Koei’s roots didn’t start off with a game that allowed players to rage as third-person marauders during the Three Kingdoms period in China. They weren’t even a game company. Instead, they were originally a chemical company founded in 1978 until Yoichi Erikawa recieved a gift from his wife in the form of the Sharp MZ. Fascinated by the possibilities it offered, he focused on programming and had come up with Kawanakajima no Tatakai, a strategy game.
A few more games would come out from his experimentation over the next few years, including a few “adult” titles, but Koei would establish a name for itself with the release of hardcore strategy sims that were often part strategy, part civilization management sim, and even part RPG in some respects. Koei put itself on the map with its take on China’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms in 1985 and Genghis Khan in the same yeaer. Later, Koei would tackle Japan’s “Warring States” (Sengoku) period with Nobunaga’s Ambition in 1986, but their Romance series would remain a topic that the company would often return to.
One thing was absolutely clear by then — Koei had established a particular formula for their brand of strategy that proved challenging and as deeply involved as a PC title often could be with a ton of options. They might not have been easy to get into thanks to the details they immerse the gameplay in, but they were amazingly solid strategy titles.
Liberty or Death, released in 1993 for DOS and the PC-98 in Japan and later in 1994 for the Sega Genesis and the SNES, was part of Koei’s attempt to capitalize on the growing console market by porting another of their popular strategy titles over joining Genghis Khan’s and Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ efforts. It also didn’t shirk on the kind of detail that was found in its PC incarnation although a number of things had to be tweaked in order for it to work. Instead of being able to choose from a number of American or British generals to head their particular side, for example, players were restricted to picking either George Washington (Americans) or Thomas Gage (British).
Players could opt to play against the AI, go head to head by taking turns, or pit the computer against itself. The colonies are divided into states and the states are divided further into districts, each of which have to be controlled in order for one side to declare victory. With over 50 districts with a variety of resources, needs, and other considerations, the game can quickly bog down into a lot of micromanagement that die-hard tacticians might not mind.
The scale of detail in the game is typical of Koei’s strategy formulae. Options such as salaries (needed to maintain loyalty), food allotments, troop orders, materials such as gunpowder, drafting soldiers, and even political considerations are required for players to hold their own against the enemy and ensure that whatever they gain in battle isn’t lost by the next turn. Even climate, night and day effects, and sickness play roles.
Historical individuals and events are also integrated into the game following in the footsteps of Koei’s other titles, something that gives Liberty or Death a particularly interesting degree of atmosphere as players can even work to alter some of the events to their favor. Both the French and the Spanish can eventually get involved, for example. I’ve also read where it’s possible that Benedict Arnold might never betray the Revolution if the player manages to keep his loyalty attribute high enough. Many are also completely mandatory — it’s up to the player on whether they choose to rewrite history as much as possible or stay the course.
Turn-based battles take place in an overhead map where players set up their troops on highlighted squares and move them around, one at a time, to engage the enemy and hopefully win the day. Terrain such as trees, hill, water, and even night and day effects can play a part in just how effective either army is on the field. If you’re close enough to water and have a ship nearby, they can act as convenient artillery for your side.
If you haven’t heard of Liberty or Death, that’s probably not much of a surprise. While the game should be commended for being one of those ports that bravely put on its mechanically detailed face, it also made it something of an extremely niche game on either the SNES or the Genesis. But Koei demonstrated once more that on a technical level, it was possible to cram one of their tactically deep game on either machine.
As for the game itself today, Koei hasn’t republished the PC version on any download service to date and has largely focused away from their deep strategy chops and more towards the action-oriented fare that they’ve been dedicated to lately with their Dynasty Warriors formula where players can lead one man to annihilate hundreds of soldiers (or robots) on their own. It’s really too bad. Seeing the American Revolution through Koei’s lens was an interesting way to look back on history — and in giving players the chance to see whether or not they could do better than the Revolutionaries or the British in making the New World their own.