Arcade beat ’em ups from the past – Sengoku 2

The same basic illustration was used across SNK’s flyers for Sengoku 2 creating a generally uniform feel for their marketing unlike a few of its competitors (i.e. Capcom and Konami) that really went all out to differentiate theirs for each respective market. The USA versions didn’t have so much of the “blue border” look with more acreage given over to the backdrop colors. (flyer courtesy of the Arcade Flyer Archive).

The sequel to SNK’s 1991 beat ’em up, Sengoku, was a huge leap from their previous efforts. It was also 1993, an age in the life of the arcade, and SNK needed to up their game to keep up with their peers. Capcom, for example, brought out The Punisher and D&D: Tower of Doom in the same year while Konami introduced crowds to the intense craziness of Violent Storm.

Sengoku wasn’t a terrible beat ’em up, but it lagged far behind the competition in a number of areas. The premise had a ton of possibilities yet the mechanics and presentation weren’t quite able to make the most out of it. The sequel, on the other hand, took a few big steps in the right direction, though only came within inches of breaking the mold that the series started with.

This time around, the Dark Shogun has returned in his flying castle, now armed with dragon heads, a new army, and apparently, a time machine. Not content to simply invade modern times with feudal Japan, he’s apparently seeking to take control of all history by zapping his forces into different eras and causing as much havoc as possible.

This time, a mysterious princess from Japan’s past summons our two heroes directly instead of a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled as it was in the last game. She foresaw the coming of the warlord and two heroes in the future who would fight him, summoning them instead to the past to stop him before it’s too late. Once again, it’s up to our “heroes of light” to confront and stop the Dark Shogun and his minions.

Our resident evil warlord is none to happy at being interfered with.

Our resident evil warlord is none to happy at being interfered with.

SNK’s Neo Geo MVS made up the guts of the game — a standardized platform with a Motorola MC680000 as the CPU, Zilog Z80 as the sound CPU, and a Yamaha YM2610 for sound generation. It featured stereo capabilities, generous sprite memory, and saved on costs for arcade owners in being cartridge-based. If you wanted the cab to run something else, it was as easy as swapping out the cart. A home version of the MVS, the AES, was virtually identical aside from form factor. Unfortunately, its high cost (and that of the cartridges which could be a few hundred apiece) made it a niche product when compared to offerings from NEC, Nintendo, Sega, and others during the 16-bit war in the early 90s for living rooms. But for the price, it offered an incomparable arcade experience for home use.

Players could co-op through Sengoku 2 just as they could in the first game and controls were fairly easy to get used to with full eight-way movement in each side-scrolling stage including jumps along with low and medium attacks. This time, the player starts out with a weapon in-hand as opposed to having to beat down enemies for one first though that mechanic is still working here just as it did before. Enemies “drop” soul balls that can be picked up for various power ups such as triggering a screen-sweeping lightning attack to empowering your attacks with energy blasts.

The visuals were a huge leap over the first Sengoku's. Player characters will even face up or down as they follow enemies that circle around them.

The visuals were a huge leap over the first Sengoku’s. Player characters will even face up or down as they follow enemies that circle around them.

Three different “forms” could also be used to transform into for a limited amount of time such as an older guy with a bo staff, a kunoichi (female ninja), and an armored, bionic dog. All three offer up powerful attacks that can make short work of most of the cannon fodder along with a few of the bosses, though they can take damage just as their ‘mortal’ companions do. The good news is that you can choose to pick which of the three you want to transform into from the outset. Apparently after the first game, the designers wanted to make this a much more fun option for players to experiment with. And as with the first game, continues pick up right where the player dies while resetting the score.

The game is divided into four major “areas” or stages, each taking place in a different era of history from feudal Japan, the “world wars”, on straight through into the modern area and then the final confrontation. Like the first game, the areas also tend to be pretty imaginative especially thanks to the hugely improved visual direction which now includes new cut scenes.

Sword, bullets, it doesn't matter as long as you can keep your health bar filled.

Sword, bullets, it doesn’t matter as long as you can keep your health bar filled.

Some of the time eras were titled as if they were seen as mythic interpretations in from the past like this one for the 1990s. The one that took place in 194X was referred to as

Some of the time eras were titled as if they were seen as mythic interpretations by those seeing them from past like this one for the 1990s. The one that took place in 194X was referred to as “Age of the Great War”.

One of the game's horse fighting stages, this one with a ghostly taiko drummer in the backdrop.

One of the game’s horse fighting stages, this one with a ghostly taiko drummer in the backdrop.

Instead of static backdrops, a number of stages feature things such as dragon heads lurking Godzilla-like in the background, fleeing crowds of tourists, explosions, samurai chasing civilians, and a number of other neat effects to liven things up. There are even breakable props though they’re not particularly useful (none of them drop anything) other than in adding a factor of destructibility to a scene.

Sound-wise, the game has a solid soundtrack and special effects. Cut scenes now have a much better variety of spoken lines (in Japanese) than the rote briefing cut scenes that the big bad boss in the last game gave between a few of the stages.

The “teleport into Japanese folklore” effect is still here, too. At certain points, the player will be whisked away into a kind of phantom zone where Japanese history and myth might try to kill them in various ways whether it’s a boss fight or riding on horseback slaying flying demon masks before sending them back to the ‘real’ world such as in the middle of a tourist group in modern Japan. These can be neat diversions but can also play a bit of havoc with the pacing of the action by feeling as if they interrupt the flow.

Bad guys defeated, history saved, time to go home...

Bad guys defeated, history saved, time to go home…

Wait, this is where we were when we were pulled into the past? Maybe it was all just a bad hangover.

Wait, this is where we were when we were pulled into the past? Maybe it was all just a bad hangover.

The

The “end” screen had each of these characters bow, one after the other, to the player as a neat touch.

And that’s one of the issues with the game — the pacing. In the first two stages, it’s not so bad, but with the last two, it becomes a lot more pronounced when you move the screen a few pixels ‘forward’ and then are jumped by a gaggle of trash targets. Even though there’s a bit more variety to enemies (especially in death animations and the animation quality of everything in general), the game loves to throw one or two specific batches at the player ad nauseum.

Move a few more pixels ahead, and even more groups jump in. Rinse and repeat. It’s about as ridiculous as an obnoxiously high encounter rate in JRPGs. Instead of feeling as if you’re moving through a big stage, it feels as if you’re progressing by inches which is a complete reversal from Sengoku’s titanic stages. It’s a bizarre turnaround. It’s as if the designers took any criticism about the length of the first game a little too literally.

The main characters also sport the same limited move sets that their counterparts did in the first game, though this is alleviated again by turning into a different spirit warrior for a bit more variety. Unlike a number of its peers, enemy drops are restricted mainly to the different colored soul spheres. There are no “hunks of meat” or extra point generating jewelry, gold bars, or anything else like that scattered in the game to add a little ‘spice’ for players looking to snatch up things on the go.

Aside from appearing on the Neo Geo AES and CD-ROM for home users, the game didn’t get included in an SNK collection the way that the first game did. In 2012, however, it finally appeared for the Wii as a port on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service.

Sengoku 2 proved that SNK was still determined to punch out a piece of the beat ’em up pie for themselves. With the changes introduced in this chapter, they were working hard to try and do just that even though it came up a bit short. Yet for players eager to skip through history as sword-wielding, paw punching saviors of the continuum, battling as transorming heroes against a time traveling samurai in a flying castle as co-op button mashers definitely had its own allure.

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