It was 1991 and the beat ’em up genre was enjoying a “golden age” of titles. Walking the battlefield were the likes of Knights of the Round from Capcom and The Simpsons from Konami, two games among many others locked in quarter crunching combat.
SNK jumped into the fray with Sengoku (the full title in Japan was Sengoku Densho, or “Legacy of the Warring States”) powered by their new Neo Geo MVS hardware. Back then, a lot of arcade cab makers built cabs around their games from the guts up which could make them expensive investments for the maker and the arcade owner looking to buy a new title. By standardizing the guts of the cabinet, it lowered costs, especially for arcade owners who just had to swap out a cartridge inside to have a new game on the floor. The home version was put into a console form meaning that it was literally the same experience in your living room. It was also hugely expensive, retailing for hundreds of dollars above its competition which made it an appealing niche product for players that had to be on the bleeding edge. For a time, it was the supercar of consoles.
Sengoku is a side scrolling beat ’em up with two-player co-op. The story revolved around a 400 year old prophecy speaking of an evil warlord returning to conquer the world with the aid of a madman. But two heroes had been preparing for this day and when the castle appears above their city, they’re the only ones that can take the fight to the enemy and save the day.
This is a pure, white-knuckled beat ’em up that isn’t quite as easy on the eyes as some of its peers such as Capcom’s Final Fight from 1989, but it tried to make up for what it lacked in looks with a few neat effects, voice samples, and imaginative scenery. Bosses, for example, would recite their lines in Japanese (with subtitles) when encountered and spurts of ghostly light would erupt from wounds inflicted on enemies. It was as if Japanese mythology had come to life resurrecting a ghostly legion of samurai and ninja without the Ghostbusters to stop them — just two heroes with the magic skills and training to fill in.
As players went through six, extensive stages (the sixth stage being an entire boss fight), they would bounce between the modern world and get pulled into the warlord’s feudal Japanese one powered by the supernatural. It was a great, creative twist on stage design that embraced the whole otherworldly aesthetic of the story and helped to keep the player entertained with what might come next. Is it going to be a fight in front of the massed ranks of a feudal army? Or a struggle through the remains of a shopping center? Sengoku did its best to keep the player guessing until the end. Even the soundtracks added to this with chanting vocals raising the creepy factor by a few notes. Continues dropped the player right back where they died but also reset their scores.
Weapons didn’t drop from enemies. Instead, “souls” in different colors did and picking these up could award the player with dual swords, a single mighty blade, or health depending on what it was. The player could even change into a mighty warrior spirit such as an armored wolf or a ninja once they got to a certain part in the game, but they could only carry one of these with them at any one time. But they were worth having if only because of their special abilities and powerful attacks. .
Sengoku was also a pretty lengthy game that didn’t often change up the action aside from the boss fights. As awesome as the ideas and ties to Japanese folklore were, they were also hampered by a droning drum beat of repetition that a number of other beat ’em ups avoided in providing more variety (and better visuals) as well as amping up the difficulty and giving the player more combos to work with.
As nice as the backdrops looked, they were pretty static for the most part with pixel art that wasn’t quite as strong as the competition. There were not breakables, for example, or a variety of items that players could discover to help liven things up aside from the soul weapons. The bosses also weren’t that exciting except for the final one, but they certainly had cool intros. Other things like a quirky jump without a lot of maneuverability and stiff animations didn’t help, either.
The game was also ported to the Neo Geo CD, the Sega Mega CD, and showed up as a game in 2008’s SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1 for the PS2, PSP, and the Wii. It would later come to Nintendo’s Virtual Console service in 2011 albeit for Japan only.
Though it could drag on, Sengoku did have a strong creative streak to it as seen in the backdrop to the action along with a few interesting concepts like transforming into new heroes, small details such as catching a samurai’s blade in your hands and then snapping it if your timing is right, and its music effects and voice samples adding to the atmosphere created by those elements. It faced severe competition in the arcade in 1991, but it certainly stood out in as much as its flying castle in modern times did. Just without the widespread devastation.