Chinese history, arcade style from Japan – Dynasty Wars

This flyer (courtesy of the Arcade Flyer Archive) is the US flyer which doesn’t look half bad in a rare moment of artistic zen. The front sports a great illustration piece while the reverse side talks up the story amidst screenshots. It also boasts about Capcom’s “exclusive Computer-Aided Difficulty Adjustment” which “automatically adjusts to each player’s skill level!”. I’m not sure what that entailed, whether it boosted the HP of enemies and their damage, threw more bad guys at the player, or what, but it was apparently big enough to boast about.

In the same year that Final Fight debuted, Capcom took a trip to China’s past by doing a little licensing of their own. Konami’s ‘toon based games would later get a lot of press, and rightly so, but Capcom had also dabbled in arcade adaptations and one of their early stabs was a manga by Hiroshi Motomiya. It wasn’t the Simpsons or TMNT, but it was something.

The manga was Tenchi o Kurau (“The Devouring of Heaven and Earth”) set in a period of history that the epic Chinese tale, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, dramatized in a retelling of this tumultuous period of Chinese history when the land was split between warlords vying to re-unite it under their individual flags.

Strategy grognards on the PC side might also know it thorugh Koei’s ongoing obsession with the same through their Romance of the Three Kingdoms series — or their action adaptation, Dynasty Warriors, on consoles. In a lot of ways, Capcom’s Dynasty Wars would probably be what Koei’s third-person Dynasty Warriors could’ve turned into if it were crammed into a 2D, side scrolling slash ’em up. I had to double check to see if Koei had anything to do this this game (they didn’t).

The arcade teaser showcased all four characters with small bios along with listing the potential weapon ugprades they could get.

The arcade teaser showcased all four characters with small bios along with listing the potential weapon ugprades they could get.

Dynasty Wars was a completely different game from Final Fight which it probably shared floor space with — the two were like night and day. It wasn’t a pure beat ’em up with fists and feet — only now players fought with a permanent weapon in hand, making it a slash ’em up instead. They were also glued to their horse for the entire game.

Like Final Fight, though, players could choose who they wanted to play as. In this case, as any one of four main characters. Unlike Final Fight, you were locked into whatever character you chose. Losing all of your lives and then continuing didn’t give you the chance to pick someone else, nor did it save your score by default like other beat or slash ’em ups would.

Capcom really likes their creative continue screens which was something of a hallmark to many of their beat 'em ups.

Capcom really likes their creative continue screens which becomes something of a signature to many of their beat ’em ups.

As for the backstory, the flyer actually explained what was going on in detail while the teaser for the arcade game briefly mentioned something about the fall of the Han Dynasty leading to a split of power leading the land to ruin. The more detailed explanation covered the rise of four heroes against the warlords who overthrew the Han Dynasty. Taking place in 184 A.D., they now set off to stop the powerful general, Thung Chok, across eight stages of horse riding, weapon slashing action.

Each of the four had their own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Each of the four had their own particular strengths and weaknesses laid out by the handy gauges, though you kind of had to guess what each one meant. F.P. probably stood for “fighting power” and M.P. for “magic power” though that probably stood in for how powerful your special attack was (such as Liu Bei summoning fire archers to temporarily set the field ablaze).

Taking its cues from Motomiya’s manga inspired by the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, each of the four are taken from the dramatic pages of its history as something of a no brainer.

The historical novel of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is literally bursting with hundreds names and people, even if some of them may not do anything too important. Much like how Star Wars’ fans have canonized even the lowliest characters with their own biographies on Wookiepedia, the games and manga drawn from the novels have elevated seemingly unimportant characters into something more.

It's a tumultuous time during the Three Kingdoms period as heroes go forth to bring order back to the land!

It’s a tumultuous time during the Three Kingdoms period as heroes go forth to bring order back to the land! As plain and as repetitive as the scenery could be, it wasn’t always so.

The most popular character who should also be familiar to Koei’s Dynasty Warriors fans would likely be Liu Bei whose historical persona was as the founder of the Shu Han kingdom and had become its first ruler. Kuan Yu (who players may know better as Guan Yu) was a general that served under Liu Bei along with Shao Yun (who, again, may be better known to later players as Zhao Yun) and Shang Fei (Zhang Fei).

The game ran on Capcom’s CPS-1 arcade hardware which was a lot like a console in a cabinet. Back then in the 80s and the 90s when arcades were still going strong, manufacturers like Capcom and its peers often created custom hardware guts for their games which created something of a headache for arcade owners that wanted to repurpose a cabinet without having to buy an entirely new setup every time. If they already had a cabinet set up for a certain number of players with its own monitor, speakers, and controls, why buy all of that over again if another game could use them? It was like buying a new entertainment system at home every time you wanted to play a new game.

Despite the relatively low detail, the backdrops could occasionally be surprising such as the burning fleet in this battle...

The backdrops could occasionally offer surprising venues such as the burning fleet in this battle…

...a snowy battlefield...

…a snowy battlefield…

...or a city burning in the far distance.

…or a city burning in the far distance.

Capcom eventually saw how it could save money on its end while passing those savings on to arcade owners with the development of the CPS-1. Now, if an arcade owner wanted a new Capcom game, all they had to do was swap out the ROM cartridge or board that had it instead and dress up the same cabinet in new duds.

The CPS-1 was a pretty powerful piece of hardware centered around Motorola’s 16-bit 68000 CPU and used Zilog’s super popular Z80 CPU backed by two Yamaha chips for sound. You can check out what it looked like at System 16’s museum of arcade hardware. It also proved itself extremely versatile in providing the hardware platform backing games like Final Fight and Strider to Street Fighter II: Champion Edition and shooters like 1941 – Counter Attack.

As for the quality of the games, like anything else, that could vary. Dynasty Wars wasn’t terrible, but it really wasn’t that great, either, not after what Capcom could show what it could do with Final Fight.

The generals all had different personalities, but fighting-wise, were pretty similar to each other.

The generals all had different personalities, but fighting-wise, were pretty similar to each other and not very exciting.

All four characters, despite having different weapons and varying levels of power, fought similarly as they hack ‘n slashed through buckets of bad guys en masse. The controls were also different — attacking to your left or right was awkwardly handled by two different buttons. Holding down an attack button charged up a power attack which was particularly useful against bosses, something that would see later play in a game like 1992’s Asterix from Konami.

Bosses weren’t the greatest, either, with a number of them following relatively the same patterns and attack styles, sometimes coming at the player two at a time though they had spectacular death scenes complete with voiceovers. Visually, the game mixed in manga-styled art for the cutscenes and the always-present profiles on the bottom. As you charged up an attack, the face of your character would clench his teeth in fury right before unleashing it against their enemies.

The game wasn't shy around blood as Liu Bei demonstrates here, using the same pose he teased in his opening bio...

The game wasn’t shy around blood as Liu Bei demonstrates here, using the same pose he teased in his opening bio…

...once more here...

…once more here…

...and again. It's a theme, I guess.

…and again. It’s a theme, I guess.

But wait! This guy gets off without getting slashed in half or quartered. The look on his face shows how surprised he is as the player probably would be.

But wait! This guy gets off without getting slashed in half or quartered! The look on his face is probably because he’s as surprised as the player.

The sprites onscreen were also a lot smaller than those in Final Fight and with the massive number of clone soldiers coming at you, didn’t have a lot of variety worked into much else outside of the backdrops. With the profile bar on the bottom taking up 1/6 of the screen and up to 1/3 of it taken up by the horizon strip at the top, it also made the play field feel extremely limited.

On the other hand, gameplay utilized an interesting RPG level-up system. Experience orbs would drop from enemies or objects and leveling up increased their hit points displayed at the top of the screen in an actual counter. Weapon upgrades would also occasionally drop with new swords (or spears depending on your chosen hero) further increasing their ability to dish out damage. Capcom’s Magic Sword in 1990 would later take these same concepts into hyperdrive.

Sound-wise, the game used a lot of voice samples with characters calling out on taking the field as the game started, when they had leveled up, and announcing who they had killed at the end. Music-wise, the themes complemented the action well. The credits for the composer also did an unusual thing in keeping their name a secret unless players had completed the game apparently without using continues.

As for who the composer was, they were listed as “M. Goto” who, as the Capcom wiki points out, was Manami Matsumae’s maiden name. Since then, she’s gone on to have a long and colorful career in composing VG music. More recently, she’s been connected to the successfully Kickstarted Mighty No. 9 and Shovel Knight.

The game also tested the storytelling waters with in-game dialogue displayed at the bottom of the screen in the profile bar as bad guy bosses boasted their intent to wipe the battlefield with your face. A climactic, multi-part boss fight at the end of the game would also finish things off with a wall of text and a promise for a sequel as a mysterious villain contemplates what has happened and plans accordingly.

The battle may be over in this game (it comes to an end after the credits), but Capcom would create five more games based on the setting with an arcade sequel, two Famicom games (the English port of which was Destiny of an Emperor), one for the Game Boy, and one for the Super Famicom.

The battle may be over in this game (it comes to an end after the credits), but Capcom would create five more games based on the setting with an arcade sequel, two Famicom games (the English port of which was Destiny of an Emperor and another, Japan-only, title: Tenchi wo Kurau II), one for the Game Boy (Destiny of an Emperor again), and one for the Super Famicom (the Japan-only Destiny of an Emperor III).

One surprising twist was that the game actually saw PC ports over in Britain on the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, and the Commodore 64 to mixed reviews. It would later come over onto the PC Engine in 1994 as a Japan-only exclusive. Since then, however, it’s been neglected having failed to appear in any of Capcom’s later compilations such as their Classics Collection Remixed on the PSP.

Dynasty Wars didn’t look as good as Final Fight nor was it quite as exciting. Instead, it felt more like a tentative proving ground for concepts that would find their way into Capcom’s other beat and slash ’em ups that would take these same lessons to heart. The action was incredibly repetitive and the bosses might as well have come off of a production line though the attention paid to translating the look and appearance of Motomiya’s art and characters stands out in giving the game a unique feel. As world changing as these Chinese heroes could have been in the arcades in 1989, though, it was hardly enough to stand up to four mutant turtles that had also come out to play in the same year.

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2 responses to “Chinese history, arcade style from Japan – Dynasty Wars

  1. Pingback: Thinking Out Loud: Capcom vs. Konami – The Arcade Beat Down | World 1-1·

  2. Pingback: A Look at Legends: Capcom vs. Konami – The Arcade Beat Down | World 1-1·

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