SENGOKU is a terrific beat-em up game from SNK, an unforgettable ninja genre mash-up, the Old World clashing with contemporary times. Filled with surreal imagery and genuinely innovative gameplay mechanics, SENGOKU was popular enough to spawn an entire franchise. The sequels may be better remembered for their sleeker animation and smoother gameplay, but the original remains my favourite for it’s unstoppable creativity and dream-like set pieces.
For years, feudal Japan was ruled by a cruel warlord, whose name appears to be, rather aptly, Cruel Warlord. He is defeated by unclear means but swears revenge, proclaiming that evil can never be vanquished. Cruel Warrior is able to return in contemporary times, unleashing an army of zombie warriors from feudal Japan. As is the case in a lot of Japanese stories, looking too far into the future proves to be our downfall – Cruel Warlord was only able to return in the consumer obsessed, apathetic world of the early ’90s. The moral struggle between a fear of the future and a desire to be technological innovative is present in a lot of ’90s video games, a pretty interesting idea to explore in such a unique medium. Similar to the abundance of apocalytpic video games currently being released, it seems their is no better place to explore our fears of technology than with devices that represent that very fear.
The two heroes of the game have that kind of cartoonish child-like quality of creativity that I love about earlier video games. The protagonist for the first player is Dan, a ninja pop star adorned in Michael Jackson Thriller-era gear. There’s a little bit of flavour to Dan – I’m kind of sick of authority figures being our only choice to play in video games that take place in a contemporary setting, with cops, FBI agents, security guards or hitmen being the stars of most popular franchises. It’s not an ironic sense of superiority that makes me love the idea of a superstar musician ninja, it’s the incredibly Video Game feel of the whole thing, the appropriate sense of ridiculousness in a story told through punching. Naturally, the second player is a cowboy.
The level design is similarly inventive. For the first half of your adventure, you’ll fight through various levels of modern civilization in destruction. From destroyed cityscapes to delipated highways to abandoned malls – an indulgent delight of mine. I love the idea of fighting in an abandoned mall, because there’s something about malls that have a contained, prison-like feel to it. Anytime I find myself in a mall, I’m only a step away from imaging being trapped within and fighting for my survival – maybe it’s the security guards making the rounds or the low-paid workers imprisoned in the various stores – either way, malls have a drab and defeated quality to them that fits an apocalyptic setting.
However, it’s the latter part of SENGOKU where the level design becomes spectacularly creative, and completely unforgettable. One level in particular sees Dan shot high above the sky into a nightmare version of heaven, walking on clouds with a spooky purple colour, in front of a chilling hellish backdrop. Soon, the clouds vanish, and you find yourself falling through the air before you land on a raging stampede of sinister looking nightmare horses with purple hides and red eyes. SENGOKU features many levels of this sort of pure creativity, lavish in their surreal visions.
The endless army of villains you’re required to slice down are equally chilling and ingenious. One level features the devil’s face emerging from underneath the ground – as soon as you begin to attack, his hand appears from the other end of the screen, attacking you from behind. There’s also giant skulls that spit out evil ninjas, a darkly hilarious parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many others.
SENGOKU is a beautiful looking game in theory more so than practice. The designs of the characters and levels are extraordinary, unique and simply cool. However, the animation is slow and chunky – there’s no grace in these ninja battles, and characters move as if they have lead in their boots. This slow and stilted movement can be infuriating, but as hard as it tries, it can’t ruin the beautiful and insane world that SENGOKU lives in.
Of course, as memorable as the surface elements are, it’s the gameplay that most gamers remember SENGOKU for. You begin the game with nothing but your fists to rely on, but whenever you slay an enemy, a glowing coloured orb will appear from their fallen bodies. Most will only offer health, but some feature a variety of weapons – from a giant Cloud like sword to dual short blades. Rather bizarrely, some feature the spirits of the dead heroes who originally took down Cruel Warlord – from a fire breathing ninja dog to a back flipping street fighter to an ornately decorated ancient warrior. You can only play as these characters for a short amount of time, but you aren’t limited to using them immediately – you can collect them, and choose between them whenever you’d like.
It’s a really unique system for the time, and adds to the weird sense of ‘otherness’ the game has. Of course, it also fits in with the series’ seemingly bigger theme of looking to the past when handling issues of the present. SENGOKU is, in many ways, the ultimate ninja video game – it’s a little less sombre than NINJA GAIDEN, a little more like a kids’ idea of what ninjas are. The animation and gameplay can get sticky and slow, but the beautiful unleashed creativity more than makes up for it. Later entries in the SENGOKU franchise would fix these gameplay and graphical issues, but lose the weird spirit the original game had. I love how much SENGOKU feels like a video game – it’s completely unashamed of it’s cartoony escapism, of it’s mind-blowing sense of other-worldliness. Almost 15 years old, SENGOKU still delights.