In the early and mid-90s, an all out war was brewing between arcade titans Capcom and SNK. SNK was Capcom's only true competition in the fighting game genre (omitting Mortal Kombat, which was only popular in the West). Every game that Capcom made, SNK made their own version of it. Capcom made Street Fighter, SNK made Fatal Fury. Capcom made the 1941-vein WWII shooters, SNK made Ghost Pilots. SNK made Kizuna Encounter which featured tag-team combat, while Capcom made the Marvel vs. games... this goes and on and on for quite a while. These games were typically as good as Capcom's work despite differences in graphical styles. But one area where SNK just could not best Capcom despite all their attempts was in the field of beat'em ups. SNK's first attempt on Neo Geo, Burning Fight, was an abysmal Final Fight ripoff, and right up there next to Legend of Success Joe as one of the worst Neo Geo games SNK has ever produced. Meanwhile, Capcom was cranking out incredible quarter-munchers like Final Fight, Knights of the Round, and King of Dragons, and Konami was nearly matching them with titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, and X-Men.
SNK's second attempt at a beat'em up was a much more admirable effort, and a lot more original. Rather than the typical beat'em up featuring rough guys and punk gals fighting their way through gangs of thugs on the mean streets of a corrupt city, SNK made a beat'em up where the world was being invaded by an army of undead warlords from the Sengoku period of Japan. Taking a cue from Magician Lord, your heroes could transform into other characters, each with their own abilities. Due to the setting, the title of their only beat-em-up franchise is Sengoku Denshō (literally translated as "The Folk Tale of Sengoku"), known simply as Sengoku in non-Japanese territories.
Sengoku / Sengoku Denshō (戦国伝承) - Neo Geo, Neo Geo CD, Mega CD, Super Famicom, Wii, PlayStation 2, PSP, Wii Virtual Console (1991)
Sengoku takes place.. well, somewhere. It's not entirely clear. It's your generic post apocalyptic beat'em up city. At least until it gets caught in a trans-dimensional rift linking it to the astral plain, from which a horde of samurai and other denizens of feudal Japanese culture flow into the city and wreak havoc. To combat them is a duo of generic beat'em up dudes, but there's more to these guys than meets the eye.
No, they don't transform into giant robots or anything, but they do transform. The fusion of the two time periods allows the two brawlers to invoke the spirits of the heroes from the period for limited amounts of time. These heroes essentially cause the generic brawlers to function in an entirely different manner, making it seem like there are half a dozen different characters in the game, which is a lot more variety than usual for an early 90s beat'em up.
A samurai not unexpectedly wielding a katana. Hits a bit faster than the main characters.
A completely useless dog extremely adept at spinning like Sonic the Hedgehog and getting its ass kicked.
A really flimsy ninja who somersaults everywhere and is best used as an extension of your main character's life bar.
As you fight your way through the city, you'll encounter different colored orbs. These orbs bestow upon your character enchanted weapons. Unlike Final Fight, you won't lose these weapons if you're knocked down or randomly after hitting someone. Each colored orb gives you a different weapon, most of which being different variations of swords (the coolest of which are a pair of katanas). These weapons can either be changed by collecting a different orb at any time, and there are also orbs that add projectiles to your standard attacks.
Progression through stages is a bit different from your usual beat'em up fare. You'll travel along a horizontal plain beating and slicing up badguys, but at various moments, you'll be warped from the city into the heavens and a creepy chanting begins in the background. Usually in these segments you'll fight a long succession of enemies or a boss, after which you'll be dropped back down to the city. It's pretty odd... but somewhat cool in a weird way.
In spite of all of its originality, Sengoku is still a pretty mediocre game with major flaws in almost every layer of its design. Most prominently is its combat system. While the weapons and alternate characters are cool and all, it just doesn't have a very good structure. You can't hit your enemies in rapid succession like you can in Final Fight, and the frenzied button mashing and chain combos of beat'em ups are one of their biggest accolades. This is because many of the enemies can be dispatched in one hit. This proves to be an annoying problem with larger enemies, because the combat basically consists of hitting someone once, waiting for them to recover, and then hitting them again after a few moments. This all gets repetitive after awhile, and Sengoku is pretty long for a beat'em up.
Sengoku is also pretty lax in its presentation, at least compared to later SNK games. The graphics are really bland, the colors washed out and pale, the character sprites, particularly the player's, are stiff and awkward with huge upper torsos and tiny legs. The only cool effect in the game is the reaction from most enemies when they're hit with a sword. Much like in Strider games, when you hit an enemy with a sword, they'll reel back with a huge gash appearing across their torso, nearly ripping them apart.
Sengoku doesn't really impress with its sound either, as most of it's pretty unmemorable. Aside from the aforementioned creepy chanting, none of the sound elements of Sengoku really stand out. Even the NGCD version isn't very impressive. It has an arranged soundtrack like every other NGCD title, but the composition wasn't good to begin with.
Overall, SNK just didn't put a lot of effort into the first Sengoku. It's passable at best, but just doesn't hold a candle to any of its contemporaries from Capcom or Konami, which is a shame because it introduces a lot of cool and original ideas to the genre.
Sengoku was ported to the Mega CD in Japan by Sammy, and it's a pretty accurate port, although the graphics had to be toned down due to color limitations, and the load times between plane switching are annoying. However, Data East's Super Famicom port of the game is absolutely abysmal. It's more or less a completely different game with similar motifs and material. All of the graphics have been completely redrawn, and somehow look a lot worse. The mechanics mimics Final Fight more, as enemies have life bars now and take a few hits to kill, but it's even more dumbed down than even the SNES version of Final Fight. Rather than being able to transform into the other forms at will, power ups that cause your transformations are randomly dropped by enemies. The music is also completely different and agonizingly bad, and it's also unbearably ugly. Stay away from this one at all costs.
Sengoku 2 / Sengoku Denshō 2 (戦国伝承 2) - Neo Geo, Neo Geo CD, PlayStation 2, Wii Virtual Console (1993)
Sengoku 2 is your pretty standard sequel. It improves each area of the first game, but sadly doesn't really rectify any of the first game's mistakes either. Once again, you take control of generic beat'em up bad dude, only this time with a pony tail, and you take on another legion of undead warriors. This time around, your character starts with a sword. The orbs are still there, however, but now they merely function as upgrades for your sword. The levels also send you through various time periods in different parts all over the world to fight Japanese demons.
Many of the same quirky elements, such as transforming and warping to other planes of existence every few steps, are still perfectly intact. Now you have a few more options when transforming, and these are all given to you at the start of the game, whereas in the first Sengoku, you had to acquire them.
Apparently replacing the samurai from the first game. Tengu fights with a rod and has a pretty substantial reach, making him the best transformation by far.
The dog/wolf thing is back, and just as good at getting its ass ground into fine powder by the enemies of this game as ever.
A ridiculous looking ninja who throws projectiles. Quite possibly the worst ninja in the history of ninjas, and that's including the ninjas from the American Ninja movies.
Some tweaks were made to the gameplay. First of all, a low attack button has been added. Who knows why, because Sengoku 2 doesn't have a low/high defense/offense system like fighting games do, and the low attack functions identically to the standing attack. Second, by holding both attack buttons, you can block, though this only works against "standard" attacks and it can be sometimes difficult to define what "standard" attacks are in this game.
The game's presentation and structure overall is an improvement over the first game. While the design is still quite bland, the sprites at least look quite a bit better, especially the enemy sprites. The opening segment is, at least, pretty badass, where you jump off the roof of a building and are greeted by a screaming dragon, who destroys the ground you're standing on and sends you in the battlefield of the first level. The bosses are bigger and more unique, and the overall animation is a bit better. The music is a lot more streamlined, with most of the creepy chanting from the first game gone, despite its nice effect. But despite these improvements, Sengoku 2 does nothing for the first game's lack of combos, cumbersome fighting engine, stiff controls, and repetitive gameplay.
So after two fairly sub-standard beat'em ups, the Sengoku series finally delivers. The third, final, and very unexpected installment of the Sengoku series is superior to the first two games on a logorhythmic scale. Sengoku 1 and 2 don't even deserve to be mentioned in the same line of text.
Sengoku 3 was developed after the "demise" of SNK in the late 90s. In 2000, SNK filed for bankruptcy, and most of its more prestigious properties, like Samurai Showdown and even The King of Fighters for a short stint, were passed on to various small developers like Eolith and Yuki Enterprises. Sengoku 3 was produced by a small company called Noise Factory (whom also worked on Metal Slug 4, Rage of the Dragons, Martimelee, and King of Fighters: Maximum Impact), which had previously developed another awesome and eerily similar arcade beat'em up called Gaia Crusaders. Sengoku 3 basically runs off of the same engine, and that's a very good thing.
The first thing one notices about Sengoku 3 compared to its unworthy predecessors are its production values. The standard archetypes and conventions of the beat'em up genre are completely discarded in favor of characters and motifs more like something out of Samurai Showdown. The look of the game is also very distinctive. Sengoku 3 is one of the best looking games on Neo Geo. Just try to imagine if Garou: Mark of the Wolves was made into a beat'em up and you'd have an idea of how amazing this game looks. The sprite animation is extremely smooth, the sprites themselves are well designed and appealing (especially Okuni's... heheh), and some of the effects are really pretty.
Sengoku 3 has really well-designed characters. Each is unique, brings something different to the table, and amazingly, almost all are useful in their own way.
Super cool, rugged ninja and main character of Sengoku 3. Like any main character in a beat'em up, he's really balanced, leaning very slightly toward slower and stronger than average. His first special is a diagonal downward beam of energy from his sword, a lot like one of Haohmaru's supers in Capcom vs. SNK 2. His second super is way cooler. He energizes himself with electricity and dashes foward, slicing anything in his path as he streaks across the screen. He can also use the classic ninja staple; the Izuna Drop. His ultimate move is a lightning spell.
The Spanish ninja. And no, not Vega. This guy is dripping with style and is probably the best character in the game, built for ridiculously long combos. His first move is a flame projectile shaped like a phoenix. His second is a dashing move. If he connects with an enemy during the dash, he performs a quick combo ending with a powerful flaming sword uppercut. His ultimate is a fire spell.
An extremely hot ninja babe. Kurenai is the fastest of the bunch, but also the weakest. She has insane combo potential and is really good at keeping hordes of enemies off of her, which is good because she also lacks defense. Her first special is a spinning tornado slash. Her second special involves her splitting herself into 4 and dashing in various directions, hitting anything in her vicinity. Her ultimate attack summons a bunch of kaede leaves which somehow cause damage to everything on screen.
Kongoh is big, strong, but extremely slow and his moves are really boring. He fights with a giant iron rod that's about as thick around as his leg. His first move involves him stunning his enemy and then throwing them. His second is merely him tossing his rod forward. His ultimate attack creates a rain of falling iron rods.
Byakki is one of the bosses that joins you after the third mission. He's a really awesome character. He summons a demon from the underworld during most of his attacks, a demon that looks a lot like Eddie from Guilty Gear. His first move makes the demon's claw rise from the ground hitting any enemy near it multiple times. His second summons the demon who then slashes any enemies directly in front of it. In his ultimate attack, he summons the demon who then causes a bunch of meteors strike all the enemies on screen.
Even Mai Shiranui can't quite compare with Okuni in the bust department. Okuni is a Jovian-breasted sorceress who also joins you after the third mission. She mainly focuses on long range attacks and her combos are fairly lacking. Her first move is a simple projectile wind burst. Her second is an electric attack using her fan. Her ultimate attack is a tornado of flower petals.
Where Sengoku 3 truly triumphs over the previous Sengoku games, and most other beat'em ups period, is its highly complex and incredibly enjoyable combat system. Rather than being limited to one attack button string, a jump, and a life-draining special by combining the two like most beat'em ups, Sengoku's button setup is more akin to a fighting game, with a light attack, heavy attack, and long-ranged attack button. Rather than simply mashing the attack buttons to render combos (which you can still do in Sengoku 3 to your heart's content), each character has an arsenal of special moves using directional inputs similar to traditional fighting game motions. Also, each character has a super bar and several super moves that use varying levels of energy from this bar. While most other beat'em ups by this time had also adopted these conventions, none of them execute them with quite as much flair and effectiveness as Sengoku 3.
Sengoku 3's greatest asset is the number of options you have when attacking. There are many different ways to start off a combo. The most obvious is to simply walk up to an enemy and start mashing the light attack button, which usually involves mere punches and kicks. But at any time during a light attack combo, you can interrupt with a heavy attack, a slower, more powerful attack that usually brings a weapon into the picture, and depending on how many light attacks you've done, the heavy attack will be different. In the same chain, you can even go back to light attacks after a heavy attack. You can usually use two or three heavy attacks in succession, the last one typically ending the combo. But if you're good, you can juggle the enemy as they fly away from you using various techniques like dashing by double-tapping the forward button. Dashing into an enemy damages them slightly, knocks them away, and sets up a juggle opportunity, even if the enemy you dash into is already airborne. By using these methods in cooperation with very correct timing, you can keep combos going for 20-30 hits, and because Sengoku uses a damage reduction modifier for juggles, it doesn't break the game or make it obscenely easy like you'd expect. It's just lots of fun and involves a lot more skill than the average beat-em-up.
Sengoku 3 discards most of the elements from the previous Sengoku games, such as acquiring different weapons (each character has their own weapon here), transformations, and random warps to other planes of existence. While those elements were cool, they are not missed. One particular difference with Sengoku 3 are the introduction of throwing weapons, a beat-em-up staple. But rather than just picking up things enemies drop and chucking them once, Sengoku 3 allows you to stash a great number of various different types of ranged weapons (but only one type at a time) including shuriken, bombs and kunai. Aside from plugging enemies at range, these weapons can also be integrated into your combos quite effectively.
Sengoku 3 has a great gameplay structure. It plays out almost identically to Gaia Crusaders, where you'll be able to select which stage you want to go to. The stages consist of various countries all over the world. Some of them are pretty well designed and involve a little bit of interactivity rather than just being static. Some of them go for this photo realistic look, however, and these stages are somewhat uglier. Also, like Gaia Crusaders, you'll fight certain character bosses at the end of stages and later those characters will be selectable. The stages of Sengoku 3 also have fairly catchy music, and while not quite memorable, it gets the job done. Most of it is pretty high quality techno/rock with a bit of traditional Japanese woodwind thrown in for flavor, composed by Toshikazu Tanaka of Metal Slug 4/5/3D, Rage of the Dragons, and Matrimelee fame.
Combine all of these elements and you have one of the best beat'em ups ever made and quite possibly the best non-fighting game for the Neo Geo. Sengoku 3 is just pure beat-em-up bliss, nothing short of spectacular in almost every area, and an extremely surprising evolution to a series that was never really impressive.