In the 80’s and 90’s Koei was the Turn-Based Strategy Game King
Growing up in the 80’s I was one of the lucky kids with a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in my home. My dad would play all sorts of games with me – Bubble Bobble, Super Sprint, Super Mario Bros. 3, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game, and more. But while other kids would expand their gaming to games like Ninja Gaiden and Double Dragon, my interests moved to two specific games – Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition. Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior were there too but I would spend HOURS watching my dad pay the aforementioned games.
So what are those games? Simple – historical simulation turn-based strategy games! Not a super sexy genre in today’s gaming world but for a young impressionable introvert kid like myself it was like entering a whole new world with amazing characters, untold stories, and unparalleled combat.
Let’s take a quick peek at some of the classic offerings from Koei in the 80’s and 90’s.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Series, I-IV)
Bias note – this series is one of my favorite game series of all time. The game series – based off a book of the same name – follows the historical period of turn-of-the-century China during the fall of the Han dynasty. If you’ve ever played a Dynasty Warriors game then you’ve unknowingly played a game based on this same period of time. The first game was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, the next few sequels on the Super Nintendo.
The story is the same no matter what game you play – the Yellow Turban Rebellion sets the stage for the fall of the Han Dynasty, allowing the villainous Dong Zhuo and the infamous Lu Bu to take claim to all the power, resulting in heroes (or villains) like Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Sun Jian, Yuan Shao, and others to form a coalition to defeat Dong Zhuo’s forces. They succeed – and the result is a fractured China with dozens of warlords claiming themselves as rulers.
In the end the three main self-proclaimed kingdoms – Wei, Shu-Han, and Wu – would wage war time and time again until a victor broke through.
The games themselves are incredibly deep and intuitive. You take control of a ruler. Your job is to grow your province, recruit generals and officers, keep them loyal, build an army, and destroy your enemies. Intertwined in all of this are natural disasters like plagues (too soon?), floods, revolts, famine, locusts, and of course rival rulers. Warfare for the first two games continues the hexagon-looking system, while III and IV create a more 3D and visually appealing battle system with armies on screen and actual castles to attack (vs an icon on a box that represents a castle). III and IV also feature different military units which offer different mobility and attack, while I and II simply rely on an officer’s stats and positioning on the map to determine power.
Easily the most popular series Koei has produced, Romance of the Three Kingdoms continues to this day, with the latest release in 2019 on the PS4 and Steam (Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV). For those interested in this series I encourage finding a legal way to play the older games (Wii/WiiU Virtual Consoles?) before jumping in to the latest iterations which can be overwhelming to say the least.
Nobunaga’s Ambition (Series, I-II, Lords of Darkness)
The feudal period of Japan’s history is something that has been captured in various forms of media for decades. One of tthe first – if not one of the most popular – is the Nobunaga’s Ambition series. The very first game released in 1983 but the most famous(?) title was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985.
As the player, you take over a dynamo of your choosing during feudal Japan in the 1500’s. You do everything from recruiting samurai, ninja, and wage war against other dynamos. Featuring historical figures such as Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Takeda Shingen, and Uesugi Kenshin – as well as fictional heroes – unify Japan under your banner!
Like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you build up your fief, recruit allies, form alliances, defeat enemies, and deal with natural disasters. Warfare takes place on hexagon grids and the latter games feature different types of military units that can change the shape of battle dramatically (looking at you, guns).
The games saw limited release outside of Japan beyond the Super Nintendo era – with only a small handful of titles or related titles getting translated. However, Nobunaga’s Ambition saw a return to international dominance with the critically acclaimed Rise to Power in 2018 on PC and Steam.
Bandit Kings of Ancient China
Bandit Kings of Ancient China released in the United States in December of 1990 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The reason this game has such fond memories for me is due to the fact my father bought it right before he moved out of state for work (we would follow some months later). But we always had so much fun playing it together and looking back I tear up knowing while he was away, he purchased another NES and copy of this game to help ease how much he missed all of us.
The game itself is based on the novel Water Margin, one of the Great Classical Novels in Chinese history, originating in the 1300’s and fleshed out in the 1500’s – but that’s a story for another time. The book itself is based on historical moments from the 1100’s in China, but by the time you play the game it is maybe 10/90 in terms of historical/fictional split.
The evil Gao Qiu governs central China and you play as one of the Bandit Kings looking to overthrow his corrupt and evil rule. Depending on the scenario you choose, you either start in exile and choose a prefecture to rule or you will begin in a prefecture building your army and gaining popularity to then have the ability to invade Gao Qiu’s main prefecture.
But here’s the catch – Gao Qiu, at any time, may take your gold, your provisions, and even invade your prefectures. He can recruit your generals. He’s essentially a giant asshole and the game does a great job at making you hate him with all your heart and soul.
The game features traditional Koei military strategy warfare with the hexagon-shaped battlefield with movement and strength determined by a warrior’s strength, arms, and training. This game also features archery and magic – with the latter being incredibly over-powered and capable of changing the outcome of a battle thanks to cloudy skies.
The battle ends when you die, Gao Qiu is defeated, or in January of 1127 with the Jurchen invasion from Northern China.
This game holds fond memories for me. For a long time I loved Heavenly King and Nine Dragons, but I’ve grown to really enjoy Tattooed Priest and Welcome Rain. But I’ve beaten the game most with Leopard Headed.
Released in November of 1991, L’Empereur is one of those games you swore you played in the 80’s but it actually came out past that point. The second-to-last game released by Koei on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Koei went all out on trying to push the Nintendo to the limits in terms of what they needed for memory and minor graphics.
Congratulations! You play the role of a small man with small hands. No, not the Donald – the second most famous guy named Napoleon. That’s right – you’re Napoleon Bonparte and you’re destined to lead the French Revolution. In this game you start as a simple military commander and work your way up to become the Emperor of France. You will fight against the likes of England, Spain, Prussia, Austria, and more.
The game featured trading (which was key to keeping your coffers full) and continued Koei’s penchant for top-notch strategy during the war sequences. As always, there is some liberty taken on the historical side of things but, for the most part, the game doesn’t butcher history too much … although you’re free to change it, being as you control L’Empereur.
You can venture out of Mongolia and nearly conquer all of greater Asia while playing Genghis Khan! Use magic to conquer a fictional land with dragons in Gemfire! Sail the seven seas as the greatest explorer in Uncharted Waters! Dominate the skies as the ultimate business CEO in Aerobiz! Create the ultimate racehorse in Winning Post! Relive the battle in the Pacific theater of World War II in P.T.O. II – Pacific Theater of Operations!
For fans of strategy games, Koei delivered through the 80’s and 90’s. Now that the genre is considered very niche the offerings are few and far between. The Total War series on PC/Steam does great and Koei, now Koei-Tecmo, still delivers a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game every handful of years (waiting on another Nobunaga’s Ambition too – the latest iterations “Nobunaga’s Ambition: Shinsei” has been delayed until 2022 with no details on platforms or if it will receive a North America release).
Give some love to Koei and its founder, Kou Shibusawa, by sharing this story!