Sakura Wars is one of those staples of Japanese gaming that boomed domestically but didn’t make it to western shores during the height of its popularity. After all, the Sakura Wars franchise began on the Sega Saturn, a console that failed to leave a positive impact in most of the world, and eventually led to Sega’s withdrawal from the console hardware market. Did we miss out on an iconic piece of gaming? Was the void left behind by Sega’s poor decisions and marketing eventually mended?
The initial Sakura Wars game debuted during a time when jRPGs were at the height of their popularity. While the core gameplay consisted of tactical RPG based combat, the game had numerous other elements that distinguish it from a proverbial flock of other titles of the time period that had little else than formulaic RPG conventions to offer.
The game was released in 1996, around the time where consoles finally were powerful enough to offer anime-style presentations that were visually accurate representations of what we watched on TV. The game also featured a system in which the male protagonist would interact with the all-female cast in ways that would build upon their relationships, hence the “dating sim” aspect of the game.
Outside of the combat sequences, the game played out as a visual novel in essence, thus it successfully combined a well-known genre with two genres that had just begun to emerge in the previous few years. The story also featured a fantastical futuristic take on an actual period in real history with real-world locations as the focus, creating a level of intimacy unlike anything thus far that resonated strongly with gamers throughout Asia.
Sakura Wars Eventually Landed in the West, With Some Special Considerations Made
Four entire Sakura Wars games initially released on the Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast were completely passed over in the West. The fifth installment in the franchise, Sakura Wars: Farewell My Lovely for the Playstation 2 eventually made its way overseas as Sakura Wars: So Long My Love in 2010, making it the first Sakura Wars game to receive an official localization.
At the time of its Japanese release a whole five years prior to the localization, the popularity of the series had waned quite substantially. Although it sold somewhat well in Japan, it was by far the worst-selling title thus far.
Although the North American localization came late (for the title by 5 years and the entire franchise by 15, essentially), it was met with mostly positive reception. A North American exclusive Wii port of the game was developed by Idea Factory and was released at the same time as the Playstation 2 localization.
While the PS2 version included two discs – one with an English dub, and one with the original Japanese language voiceover, the Wii version only had the English dub and was sold at a lower price point. The Wii version also reached European shores.
Older releases in the franchise were rereleased on other consoles, such as the PSP, but the franchise mostly disappeared for the majority of the 2010s.
There is a little bit of hope for the future though; the Nintendo Switch tends to get a lot of ports of older games. If there ever is a Sakura Wars collection title released, the chances that it will receive a full localization are high, based on the current trend. With the series making a comeback in 2019 and 2020 (more on that later), the demand for such a release might be prevalent.
A Game that Thrived Due to the Sum of its Parts
The majority of the appeal of the Sakura Wars franchise was its ability to incorporate so many different popular elements into one game in a way that worked harmoniously. Due to its popularity, several attempts have been made at anime adaptations relating to or based on the series.
Following the release of the original game, Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms was released in 1997 as a 4 part OVA prequel to the first game’s story. In 1999, a second 6 part OVA series, Sakura Wars: The Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms was released, featuring individual character stories that take place during the course of the first two games.
For fans of the franchise, these OVAs might have something to offer, but as stand-alone pieces, they fall a bit flat. Nonetheless, Both OVAs were licensed for release in North America by ADV Films despite the fact that virtually no one overseas had any experience with the games.
Anime studio Madhouse’s attempt to adapt the franchise into an anime TV series in 2000 was strikingly mediocre. It lacked the fresh novel approach the game had taken, and suffered the same problem as the OVAs when released in the West due to a lack of recognition as the games still had not received any attention at all.
Despite this, the 25-episode TV series was again licensed for release abroad by ADV Films (and later Sentai Filmworks after ADV went under in 2009) in 2003, which put out 6 individual DVD volumes (also available as a box set).
Several more OVA works were released during the first half of the 00’ decade, as well as a feature-length film titled Sakura Wars: The Movie, which was heavily promoted and a huge success at the box office in Japan.
Just about every anime work related to the game, in fact, has eventually made it to North America in some shape or form, including the movie. This misread of the popularity of the series is rather unfortunate, as the animation quality in these works is generally of high quality, but without a connection to the original Saturn and Dreamcast games to serve as a foundation for the plot of the franchise, none of the anime adaptations are truly memorable.
Where is Sakura Wars Now?
The latest game in the franchise, a soft reboot dubbed Project Sakura Wars saw a Japanese release at the end of 2019 on the Playstation 4. It had been in development for the second half the decade, reportedly following interest from series fans for more. A new anime TV series adaptation of Project Sakura Wars is scheduled to air in April 2020. Together with a manga release, as well as various other merchandise including action figures, there is a fairly large movement to revitalize the franchise.
The North American Playstation 4 release of Project Sakura Wars is set for April 28th (under the name Sakura Wars), according to the official Playstation Blog. Sega is pushing to give the latest incarnation of the Sakura Wars franchise a voice in the rest of the world. Will it bloom prosperously, or wallow in a solitary corner until it withers away?