Arcade beat ’em ups from the past – Sengoku 3

The US flyer (credit to the Arcade Flyer Archive) features some great art complimenting the fantastic pixels in the actual game. As explosive as this flyer looks, the game falls pretty short.

In 2001, SNK was in dire straits. The company, reeling from financial losses in the late 90s and having retreated from the North American market in 2000, was acquired by Aruze who didn’t much care for its games as it did in using their IP for pachinko slot machines which was its main business. Because of that neglect, SNK’s fortunes fell even further until Aruze placed the company into bankruptcy.

But that wasn’t the end of SNK. SNK’s founder, Eikichi Kawasaki, had left SNK after the acquisition (as well as accusing Aruze of under-funding SNK exacerbating its eventual collapse) to form Playmore in August, 2001. After SNK was placed into bankruptcy, Kawasaki bid for and was awarded SNK’s IP placing it back into the hands of those that knew how to use them. Brezzasoft, another company formed by ex-SNK employees, was also bought up by Playmore. SNK was essentially reborn as the company that it should have stayed.

In 2000 and 2001, SNK licensed out its IP to others to make games. For example, Capcom came out with the hugely popular Capcom vs. SNK fighting game in 2000 and its sequel in 2001. Also in 2001, a Japanese game company called Noise Factory came out with Sengoku 3.

It’s hard not to look at Sengoku 3 and feel that it came a bit late to the party. The “golden age” of beat ’em ups in the arcade was long over and it had been eight years since Sengoku 2, but that didn’t keep Noise Factory from trying to improve on the original formula, succeeding in some ways and falling short in others.

The teaser tells the story of a “Timeless Soul” that will come and of four heroic ninja destined to face it before all is lost. Sengoku 3’s not much on story and compared to Sengoku 2’s talkative bosses and cut scenes, might as well have gone into the arcade without one though it does include text for a few of the characters such as the really big bosses. While some may not care about a story in a beat ’em up, efforts by both Konami and Capcom in the past have also proven just how effective it can be in small doses complimenting the action. It’s especially jarring when SNK introduced a bit of that in the first Sengoku and then ramped their efforts up with the sequel, only to see even less of a story with the third iteration.

The story was all over the place. Players will travel to countries like Brazil and China, but why is never fully explained including this subplot.

The story was all over the place. Players will travel to countries like Brazil and China but why is never fully explained including this subplot. I’m not sure what happened to make Byakki this angry, but it was great when he started fighting for the good guys.

The sprite art in Sengoku 3 was really something to behold. That moped in the background can also be attacked and broken up, like many other props in other beat 'em ups, only it takes a ton of damage before flying apart.

The sprite art in Sengoku 3 was really something to behold. That moped in the background can also be attacked and broken up, like many other props in other beat ’em ups, only it takes a ton of damage before flying apart.

On the other hand, the visuals are amazing. Noise Factory’s artists made this a great looking game with detailed heroes, villains, and even trash mobs. Flesh melts from enemies revealing their skeletal bodies before reforming, a villain’s clothes ripple in wind that seems to follow only them, faces have expressions, the animation is fluid, and the fighting looks great as a result of this care. On the other side of the coin, some parts of the game don’t look as great such as when the artists tried leveraging what look like digitized stock photos of certain things (like city skylines) in with the brightly colored sprites for the heroes, bad guys, and much of the scenery. But the overall effect is a huge leap over what was seen in Sengoku 2 and could have easily challenged its peers if it were transported back to the early 90s on looks alone.

Noise Factory also pulled in all of the “usual” tools that beat ’em ups from Capcom and Konami had been using for years and which Sengoku 1 and 2 had strangely neglected to bother with. Players can now pick from four different ninja to start the game as. Kongoh is the heavy hitter wielding a log on his shoulders. Kagetsura is a one eyed ninja. Falcon’s the “Western ninja” guy who is great with a sword and pretty fast to boot. And Kurenai is the kunoichi (female ninja) of the group.

One neat thing that Noise Factory did was add two more characters later in the game that players could be as — two former villains that they had to first fight and defeat as bosses. After defeating Byakki (the second of these special characters), players can opt to pick either him or Okuni (a female ninja who fights with fans, Byakki fights with what looks like a spiked tambourine) and finish off the last two stages. Byakki is a solid fighter with decent speed and a weapon that does close quarters damage before being flung a distance away for a little ranged attack. Okuni fights with her fans and is almost like another Kurenai.

Picking former bosses as playable characters was a great feature to have in the game, but Sengoku 3 wasn't the first to do it. Knuckle Bash way back in '93 also did the same thing.

Picking former bosses as playable characters was a great feature to have in the game, but Sengoku 3 wasn’t the first beat ’em up to do it. Toaplan’s Knuckle Bash way back in ’93 also did the same thing.

Each character has pluses and minuses such as Kongoh hitting with great power but also tends to be a bit slow. Falcon has fast attacks though they don’t do as much damage as Kongoh’s does. Kagetsura is a bit slower but can hold his own with his blade during battle in being a balanced fighter with decent damage and speed. Kurenai has decent speed but isn’t quite as quick on the draw as Falcon or has as much hitting power as Kongoh.

Mechanically, Sengoku 3 has finally caught up with what most of the genre had already been doing almost a decade earlier with one or two additional tweaks. For one thing, players can pick which of three starting stages to begin with, each having its own level of difficulty. Two more stages open up after cruising through those, and one final showdown in Kyoto appears after that for a total of six.

With combat, multiple hits on an enemy result in fancy combo animation sequences, but these are also helped by a second attack button that allows players to punch foes instead of slashing at them with a weapon. Special attacks are triggered with a joystick/attack button combination (if the player has enough ninja magic saved up), and there are three to use depending on your ‘stick and button combos. There’s also a combo gauge to measure your performance.

In some other beat 'em ups, you could grab and throw these guys off the roof. But if you try to do that in Sengoku 3, an invisible wall keeps them from flying over the edge.

In some other beat ’em ups, you could grab and throw these guys off the roof. But if you try to do that in Sengoku 3, an invisible wall keeps them from flying over the edge. Still, nice graphics!

The “soul” system of the first two games is completely absent in Sengoku 3 where enemies dropped colored spheres that could be grabbed for benefits such as an immediate area attack of health. Now, those functions are replaced by standard beat ’em up conventions such as breakable props revealing food (for health) and a player triggered magic attack after accruing enough magic by beating up on enemies.

Points are awarded for trashing bad guys and picking up special items revealed by breaking props ranging from museum cases to barrels and dying doesn’t reset the score. Plunking in a quarter or two continues right where you died, score intact.

As solid as the preliminaries sound, the actual design of the game environment left a lot to be desired. This was a game that celebrated the art of hitting things a lot only to forget that it can also be way too much of a good thing.

Let’s start with the props. It shouldn’t take a complete combo to break open a barrel, yet that’s often how it felt like with most of the breakables in the game. These are objects with the kind of health reserves that the car you smashed in Final Fight would be related to.

The game does a lot of palette swapping by changing the colors of enemy uniforms to indicate how tough they are, and in the later levels, these trash mobs also begin sharing that degree of toughness that the props do, taking multiple falls before they’re finally beaten down. Some of the most annoying enemies in the game get two life bars that you have to break down before they die, and then the game decides to throw even more of these at you as an effort to embellish the difficulty. And all of these have boosted health in the later areas. What this equals is a long, tired slog through an incredible exercise in mind numbing repetition. The final boss can also be incredibly cheap with a power attack that renders them indestructible for several seconds. That by itself wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t spam it.

Fighting enemies in Capcom’s adaptation of The Punisher in ’93 didn’t feel like a chore because it created a mix of easy-to-waste fodder and tough enemies that offered a different challenge while being reasonably solid beat downs. You felt like The Punisher in that game, tearing through Kingpin’s thugs but also challenged by the bosses and some of the “special” enemies mixed in with the grunts later in the game. In Sengoku 3, some of these trash mobs can feel as if they’re all “special” enemies only with routine attacks and jacked up health. The last stage alone spams the hell out of batches of this fodder turning it into grinding attrition.

And when you finally make it to the end of the game, after all of this, you’re rewarded with a relatively weak finale to top things off.

Following the main bad guy's final lines, there's not much else to the ending other than this.

Following the main bad guy’s final lines, there’s not much else to the ending other than this.

Sengoku 3 came out for the Neo Geo AES and MVS (the MVS was the arcade coin-op hardware that the AES was the console version of) and apparently didn’t see a release on anything else until 2013 on Nintendo’s Wii thanks to its Virtual Console service.

Ultimately, Sengoku 3 is like a basket filled with the concepts that its peers had used over the past decade but without any of the elements that made them work together in creating fun. The last stage alone is reason enough to stay away from this game. Even if this had come out during the beat ’em up genre’s heyday in the arcades during the early 90s, it still would have felt underwhelming. What it does have in spades is great pixel art, though, especially for its characters.

As the last Sengoku game, it’s probably the chapter that feels the least like its predecessors. It shares some of the same things in common but if this had come in under a different name, I don’t think anyone would have noticed enough similarities to ask if it were related to the series.

It’s a bit sad that it ended this way. The first two games had some wild directions to where they wanted to take players with their mix of time traveling adventure and beat ’em up heroes tearing down armies of bad guys. If they could have kept that and combined those elements with what Noise Factory brough mechanics-wise with the third game, it could have turned into something exciting. And perhaps, maybe one day, Sengoku might dig up that time traveling warlord from the past and bring players back into a whole new adventure.

If not, at least we’ve got Capcom’s Onimusha.

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