no real flaws what so ever. The fact an entire franchise’s core game line could do this four times in a row without a hiccup is so staggering, I doubt this feat will ever be duplicated by anyone ever again.

Amazing characters, fun stories, innovating and groundbreaking gameplay, snazzy graphics and catchy music. This is the franchise of all franchises and I defy anyone who has the ability to play (and understand what is going on in) these games to walk away without loving them.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor

Sakura Taisen 1: the best selling game of all time for the Sega Saturn AND 1997’s GOTY. What else came out in 1997? Oh yeah…Final Fantasy VII. Cloud and Sephiroth got their butts kicked at the end of the year by some girls in steam powered armour. Sweet.

Sakura Taisen 2:: the most popular game of 1998 and the second best selling dating sim game of all time.

The Sakura Taisen franchise also managed to get all four of it’s games (The fifth wasn’t out yet) into Famitsu’s top 100 games of all time list, a feat no other franchise was able to duplicate. In May of 2009 it was voted the game Japan most wanted to see on this console generation. Not Mario. Not Sonic. Not Pokemon. Not Final Fantasy. Not Megaten. No even five years after the last game in the series came out, Sakura Taisen is the franchise gamers across the Pacific want and crave. It’s a series that could have been one of Sega’s biggest over here as well if they had been smart enough to bring it stateside. Hell, it might have even helped the Saturn and Dreamcast last a bit longer in North America. But no, for whatever insane cracked out reason, they chose to screw both themselves and their console owners over.

Once Sakura Taisen V hits the US, any gamer that gives it a chance should be able to respect it, if not outright love it. I’ll admit it’s the worst in the series, but it’s still a good game. Again, if it sells well enough, maybe we can also get the four AMAZING games that proceeded it. Hell STV scored a 37/50 from Famitsu and was one of the biggest selling games of 2k5

Sakura Taisen is a shining example of not only what gaming should be, but what every developer should strive to make. It has one of the largest fan following in the world for a reason kids. This is universally considered the greatest franchise never to come to North America. Come see why.

Appeal Factor Rating: Unparalleled

10. Miscellaneous

Although the STCB is considered the big chase piece for any Dreamcast collection, it’s not as expensive these days as say, the original and unedited SegaGaga. You can get this used for about $80, but new and MIB copies can go between $200-300 USD. I think I paid $120-$150 on launch day for this. It was well worth it and thanks to the connectivity and improved graphics, I traded in my Saturn versions and never looked back…although someone gave me ST2 years later and I have the SW3 music box (another gift).

To be honest, the Sakura Taisen Complete Box is pretty much the epitome of Dreamcast gaming for me. Sure there are other games like SegaGaga, Ikaruga, Cannon Spike, and TR4 that deserve honourable mention, but they don’t come close to the sheer quality that the ST four represent. These are classics in every sense of the word. These are game that truly deserve their fandom and critical acclaim. These are not only some of the best games Sega has ever published, but amongst the best games EVER MADE. There’s a little fire of hope in my heart that grows ever larger the closer we come to STV hitting US shores that we’ll see the original four in English so that all of you can experience the awesomeness. Until then, I’ll have to be content with the Complete Box and remind myself that I’m one of the lucky few Westerners to experience these in all their glory.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story: Unparalleled
Graphics: Unparalleled
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Great
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Unparalleled
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL SCORE: AMAZING GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
The Sakura Taisen Complete Box is far and away the crown jewel of Dreamcast gaming. Not only does it sport the best soundtrack and graphics ever to grace the console, it also features four of the greatest games ever made. There is literally nothing bad I can say about these games save for the fact Sega of America was too asinine to ever bring them stateside. There is no better way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Dreamcast than by spending its birthday paying homage to the best thing ever released on the system. Thank you Red Company/Overworks for giving these to us. Now let’s hope the localization of STV is enough to get US gamers to clamor for the gamers featured here in English as well.

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