Can you believe that Dynasty Warriors 8 is coming out in Japan next week? Eight! That's a lot of old Chinese generals bashing the crap out of hapless yeomen and humbling every wannabe warlord in their way (except Lu Bu, don't pursue him!)
Dynasty Warriors can legitimately be called one of Japan's most important game franchises at this point, but it began in the mid-'90s as a very, very low-key project, one started up by a small handful of dudes at Koei's Omega Force development team. The first one, released for the PlayStation in 1997, bears little resemblance to DW8 or any other Warriors game. It's a traditional one-on-one fighter, featuring action more than a bit reminiscent of SoulCalibur.
"Well, we all liked playing fighting games," explained Akihiro Suzuki, programmer on the first Dynasty Warriors, in an interview published in this week's Famitsu magazine. "There was a Neo-Geo at the office, and we'd all play it during our lunch breaks. This was the cartridge one, too, with games costing around 30,000 yen each at the time, so we'd all pitch in until we could afford a new one."
Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury were among the preferred fighting games around the Omega Force office. This eventually graduated to convincing Koei to purchase a Tekken 2 arcade board for the crew. "We managed to convince the company that we needed it for research purposes," Suzuki recalled. "We weren't originally planning to make a fighting game, but there was this order from up high to try and challenge ourselves and make some new kind of game."
This was a stretch for the company, which was still best known back in the mid-1990s as a producer of hardcore-oriented, historically-accurate strategy wargames. "Koei, at the time, had yet to make a full-on 3D game," said Kenichi Ogasawara, Dynasty Warriors' designer. "We were thinking about making some kind of game that would help us build some 3D graphical experience, and we figured the fighter genre would be the best for that, so I came up with the original design plan."
Suzuki and Ogasawara juggled job titles on the DW project. They had to, given that Omega Force was never larger than "five or six guys" throughout the development. "I'd have the other guys make attack animations, and I'd look at them and be like 'No, that's not it' as I started messing around with them myself," Ogasawara said. "It was a long succession of trail-and-error experiences, and looking back, I'm kind of surprised we managed to make it at all."
The pair, alongside longtime Warriors producer Hisashi Koinuma, completed DW in late '96 and moved on to make Destrega, an even more obscure Koei fighter that launched on the PS1 worldwide in 1999. Koinuma left Omega Force soon afterward to become the lead programmer on PS2 launch title Kessen, leaving Ogasawara and Suzuki to think of what to do next with their small team.
"I came up with the design document for Dynasty Warriors 2 as well" around this time, Ogasawara noted. "The whole 'one fighter with the strength of a thousand' concept you see throughout the series was already in place at that point. Instead of just beating people up, though, I wanted that concept to be more about tactics, about having to come up with new strategies on the fly as you're fighting. So we spent a while working on enemy AI to start out."
Omega Force beefed up to around 20 people to tackle this PS2 project, but the 'design by committee' motto that held firm for DW1 still influenced the crew during DW2's development. "Omega Force had its start as this outfit of five or six people, so there was always this atmosphere of programmers and so on coming up with design ideas," Suzuki told Famitsu. "That, and the designers would often be pretty lax in coming up with materials. In the design document, the designer would just be like 'Handle this in some kind of nice way.'" ("There was always a vision in my mind of what I wanted to do," Ogasawara chimed in, "but it's hard to figure out how to make that in real life, you know? So at the start of the project, I'd leave the programmers to figure that out for me. Some kind of nice way!")
Dynasty Warriors 2 wound up being delayed nearly half a year mid-project, its release date slipping from March to August of 2000. But this would soon prove to be a blessing in disguise. The game got its first public unveiling in a Tokyo Game Show session held in the spring of 2000. "TGS was still held twice a year back then," said Ogasawara. "We got a really good response out of it when it got its first showing at that spring 2000 show, and afterwards, the consensus was 'This can really turn into something great; let's spend some more time and work on packing a lot more content into it.' We can say this now that we know how it turned out, of course, but I'm really glad we managed to do that. If we didn't, I'm not sure we'd be sitting here talking about Warriors after all this time."
Now, of course, the Warriors family encompasses dozens of games, starring everyone from Japanese and Chinese historical figures to Gundam robots and Luffy from One Piece. Suzuki is lead producer on the Dynasty Warriors games these days, while Ogasawara has shifted gears to lead up Toukiden, the new Omega Force franchise first detailed to the public last week.
"I think it's fair to say that Dynasty Warriors 8 is the culmination of everything we've worked on across the entire series," Suzuki closed. "I think you can take one look at the characters here and immediately see how the visuals have improved, and the action's the most exhilarating that it's ever been, too. Hopefully not just fans, but people who played the series a while ago will also take this chance to get back into the Warriors world."