Sengoku is the second beat em up on the Neo Geo, after Ninja Combat. But unlike Ninja Combat (which was by ADK), Sengoku was internally developed by SNK. According to the intro, 400 years ago, a warlord was defeated by 2 samurais. But just before he died, he promised to return in 400 years to bring death and destruction to the land. And 400 years pass. And lo and behold, the warlord actually kept his promise, resurrecting, along with his magical floating mansion and massive undead army, to bring the apocalypse to modern times. Interesting tidbit: The intro is different between the MVS & AES versions of the game. The MVS intro, while more impressive looking, has a rather fast text scroll that is hard to read. The AES version slows down the text scroll. But the intro is just a series of static screens, which is less impressive. But back to the game itself.
So who will save this world from the mad man warlord in his floating, spinning magic mansion? Two dudes. Player one is a Mad Max or Kenshiro looking guy, complete with leather jacket and metal shoulder pads, but with a brighter attire to give him a bit of legitimacy/avoid lawsuits. Player two is a shirtless cowboy. The two of them will have to get to the mad man warlord by punching hundreds and hundreds of ghost ninjas, undead samurais, demons, Kappas, evil spirits, and a host of other mythical Japanese monsters under the warlord’s command.
Like other contemporary beat-em-ups/belt-scrollers/brawlers (pick your favorite term), you walk to the right and punch people, monsters, demons, and other such things. [A] button attacks, and [B] jumps. But the main gimmick of Sengoku is that, on your journey you will befriend three different “warrior spirits” who will help you out: A Wolf, a Ninja, and a Samurai. And you can “tag-in” any of these spirits with the [C] button. But each of the 3 spirits has their own 60-second timer that counts down when they’re “tagged in”. And once the timer reaches 0, they’re out, lost for good. And you can’t get them back (not even after dying. Death actually doesn’t take away your spirit friends if you have them along when you die). That is, unless you find another one of the lost spirits on your way, which is pretty rare. So it’s very important that you tag them out before they’re timer runs out to have them recharge their timer (although, if you’re like me, you’ll probably die & use all your lives pretty quickly before the timer runs out, wherein you’ll continue and then have all your spirits fully charged).
Many of these battles won’t even be taking place in the earthly domain. See, every so often, your player gets transported instantly. Sometimes to the heavens, sometimes seemingly back in time, or just to the lower city levels, in the subways and severs. It’s a very abrupt, very interruptive sequence. And it’s Sengoku’s other big gimmick that’s also really weird. In fact, in stage 1, mere seconds after starting the game and walking for a few feet, you will suddenly be transported to the heavens to fight a horde of monsters. It’s a hectic kind of pace, ensuring that you’re not fighting in the same locale for too long. It’s an obvious gimmick to reduce the apparent tedium that a lot of beat em ups can have by “mixing it up”. And honestly it works, even if you are still fighting the same types of enemies wherever you are. And yet even within the same plane, Sengoku tries to mix it up by having the same enemies appear on screen in new ways. Sometimes, they just walk in from off-screen, or come by running from the background (with lots of sprite scaling. This IS an early-era Neo Geo game, so expect plenty of ridiculous sprite-scaling). Other times they appear as weird ghosts that transform into the usual set of enemies you fight. It doesn’t really have an effect on how you play the game, just a variety of fancy wrappers for the same types of sandwiches.
But is the meat of Sengoku good (Apologies for the heavy handed metaphor)? Past all the gimmicky visual tricks & the fancy spirit-tagging mechanic, is the raw punching & kicking good?
Well, not really. For one, regular dude moves quite slowly. But more importantly, there’s no “combo lock” like you have in Final Fight or other beat em ups. When an enemy is punched, they go into a “getting hit” animation frame & are pushed back a little. And during the “getting hit” frame, all subsequent attacks won’t register until the enemy is back into normal state. So it feels flimsy hitting attack 4 times & only having attacks #1 & #3 register as hits. This is unlike Final Fight, where once the first attack lands, the subsequent attacks initiate a combo that ends with a final attack that knocks down the enemy. Also, there aren’t a lot of moves you can do. There’re no throws, only 1 jump attack, and no running at all. Although you can break enemy sword with your bare hands but I’m not sure how to trigger this move. But it’s useful and looks pretty cool.
The spirits you can tag with are also of mixed usefulness. The wolf is nearly useless, with very short range attacks. The Ninja is basically a faster version of regular dude (that’s because instead of walking, the Ninja does acrobatic ninja flips, as a Ninja should). The Samurai is the most effective of them all, as the samurai’s sword has great reach and does great damage.
But even if the wolf and the Ninja are not that much more useful than regular dude, it’s still a good idea to switch to them whenever you get a power-up. Defeating some enemies would yield different colored orbs. which give you power-ups, like giving regular dude a sword, or 2 swords, or 1 BIG sword, or can make him shoot stuff. But if one of the spirits gets a powerup (or powered up regular dude is switched up to any of these spirits), they will shoot a plethora of crazy looking projectiles too. So it’s a smart idea to change to one of the spirits when powered up (even the nearly useless wolf gets some much needed firepower).
So despite not having a strong basis in terms of bare-handed combat, there’s quite a lot of switching between the 4 characters. And optimally, you won’t be using regular dude for long stretches if you’re playing well. And yet, thanks to some smart enemy designs, there are some instances where you’re better off using regular guy against some enemies. Sword wielding enemies can reflect projectiles, so if you were using a powered up spirit that’s shooting stuff, your attacks would be reflected back. Therefore it’s better in this case to switch back to regular dude to use his sword-breaking move (which would be much more useful if I knew how to do it). Or you can clash your sword with an enemy sword and presumably mash in order to win (unless it’s done like in the first Samurai Shodown, then you really shouldn’t bother with the wasted effort).
This dependency on tagging between characters while also managing each spirits “cool down” period, factoring in whether you have a power up or not, and who are the enemy-types you’re currently fighting, all of this does build a simple strategy element on top of an otherwise pretty simplistic brawling system, a system which I believe could not sustain a whole interesting game on itself. And the pretty-looking, very imaginative stages you go through, especially with the whole warping around thing, is a clever gimmick that nullifies the “brawler tedium” that happens in similar games. Add to that some really cool looking bosses (mostly the minibosses. The real bosses are somewhat less impressive oddly), and a very climactic final boss encounter, and Sengoku ends up being a very good, smartly designed brawler that does enough to differentiates itself from the competition. And it seems SNK did a good enough job with Sengoku to spawn 2 other sequels, Sengoku 2 in 1994, and a Noise Factory-made Sengoku3/Sengoku 2001 in, well, 2001.