Dynasty Warriors = Dumb Fun

Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires Logo

Yet another Dynasty Warriors game appeared on the horizon yesterday, an expansion on the seventh iteration of the series (specifically the ‘Empires” sub-label). It seems baffling, or maybe just a tiny bit insane, that the series continues regurgitating the exact same mechanics and CONTINUES to sell despite the naysayers. On one level, we might throw out a conjecture that people really, really like smashing one button over and over again. An overly simplistic generalization? Certainly! That does not preclude the fact that Dynasty Warriors, at hear, gives us a simple game with simple mechanics. It more than makes up for it in terms of setting and genuinely satisfying combat scenarios.

Unlike God of War, which seeks to make every single button press an innately gratifying experience, Dynasty Warriors provides the player with what I’d call “hilariously unrealistic fighting”. Why does my staff clip through one hundred enemies that surround me? I have no idea, but apparently my character became so powerful that he can utterly destroy fifty people in a single swipe. It’s completely unrealistic, yet deals in a real period in history. It praises the heroes of the Three Kingdoms period, yet romanticizes them in much the same way as the novel on which Dynasty Warriors based its narrative (if there is one for anyone unfamiliar with the time period). You get to do crazy things and kill more enemy soldiers than any game I can imagine. All pretenders to the throne (such as Ninety-Nine Nights) fall to Omega Force’s might. Yet, I’d call it one of the stupidest games in existence. Why?

Koei originally became famous as the creators of the “Historical Simulation Series” – that is, strategy and simulation games set in various time period. From Uncharted Waters, which chronicled the Age of Exploration in the 1500s to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, their premier strategy game which deluges the player with numbers, statistics, officers, province management and war, each had a unique foundation in actual events. Granted, they’re not completely accurate (for the purpose of entertainment, you understand), but they retain enough real-world flavor to capture your imagination and become engrossed in a new setting.

We might say this gave me a penchant for history, and then theology (which may as well be history given the span of its development). I even did a science/history fair project based on the Sengoku-Jidai (Period of the Warring States in Japan from early 1500s to early 1600s – hey, it was a long war) because I played so much of Lord of Darkness: Nobunaga’s Ambition. Great, great game (though unfortunately not on Wii Virtual Console, for whatever reason), and I even bought another copy once the original save battery died (I am tech savvy, but don’t make me open anything up or I will break it).

Dynasty Warriors 2 Cover

And then this happened.

So when I saw Dynasty Warrior 2, from Koei, I initially held myself in quite a skeptical way. Then again, that first year of the Playstation 2 did not provide a wealth of titles for consumption. After Zone of the Enders came out, what else could I possibly play? Hey, Koei made an action game about the Three Kingdoms – and you actually get to fight! My wary skepticism came from the original (and thankfully forgotten) Dynasty Warriors on PS1, a rather terrible Soul Blade/Tekken clone that no one played. I didn’t even play it, and I knew it looked NO GOOD.

Dynasty Warriors PS1 Box Art

Look, when you’re known for strategy games, a fighting game doesn’t exactly instill confidence.

But Dynasty Warriors 2, a PS2 launch title, tried something different. It placed the player into a giant battlefield and set them loose to win the day for whatever army you wished. This could not happen on earlier system; though it worked in the vein of the side scrolling arcade action game (think Double Dragon or Final Fight), it transplanted the elegant simplicity of their moves and mechanics into a giant 3D world. Frankly, we found ourselves in a new era. It did something new, and transplanted an old style of game onto a new template. While it required vast amounts of repetition (endless repetition (perennial repetition))), sometimes that became the therapeutic game you needed. Plus, the animations for when foes got hit by a Musou attack still look priceless (see them flip! See them dance!).

Yet Dynasty Warriors (or Shin Sangoku Musou, as it was known in its original release) continues to do the same thing, over and over and over again. People eat it up. What’s wrong with them?

Look, I have not played a Dynasty Warrior-style game in years (last one I remember was the Sengoku Basara 2 expansion for my JP PS2 – excellent game, by the way). The last DW game I enjoyed with any seriousness came from DW3, which fixed some problems and added so many characters and battles your head would spin off at the content buried within. Over time, I just found myself losing the passion for maxing out upgrades, finding every weapon, and running around for hours and hours on end. Not that the almost-essential co-op mode didn’t help, but it certainly made things much more fun.

I knew a Dynasty Warriors addict: my uncle. I hooked him, and he played nearly every one that came out until his wrists gave out from carpal tunnel syndrome. No, really! I am not joking – he played the game so much that he literally destroyed his right wrist from the constant button pressing. He put every new game on its highest difficulty setting and proceeded to play through every game as they found release and he NEVER STOPPED  until physically unable. Even when the opposing army decimated his AI allies (which I don’t think even happens on Normal), he would fight until the game’s timer ran out – 80 minutes straight of just killing everything on screen to where you break the kill counter. In Dynasty Warriors, the payoff doesn’t arrive from some magical cutscene or goal point, but from winning the victory after a long and hard fought battle. Even as the loser, you still fought to the end. I guess he liked that feeling a whole lot.

So, is there something wrong with my uncle’s compulsion to play the game? An addiction? Nah. Dynasty Warriors just hits that pleasure center of “fun”. Fun’s not a very descriptive word in our culture. It means, in dictionary terms, something lighthearted and amusing. It does not mean that said fun does not involve an investment of time nor skill, but it does mean that there’s an element of enjoyment and pleasure to the whole shebang. Life comes full of places to find enjoyment, and sometimes those simplest excursions remain the best, in real life or the digital world. When you’re looking for “meaning” under every nook and cranny or “narrative” within every hole, you might miss the cool and awesome stuff happening right before your eyes.

In Phillipians, Paul states in the greeting:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Out of all the correspondences we have in the Bible’s current form, “joy” finds the most mention in the context of this particular community. Paul finds joy not only in community, but also in the various good thing happening in that community regardless of Paul’s own circumstance. The work continues. Things move on even when you’re personally incapacitated. The things we build grow into their own mold and shape. That state of joy, at least in a theological sense, isn’t just a state of gaiety or unbridled happiness; it comes from perspective.

And that, in a word, explains why I like what other people call “guilty pleasures” or “dumb fun”, like Dynasty Warriors. The Bible shows us a whole microcosm of human experience, but God doesn’t magically limit our recreational tendencies by virtue of being a Christian. We need to enjoy stupid things and to laugh at dumb things sometimes in addition to finding narratives full of meaning and serious issues. They’re part of that joy concoction. Does DW pervert the history? Absolutely it does! Am I particularly worried about it? Not really – I’ve read the novel twice now, and even that romanticizes the events on hand. It doesn’t mean you cannot overload on it (see: carpal tunnel syndrome), but balance it out. Do everything in moderation, as Scripture says again and again.

What we need more than ever in video games is lots and lots of dumb fun without all that pretension, a balance between meaning and fun. We can get that, right?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Yeah. I’m always taking notice to the games the teens are playing these days. Dynasty Warriors always caught my attention for the same reason Jade Empire is Bioware’s least popular/successful title: it deals with East Asian settings and themes in a way that I would think most would find dumb. But like you said, it’s just dumb fun. And it really is nice when you can knock down fifty guys at once!

    • Although perhaps I emphasize the “dumb” side a bit much: even the novel makes it sound like any of these heroes could defeat a million opponents at once. In that sense, it’s accurate to the novel if not the actual historical events in question.

  • Alexander David Knighton

    I’m just glad that a beat em up franchise has persisted undaunted as long as this one has. Thinking back, all the classic beat em up titles from the past (GOLDEN AXE, FINAL FIGHT, STREETS OF RAGE, etc.) ended after about 3 entries. There have been attempts to revive them for the new generation, but almost of them have been lackluster. But DYNASTY WARRIORS persists! Its gone past it’s 8th entry and is going into its 9th entry at this point. That kind of popularity has to speak to some kind of value the series has that other series dont.

    Honestly…Everyone keeps saying FINAL FIGHT and STREETS OF RAGE are timeless classics. If thats the case, then why did those franchises die out? Wheres STREETS OF RAGE 8 or FINAL FIGHT 9? Having been a big beat em up fan in my youth, I can honestly say that if Capcom had made 9 sequels to FINAL FIGHT, I would have sought out all of them out with little hesitation. But there arent. I’m sure many critics and consumers will continue to make up justifications for why it’s a “good thing” there arent any new FINAL FIGHT’s being made. But I think the simple truth of the matter is that the market can’t handle them for various reasons. Im not even sure if a lot of modern kids even remember what FINAL FIGHT is. But DYNASTY WARRIORS continues to persist. Thats why I find it funny that so many gamers and critics who hold FINAL FIGHT in high reverence continue to scorn DYNASTY WARRIORS’ long run. By condemning DYNASTY WARRIORS, you’re basically condemning FINAL FIGHT’s legacy since the former could only exist due to the popularity of games like FINAL FIGHT. At least DYNASTY WARRIORS continues to be consistent and delivers what it promises. I think that’s why it persists. Such long lasting enthusiasm should inspire admiration, not disdain.

    • Zachery Oliver

      Well, you can think of it in two ways: Final Fight and its brethren were products of a different time. Arcade games were designed with a different mentality – that of stealing your money – and the games were balanced accordingly. That doesn’t mean they are bad, necessarily, but it does mean that, to some degree, the design space is limited to excellent graphics, music, scoring, and solid mechanics that are presented with stiff, perhaps unfair, difficulty. Capcom made a whole lot of games that were similar to Final Fight, as their extensive CPS2 catalogue can attest; functionally speaking, they were all sequels to Final Fight, only with more diverse fighting mechanics and settings (the D&D games are a noticeable shift of formula, and AvP is a personal favorite). There’s plenty of other developers that kept making them, too! Arcades required novelty, and there’s only so much you can do with the street gang setting (even Double Dragon crapped out after 2 or 3 sequels).

      Heck, those games were coming out right up until and past when Dynasty Warriors 2 came out, so they aren’t necessarily linked. If I had to really say what the Warriors series is, as a genre, it’s more action RPG than beat-em up. There’s no pixel perfect precision required, or memorization of stage layouts, or hidden abilities. Rather, you kill lots of stuff, you find loot, and you keep upgrading your favorite character with all sorts of loot. It is very Diablo-esque, and has only gotten moreso with each subsequent spinoff and incarnation of the series. In a word, the game requires lots and lots and lots of grinding.

      And sure, you don’t have to do any of that, but it’s certainly encouraged. The core feedback loop of killing thousands of dudes at once compelling, and ultimately a bit psychologically manipulative. Later games in the series do try to alleviate this, but the core combat hasn’t much improved at all; they just added (like, say, action RPGs) more stuff to distract from it.

      It doesn’t have to be this way. Hyrule Warriors http://theologygaming.com/review-hyrule-warriors-intro/ is a perfect example of this, as are the myriad other beat’em ups which are much truer to the spirit of the arcade classics (Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden’s modern reboot, and even God of War if you like that sort of thing). Dynasty Warriors, at least the mainline series games, are just anemic if we are to consider them the successors of Final Fight and its ilk. I would consider more of these in line with the beat’em up than DW, by a long shot:

      http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/53472/History-Of-Beat-Em-Ups#vars!date=1986-01-17_08:39:50!

      With all that said, I like Dynasty Warriors http://theologygaming.com/review-dynasty-warriors-8-stars-part-1/, but I think it could really use a total overhaul – this is why the other developers didn’t just rest on their laurels, something that Koei and Temco do to the series’ detriment.

      • Pax Humana

        Maybe they can find something that is not only fresh, revolutionary, and innovative, but that also has that brutally hard AI from Dynasty Warriors 3/Shin Sengoku Musou 2, AND that it also has another classical warfare period in history, namely, gasp, the ancient Kingdom of Israel and its enemies? I would call that franchise Shekinah Warriors or Kingdom Warriors myself.

      • Alexander David Knighton

        Thank you for that very informative response! Before I reply though, I thought I should clarify where I stand with regards to my experience with the franchise. I’ve played through the first three games in earnest depth, however I’ve only been able to sample a campaign from all the remaining games. I totally understand what you mean though with regards to DW being along the lines of more of an action RPG and becoming more so as the series has progressed. The spinoffs are especially good examples. DW: STRIKEFORCE for example, heavily was geared towards the MONSTER HUNTER market. DRAGON QUEST HEROES practically is a pure action RPG in every sense of the word; almost indistinguishable from something like KINGDOM HEARTS. Another similar game you could have mentioned too is the original GAUNTLET, with its emphasis on loot hunting and enemy generators spewing out endless hordes of opponents.

        To me though the nature of the earlier DYNASTY WARRIORS games was so much closer to the classic beat em up action games than several other third person action games on the market. To me, games like DMC, GOD OF WAR and the NINJA GAIDEN reboot are successors to the 2D action adventure platforming genre, which include games like the classic CASTLEVANIA series and (of course) the NES NINJA GAIDEN trilogy. Not that that’s a bad thing at all as that genre arguably has more seniority than the beat em up one. The aforementioned games have a substantial emphasis on elements like platforming, puzzle solving, cinematic storytelling, and grand fantasy atmosphere…which are not really characteristics of classic beat em up. A beat em ups description is all in the name…the players purpose in these games is purely to beat things up and maybe collect some score modifiers or powerups on the ground along the way (which does sort of tie into the “loot collecting” incentive you mentioned). When hopping from platform to platform or searching for hidden items embedded within cracks in the backdrops in DMC or jumping over bottomless pits whilst admiring the gorgeous scenery in GOD OF WAR…I don’t feel like I’m playing a beat em up; I feel like I’m playing a CASTLEVANIA game.

        I think the best way to analyze this would be to compare two third person action games (one a DYNASTY WARRIORS title) from the same time period and see which one feels more like a classic beat em up ala FINAL FIGHT. I actually did this a while back…I compared DYNASTY WARRIORS 3 and the first DMC game successively (both games were released in 2001) to see which ones felt closer to the experience of FINAL FIGHT. DMC opens with Dante in a seemingly abandoned castle. Your first actions are exploring the various rooms of the castle to find a key, using acrobatics to scale the walls and collect red orbs and blue health shards. The red orbs are characteristic of collectible items in practically any 2D platformer title…they could be the golden rings in SONIC. Now compare this to the opening level of DYNASTY WARRIORS 3: the Yellow Turban Rebellion. This kicks off with an energetic soundtrack and a horde of enemies coming your way. You dispense them with simplistic combos only to encounter abother horde and the action does not let up until the end of the level. This feels a lot more like the first level of FINAL FIGHT, which opens with a crowd of thugs and ends with a human sized boss and a crowd of thugs. Emphasis on hordes and crowds. Both games also have an emphasis on crowd control. I get the same visceral satisfaction from knocking an enemy into a crowd of enemies with a power combo in DYNASTY WARRIORS that I get from picking up a thug and throwing him into a crowd of his friends in FINAL FIGHT. There are other things too. The Musou attack for example, serves the same purpose as the deathblow attack in FINAL FIGHT…it serves as a combo breaker and a quick escape from painful situations. Also items are found all on a flat terrain on the ground, you dont have to do any platforming to reach them.

        That being said, I think where the discrepancy is coming from is that there are several crossovers between the genres as we’ve seen. Capcom made several beat em up themed games ala KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND and the D&D games, which were actually action RPG’s in disguise. ALTERED BEAST straddled the line between being a beat em up and a 2D platformer game. CASTLEVANIA became an action RPG after SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT.

        I guess what I’m trying to convey is that even though the DYNASTY WARRIORS games may not be pure beat em ups, they’re puRER beat em ups than games like DMC or GOD OF WAR which, as I said, feel more like successors to CASTLEVANIA and it’s ilk than FINAL FIGHT. It just that it seems like every other attempt to bring the beat em up into the 3D age falls flat as soon as it’s attempted. Games like FIGHTING FORCE, URBAN REIGN, GOD HAND, etc. all ended up failing to make much of an impact. FINAL FIGHT STREETWISE was regarded as atrocious. Hence the reason I exhibited awe in my previous comment that a series like DYNASTY WARRIORS could survive so long.

        • Zachery Oliver

          When you compare it that way, you are absolutely right – Dynasty Warriors (at least 2 and 3, although I think 4 is a borderline case) hews quite close to the arcade template. And you make an excellent comparison with DMC and Castlevania (which is almost cheating, since they both take place in Gothic castles, but I’ll let that slide, lol).

          But, and here is where I take issue with such things, the core feedback loop of DMC isn’t really the exploration. That stuff, if you remember, was a holdover from DMC’s origins as a Resident Evil game, then a spinoff, then a game unto itself. Kamiya directed RE2, and his game just wasn’t much like Resident Evil at all, so a new game series came into being. The exploration, in that way, merely became a means of progression, because other games are far more interesting when you’re exploring; frankly, it’s busywork to get the 3 keys and put it in the 3 slots when you play DMC games. Japanese developers, however, are/were not very critically about hit franchises, and they usually assume EVERY element of said game was the reason for its success.

          As you know, DMC has a pretty substantial move list for a game that came out in 2001, so a lot of its fighting is more “puzzle-like” than other games in its series. Starting with DMC2, that changes substantially; the number of weapons increases, as does the means to kill enemies however you want. DMC2 also introduces Bloody Palace mode, which is the real attraction to people who like high scores via creative comboing and survival. That, to me, is the real appeal of such games – stylish combos while also surviving at the same time through large odds. Almost all games like this offer modes to that effect, or missions that stack the odds just for scoring/funzies; if the developers could focus on this, they would, but commercial demands always throw a story in there to attract the normal consumer (i.e., not video gamers!). The move lists continue to get more labyrinthine to the point of absurdity, but that’s part of the fun.

          The ancillary elements – collecting red orbs/exploring for upgrades – is still one of those things people complain about, and I am among them to some degree. It’s unnecessary padding, and it’s hampered my Wii U playthrough of Bayonetta because I don’t want to find all that stuff again. Platforming is one of those, because it doesn’t challenge you at all in the least. DMC takes a tiny sliver out of your health bar when you miss a jump; same goes for Bayonetta.

          You definitely have a case with the Ninja Gaiden reboot; that one was much more in line with action-platformers like Castlevania, as that was more a adventure game with survival elements that had hard combat of patience (move/wait/attack). Subsequent entries upend this, as NG2 and 3 are entirely linear in their structure, and make no qualms about being pure, linear action setpieces. God of War could also fit into that mold, although I only played the first game, so it’s difficult for me to say if that remains, but the platforming/exploration were just pacing elements between combat in the first game, and it even had arena challenges in the menus!

          If I had to track a game that fits in line with those, I think the Souls series fits the bill best as a modern Castlevania (both pre- and post-Symphony of the Night). Both games have a “duel” combat system, especially if we compare Rondo of Blood with Souls, and both encourage exploration (platforming is just an NES holdover, in this case). The action-adventure vibe lives on, I think, but it appears in different forms due to graphical upgrades (the less said about Lords of Shadow, which is a God of War clone, the better).

          So, all that is to say that, in a sense, the stylish beat’em up is a natural evolution of the beat-em up, far more satisfying than its forebears due to the evolution of various genre tropes. The level progression, platforming and the like are simply pacing elements between intense fights which are THE FOCUS of such games. If Capcom could do such things back in the day, I’m sure they would! All the games mentioned above function great in a pure arena setting, with no “level design” to speak of, and that attests to their inherit qualities as beat’em ups (assuming most combo upgrades, of course).

          Which puts Dynasty Warriors, the earlier games even, in a tricky spot. That it simply matches the original forebears in complexity and level design isn’t something to be praised, but to be criticized. Dynasty Warriors levels are simply wide open spaces half the time, and you get to kill a ton of dudes in them; higher difficulties makes them hit for more and makes them more durable, but that doesn’t make them fun (almost all the games I listed have different enemy layouts and arrangements in higher difficulties, which makes them surprising, fun, fair, and a natural evolution of your skill). They’re not half as tightly constrained as a side-scrolling beat’em up, because they naturally offer the home console benefits of “replay value” (ugh”) and “content” (urgh)

          I think Dynasty Warriors survives based on its action-RPG roots more than anything else, as grinding and level exploration offers incentive for those people who like beating guys up and leveling up. Over time, the appeal of killing so many dwindles, and without much to supplement it (and a lack of interesting level design on top), I just don’t find it a compelling successor to the arcade beat’em up. All the elements are there, but muted for the grind. Here’s some food for thought: http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=150

          Actually, though, there is a game series like DW that I like far more: Sengoku Basara. While not perfect, it is far more interesting straight out of the gate, and more challenging to boot. Of course, it too relies on “leveling” and the like, but the levels are more constrained and dynamic for sure.

          Also, I hope you weren’t speaking ill of God Hand, because that game is perfect in every way and is probably the purest continuation of Capcom’s arcade games in 3D that there is, or ever will be, in mechanics and tone (wacky stuff!).

          • Pax Humana

            Hey, speaking of Capcom, did they not make the Sengoku Basara series as well? Oh, and God Hand had LGBT promotion in some of its thugs…just saying.

          • Zachery Oliver

            Yes, Capcom does make Sengoku Basara. I haven’t played one in a while though…

            I guess you COULD say God Hand does have stuff like that, but most of it is supposed to be hilarious and dumb (Japanese people like to make fun of such things – who knew?). Gorilla fighting…just saying.

          • Alexander David Knighton

            Wow, surprised comments are still going here! Just to clarify: in my previous response (going on 7 months now) I meant no negative sentiments about GOD HAND in amy way, as I agree, is a fantastic game. The point I was trying to get at was that it was not very successful in the market, so unfortunately it was another example of a modern beat em up failing to make much of a splash in the industry. Still, the game is regarded as a cult hit, and rightfully so.

  • Pax Humana

    How about making a Dynasty Warriors/Shin Sengoku Musou style game, but instead of being in China, Japan, or some fictional setting, it takes place in ancient Israel? You could not only play from various people ranging from Noah and his sons to the Apostles (or at least the Maccabees) and that you can choose from the Israelites/Jews or the other nations and, like the Samurai Warriors/Shin Sengoku Mugen series, you can also have three sided conflicts in a battle. I think that would make for an awesome way to preach the Gospel.

    • Zachery Oliver

      It would also be pretty insane. Japanese people should make it, lol

      • Pax Humana

        I agree and some of the battles of the Bible are every bit as insane as classical battles, such as the one in Dynasty Warriors/Shin Sengoku Musou, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Records of the Three Kingdoms, like The Battle of Chi Bi, or the proto-Greek battle known as The Battle of Thermopylae (of 300 movie/graphic novel/ fame), most notably what I refer to as the Battle of Mount Gilead or what the Bible refers to as the Battle Against the Midianites. The battle that Gideon bar Jerubbaal (I am using Hebrew made variants of first, last, and/or middle names like Tecmo Koei does in its own hack-and-slash games) fought in was every bit as memorable as the two other battles that I had mentioned, yet no one even cares about the even MORE staggering odds that Gideon and his tiny army had faced in that battle.