Sakura Taisen

   Sakura Taisen, translated as Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Wars, was released in 1996 upon an unsuspecting Japanese crowd and soon whipped up a fervor of excitement, becoming the "must-have" game of the season. With its charming mix of turn-based mecha strategy and tastefully done (read: non-hentai) dating elements, it captured the coveted "Game of the Year" award at CESA 1996, several other categories such as "Main" and "Supporting Characters of the Year," and the hearts of a legion of devoted fans.

   Ever wanted to be the hero in an anime? To be the one who pilots the kick-ass mech; whups seven shades of crap out of the unwitting demon legions and enemy mecha units; wins admiration from your superiors, team members, and enemies; and, most importantly, gets the girl? ST allows you to do all that, without succumbing to the repetitive "watch sequence, press button, watch sequence, press button, save" pitfall of other interactive anime games. (Gainax's EVA: Girlfriend of Steel and Konami's Dancing Blade spring to mind.)

   The setting: Taisho era, 1912, Japan. You are Oogami Ichirou, a fresh graduate from the military academy at the top of your class. You receive a letter informing you of your appointment as the commander of the TeikokuKagekidan Hanagumi, or Imperial Splendour Assault Team, Flower Division, a top secret strike force. Naturally, you feel more than a little ecstatic that your talent has been recognised, and are eager and willing to serve and protect Teito (the Imperial capital) with your life if necessary.

Get back to work, lowly ticket clipper!

   Imagine your dismay when you find out the TeikokuKagekidan are actually the Imperial Musical Drama (Opera) Group (it's a Japanese pun), a band of young girls from ages 9 to 19 who perform on stage, led by a drunken old has-been Lieutenant General who just happens to be your commander. To top it off, your job consists mainly of clipping tickets for eager show-goers! Or so it seems...

   The truth is soon revealed: the Imperial Musical Drama Group is nothing but a front for the Imperial Splendour Assault Team -- after all, the best place to hide something is in plain sight. Their secret weapon against the dark tide that threatens Teito is the Koubu, essentially a steam-powered mech. And you turn out to be the leader of the Assault Team after all...

   Graphically, Sakura Taisen is a wonder to behold. Though more than three years old, the gorgeous graphics still stand out in today's polygon-cluttered world. During the dating-adventure part of the game, the screen is divided into two parts, with the window (graphical interface) taking up three quarters of the screen and the text box covering the rest. The graphics in this half of the game are made up of the colourful, large detailed sprites of the characters set against many varied and interesting backgrounds. In the strategy portion, pre-rendered sprites of the Koubu and the demon hordes battle on a vast landscape; while somewhat dated-looking, the sprites are clean and simplistic, animate smoothly, and are enough to get the job done.

   The game is also well interspersed with anime and CG cut scenes, which do much to bring the action to life and keep the player interested. By today's standards, they aren't all that great, as they are cropped to fit the adventure screen window and get slightly grainy and pixellated at times. However, this can be forgiven given the age of the game and the fact that they don't require the extra Saturn MPEG card.

Kohran, you might want to be careful with that...

   Fujishima Kousuke, of Ah! My Goddess! and You're Under Arrest! fame, handles the character designs. The character portraits are beautifully drawn and animate fluidly. The Assault Team members and the support staff are made up of a memorable cast, each with their own distinct personality, ranging from the flamboyantly stylish and outspoken Kanzaki Sumire; the cool, clear-headed and sophisticated Maria Tachibana; the brilliantly wacky (or is that wackily brilliant?) Ri Kohran, the tomboyish and confident Kirishima Kanna; the cute and adorable Iris Chateaubrand; and of course, the warm and compassionate Shinguuji Sakura.

   Sakura Taisen is also graced by the beautiful compositions of Tanaka Kouhei (Gunbuster), and the many infectious melodies will have you either humming or trying your best to sing along (and no doubt embarrassing your family in the process). Each of the Assault Team members comes complete with their own theme song, parts of which play during the animated movie clips. The Imperial Musical Drama Group also joins together to sing the rousing opening theme, the catchy ending theme, and even songs in the operas they perform.


   Also of note is the inspired voice acting put up by the various voice actors. The stellar cast that Red brought together to portray the characters include Yokoyama Chisa (Tenchi Muyo's Sasami) as Sakura, Fuchisaki Yuriko (Ah! My Goddess' Megumi Morisato) as Kohran and Tanaka Mayumi (Dragonball's Kuririn) as Kanna. They truly bring the nuances of their characters to life, such as Sakura's fear of thunderstorms, or Iris' longing to be an adult. The witty and sometimes hilarious banter that goes on between the Team members and you add an element of spice to the game, making the game that much more enjoyable.

   As previously noted, Sakura Taisen's gameplay is divided into 2 sections: the adventure half and the strategy half. In the adventure half, you converse with your other Team members and the support staff, buy bromides akin to those in Lunar, do assorted odd jobs (after all, you're the ticket clipper!), and on rare occasions, bring a girl out on a date. The action is guided mainly by the use of a cursor (the special edition release of the game even includes a mouse as a pack-in bonus). During the course of the game, you'll be able to use the cursor to direct movement, attack opponents, pick up items, observe the background, stare into the eyes of the girl you love and, of course, ogle her voluptuous assets like the dirty old man that you are.

   Part of the fun comes if you're insufficiently experienced in Japanese -- often, you'll find yourself desperately trying to make sense of the archaic symbols while the threat of the response timer blowing grows ever larger, and when you finally randomly pick an answer that "looks good" just before the timer sounds, a chime sounds to signal that the girl is pleased at your response. Decisions such as these can affect two different statistics: the Love index of the girl, which determines who you end up with in the long run, and the Confidence index of the girl, which affects her prowess in battle. If you answer like an insensitive buffoon when asked about a touchy issue, no one's going to trust you as an able leader, right? Doubt over the commander's ability makes any group disheartened at the thought of battle. On the other hand, if you're able to inspire the Team members till they'd willingly follow you to hell and back, the TeikokuKagekidan become a force to be reckoned with indeed.

The TeikokuKagekidan Hanagumi assembles

   The strategy half is carried out in traditional turn-based strategy RPG style, akin to Shining Force, but with much less difficulty. Each Team member pilots a unique mech corresponding to their personality and combat style, possessing both normal attacks and special attacks that can be unleashing when a power bar is full -- for example, karate master Kanna pilots a mech that wallops the enemy with a powerful but short-ranged punch, whereas the mad scientist Kohran blasts opponents with long-ranged missiles that can annihilate groups of demons at a time. Even better, in the later battles, you can initiate a combined special attack with the girl who is currently most enamoured with you, devastating the opposition in the process. Each of these combined attacks comes with its own unique short anime sequence, but unfortunately, the attack itself is the same- a giant pink force field. Being defeated by a huge pink wad of bubblegum must be somewhat humiliating for the would-be invaders of Teito.

"What? You haven't heard of Sakura Taisen?"

   As long as you don't go blindly stumbling into the fray, throwing yourself at the nearest opponent, each battle is easily won. The bosses are slightly more of a challenge, but with the abundance of steam vents (which act as healing spots for your mech), and Oogami's ability to protect a teammate from up to 8 attacks (not only nullifying the damage dealt, but simultaneously scoring a point with the girl in question), the balance is almost always on your side. Thankfully, the game becomes more of a challenge in the later battles -- you might begin battle with half-dead mechs and an army of enemies blocking your path to the steam vent. Still, with some careful planning and skilled use of each of the team members' special ability, victory will inevitably be yours at the end of the day.

"Play it now. Or else..."

   While only two "main series" Sakura Taisen games have been released so far, the series has spawned countless spin-off titles and products: Sakura Columns, Tegiki Graph, Hanagumi Tsushin, an anime series, and Steam Radio Show, all of which have sold tremendously well. Of particular note is Steam Radio Show: it comprises assorted interviews with the voice actresses, mini-games, and video clips from the live action performance of Ai Yue Ni, a show put up by characters in the game. You know any series is popular when it has its own travelling live action show that sells out at every stop.

   Overall, Sakura Taisen comes highly recommended -- while the language barrier may put off some, the superb translation available online remedies this problem. Sakura Taisen's mix of dating elements and turn-based mecha strategy may sound bizarre in theory, but forms a smooth and natural concoction when put into practice. If you own a Saturn, you owe it to yourself to hunt down a copy of Sakura Taisen.

Retrospective by Chong Chin Xiang, freelance.
Sakura Taisen
Developer Red Company
Publisher Sega
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (2)
Platform Sega Saturn
Release Date
Translation FAQ / Status box translation
15 screenshots / 6 anime stills / 9 bromides
16 portraits / 4 mecha renders / Sketches
Packaging / box art / Assorted merchandise