Lament of a lost developer

Once upon a time, there was an innovative game design company. Though they tended to use mainly the historical as backdrops for their titles, they came out with a wide range of interesting games and managed to release them for several platforms despite fairly intense console rivalry. It was clear there were individual designers in the company with a passion and talent for game creation. Now, several years later, this company has grown stagnant. The only games that it seems to spend any money on are rehashes of the same genre. The innovation that still exists comes primarily from the company publishing the efforts of various subdivisions or studios.

Sound familiar? It could be one of several names, since it’s a common malady, but in this particular case I’m speaking of Koei.

For a long time, I was a die-hard Koei fanboy. A year or two after I got my PS2, I had more Koei games than other games combined. After Dynasty Warriors 4XL, though, I’ve been waiting to see reviews before I buy their titles. To me, Koei used to be a name synonymous with quality, and they’ve very much lost that status.

In its golden age (by which I mean pretty much up until the Playstation came out), designers “Kou Shibusawa” and “Eiji Fukuzawa” (actually pen names) were releasing new games left and right. Most of them were simulation and strategy games, but they released an RPG as well. Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting ones:

Take that, you stupid trees.

– Gemfire: Koei’s traditional officer-based strategy in a completely original medieval fantasy setting. Although land management is very basic, as is combat, officer improvement and the wizard system (in which you could use a wizard only once every three turns) made it more strategic, particularly if you are playing against a human opponent.

– Uncharted Waters: Koei’s take on Pirates! not only has a light-hearted feel, but is really a much more complex game. The ability to design your own ship and to amass a large fleet – managing several crewmates in the process – gives a feeling of great satisfaction, upon which its sequel only improved.

– Inindo: An RPG set in the Sengoku period of Japan. On the surface, it’s a fairly slow and repetitive game. It takes a good amount of willpower to get there, but once you reach a certain point you can offer your services to individual rulers and aid them in wars with the goal of pushing back Oda Nobunaga. This system, as well as the way other adventurers wander the land – occasionally trying to assassinate you or offering their services – makes it an innovative game that has an unfortunately cumbersome battle system.

– Aerobiz: A company sim game before it became trendy to put “tycoon” after a word and make it a game, Aerobiz has a solid system in which you decide which airplane and fare are appropriate for a given route you create, and try to strategize where you want to open the next route. Unlike most of Koei’s games, it can be quite difficult on the harder settings.

– Liberty or Death: A simulation game set in the American Revolutionary War, this game managed to bring the war to life when history class couldn’t. It can be quite difficult (particularly if you face a human opponent), since you have to keep track of three resources – money, food, and powder — in a situation where without any one of those you are likely crippled.

All of these games (except Inindo) were released on both SNES and Genesis, and some of them were released on NES and PC as well. Granted, this was while Koei still had Stieg Hedlund (later designer for Diablo II), but he was not responsible for all of their great titles.

What are the most interesting games that Koei has released in the past five years?

Crimson in the sky, explosions on the ground.

– Dynasty / Samurai Warriors: Far and away the most popular, but it is sadly an undying rehash of a single (albeit good) genre. Though each entry is fun, and DW2 was innovative, by now they are incredibly derivative. Not only that, they are developed by Omega Force, and only published by Koei.

– Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Though they had a brief moment of innovation in allowing you to select a general and serve a ruler rather than being one, there is just not enough change between any two releases to make it worthwhile anymore. Each entry adds very slight graphical upgrades, makes the system a bit more realistic, and re-balances officers’ stats. That’s about it.

– Crimson Sea 2: Though I didn’t play the original, this was a briefly interesting Action/RPG game. Unfortunately, it quickly boiled down to “Dynasty Warriors in space”. The gun system was interesting for a while, but it just didn’t make anything different enough. It has the dubious honor of being the only game I have traded-in to a store in the past 10 years.

– Winback: Back when the N64 was still announcing games, it looked like this game could be the next Goldeneye. It had stealth action, lots of guns, what could’ve been an interesting plot… but the N64 just couldn’t handle the game. It was re-released on the PS2. I haven’t tried the sequel, but general consensus is that its one good point is cheesy voice acting.

– Gitaroo Man: One of the few PS2 Koei games I found refreshing and fun. Again, Koei only published the game after it was developed by smaller studio iNiS. Made a great gateway game for Stepmania.

– Kessen II: The one recent game actually developed by Koei I found both fun and novel, Kessen II had a touch of Dragon Force mixed in with a semi-real time system and interesting characterization. Kessen I was an incredibly slow strategy game and I’ve heard III is more like the first but haven’t yet tried it.

In fact, according to MobyGames, Koei has only actually developed eight titles in the past three years (MG does not list RotTK X). It looks more and more like Koei is getting into the publishing business – which is to say Koei’s become a middleman for nimbler, more innovative companies. It’s a sad state of affairs for a company once so prolific.

Looks like every other Koei game.

Koei is planning to release another two new games relatively soon – Bladestorm, which looks like Dynasty Warriors and Kessen, and Fatal Inertia, which looks more or less like F-Zero. Both are being developed by sub-companies, however.

I understand that Koei does also have a few more games released; notably, it has created the PC MMORPGs Nobunaga’s Ambition Online and Uncharted Waters Online, either of which could be interesting takes on the genre. Neither has been released stateside and it looks like they never will be.

Personally, I wouldn’t even mind if Koei just released a remake of an older game using a new system. I just want to see a version of something good that Koei hasn’t released in the past two years. I’d really love to see something new, a multi-genre game that gets me interested in yet another period of history. I know Koei’s capable of it (despite no longer having Hedlund’s talents), but they really need to get with it and do something new and interesting.

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17 years ago

I actually loved WinBack for the N64. To me, it was trying to compete with both Goldeneye and Metal Gear Solid. It made a semi-good MGS game for the N64, seeing as there was none, but couldn’t hold a candle to the shooting king, Goldeneye. Still an awesome game, though, with particularly good music. Once it comes out for Virtual Console, I am definitely picking it up. Good little history lesson, though. God damn I love videolamer. Where else can you learn stuff like this?

17 years ago

Also bear in mind that as familiar as we are with Koei’s name in the western world, Koei has a much larger presence in japan with several titles that haven’t made it through the translation process into the US (for example, the Uncharted Waters series you mentioned is on it’s 4th or 6th game over in Japan, whereas we have only seen two. Other titles such as Aerobiz never caught on much among english-speaking gamers but I understand it too has some sequels)Also when you make a statment like "…Not only that, they are developed by Omega Force, and only published by Koei.", it’s important to understand that Omega Force is a programming team (possibly a seperate company, but I don’t think so) that’s part of the larger Koei company. At least for the moment. It’s the same reasoning of how Sonic Team used to be part of Sega or Clover Studios used to be part of Capcom.Anyway, I have to say that I just got my hands on Dynasty Warriors 5 and I’m really enjoying all the improvements they’ve made to it (the use of sub-objectives such as strongholds has really helped a lot)… even though I’m already well familiar with the characters and storyline. I have to say that years of trying Koei’s strategy titles such as ROTK, Gemfire, North & South, Bandit Kings, Nobunaga’s Ambition and more has almost sworn me off the genre. As you mention, I’m not sure how big the change is between each individual title, but later ROTKs are definitely a lot easier to understand and get into than earlier ones.

17 years ago

Thanks for the info, WildKard. After some searching on the internets, I’ve only been able to find lists of games developed by Omega Force, a Wikipedia article that says Omega Force "works with" Koei, which is very vague, and the Moby entry, which I figure you wrote, that says Omega Force is an internal team of theirs.

17 years ago

I didn’t write the information about Omega Force on Moby… and certainly I could be wrong, but I’ve always found information indicating that Omega was internal to Koei.