Senran Kagura is one of the most consistently misunderstood series in the entire Japanese gaming canon.
At least part of this is due to the outspoken nature of series creator Kenichiro Takaki who, legend has it, only created the series in the first place because he wanted to see breasts popping out of the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D screen of the Nintendo 3DS, and who is credited with “Righteous Boobage” in every installment’s credit roll.
In a way, this is kind of unfortunate, since it causes a significant number of people — and press outlets — to write the series off as nothing more than cheap fanservice. In reality, however, although the game does include a significant amount of cheeky, overtly sexualised content, it’s a great deal more than titillation, featuring a strong ensemble cast, gameplay mechanics that have evolved, changed and improved between installments — and between different host platforms — and an intriguing unfolding story that draws together elements of Japanese mythology and a more creative, fantastic element of what life as a shinobi might be like in modern-day Japan.
Although primarily known for Senran Kagura, Takaki has been responsible for a number of interesting games over the years, including Half-Minute Hero and Sakura Note.
Although primarily known these days for the Senran Kagura series, Takaki has been responsible for a number of interesting, creative games over the years — most notably the extremely peculiar frantic RPG Half-Minute Hero. Takaki also worked as producer on the Japan-only adventure game Sakura Note, a title penned by frequent Final Fantasy scenario writer Kazushige Nojima and scored by the similarly frequent Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. We never saw this latter game in the West, unfortunately, owing to a combination of the saturated Nintendo DS market at the time along with the game’s overt Japaneseness that publisher Ignition thought wouldn’t resonate with a Western audience.
Oddly enough, Senran Kagura is also extremely Japanese, yet it made the jump over to Western shores without too much difficulty — this may have been partly due to localisation specialists XSEED Games getting involved with the series rather than publisher Marvelous’ previous partner Ignition, but may also have been partly due to the growing trend of Western fans of Japanese games keen to show their support for niche-interest titles whenever possible.
The main problem with Rooke’s post was that it didn’t delve deeper into the game, its story, its characters or its mechanics.
I say “without too much difficulty”, but the road to release for the first Western installment in the Senran Kagura series — 3DS title Senran Kagura Burst — wasn’t entirely smooth. Most notably, in 2014 the UK’s Official Nintendo Magazine published a post from blogger Chris Rooke which became somewhat notorious due to its provocative title “Senran Kagura Burst is damaging the industry – here’s how to stop it”. The original post has since been removed, though as with most things on the Internet these days, it has been archived for posterity.
Rooke’s post was largely ill-informed railing against the perceived injustices of the game: the fact that it had “conventionally attractive anime characters” in leading roles; the fact that they “all wear short skirts or just underwear with low-cut blouses”; the fact that “when their special attacks are used, a cutscene activates which involves all of the girl’s clothes (except underwear) flying off her body before she attacks her enemies”. While all of these are accurate descriptors of Senran Kagura Burst — except for the last point; to be pedantic, this only happens when you use “Frantic” mode, which boosts the character’s attack power hugely while dropping their defensive power to almost zero — the main problem with Rooke’s post was that this was where it stopped: it didn’t delve deeper into the game, its story, its characters or its mechanics.
Part visual novel, part role-playing game, part side-on brawler, Senran Kagura Burst tells the story of two rival schools of trainee shinobi.
As is a common pattern these days, Rooke’s outrage actually had the opposite effect to what he presumably intended with his inflammatory article: people became interested in the game, perhaps becoming aware of it when they hadn’t previously heard of it. XSEED’s production assistant Brittany “Hatsuu” Avery enthusiastically extolled the game’s virtues on Twitter and spoke to the press whenever she had the opportunity — she was even good enough to provide me with some hefty, thought-provoking comments for my own piece on the subject of otaku games in general over at USgamer. And gamers made it clear that this was a game they were curious to play — to see what all the outrage was about, and if it was justified. (It wasn’t.)
Senran Kagura Burst for the 3DS is an interesting experience that sets the framework for the rest of the series. Part visual novel, part role-playing game, part side-on Streets of Rage-style brawler, the game tells the story of two rival schools of trainee shinobi: the “good” shinobi of the Hanzō Academy and the “evil” shinobi of the Hebijo Academy. Each school’s story focuses on a core cast of five young women and their counterparts from their rival schools. Over the course of the game’s five chapters, the game reflects on the characters finding their place in the world — both as young women and trainee shinobi — as well as the nature of good and evil and how things aren’t as black-and-white as people might like you to make out. It then escalates to a dramatic and surprising conclusion in which the series’ narrative as a whole starts to pick up steam.
Unusually in this age of reboots and series with little to no continuity, Shinovi Versus acted as a direct follow-up to Burst.
Burst was followed by Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus for the PlayStation Vita, a game which eschewed Burst’s side-on brawling in favour of battling in 3D arenas that played like a blend between Koei Tecmo’s Warriors series and Square Enix’s Dissidia Final Fantasy games. Unusually in this age of reboots and series with little to no continuity that demand no knowledge of previous installments to enjoy sequels, Shinovi Versus acted as a direct follow-up to Burst, assuming that you already knew who these characters were, what they had been through in the previous game and how they related to one another. As a story, it was somewhat self-contained in that it focused a great deal more on individual characterisation and personal motivation rather than the story of the shinobi’s conflict with mythological creatures known as yōma first teased at the conclusion of Burst, but its context carried considerably more weight and meaning when taken as a direct follow-up to its predecessor.
Shinovi Versus was also noteworthy for introducing two new five-character casts to the mix: the “good” shinobi of Gessen Academy and the new Hebijo students that replaced the original five who were forced to go renegade at Burst’s conclusion. This brought the total number of core cast members to a whopping twenty, but Shinovi Versus managed to give each and every one of them time in the spotlight in two ways: firstly, by providing each of the four groups involved with their own story that fit into the whole picture, and secondly, by incorporating a series of side missions called Shinobi Girl’s Heart, each of which was a five-episode mini-arc unrelated to the main narrative, focusing specifically on one individual character and something interesting — usually comedic, but with relatable undertones — about their personality.
Despite its ridiculous premise, Bon Appetit takes its setup and plays it straight, making just as much effort with its storytelling as its more conventional predecessors.
Shinovi Versus was then followed up by Senran Kagura Bon Appetit, also for PlayStation Vita. Regarded as non-canonical due to its somewhat ridiculous premise — the notoriously perverted but nonetheless legendary shinobi Hanzō (yes, he of the Academy fame) tricks the trainee shinobi into a cooking competition with the promise of a ninja scroll that can grant their hearts’ deepest desires — the game nonetheless takes its setup and plays it straight, making just as much effort with its storytelling through visual novel narration and talking-head dialogue sequences as its more… conventional predecessors. Also it was a pretty solid rhythm game, to boot.
Next up was Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, which marked the series’ return to the Nintendo 3DS and likewise a return to the “main” narrative of Shinobi vs Yōma. The admittedly welcome distractions of the Gessen and Hebijo girls from Shinovi Versus were set aside to focus on the core cast of Asuka’s team from Hanzō and Homura’s renegade Crimson Squad. Having uncovered the truth about the reason for the existence of “good” and “evil” shinobi towards the end of Shinovi Versus, both teams end up cooperating against an all-out yōma invasion in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the mysterious, frighteningly powerful and rapidly growing young girl known as Kagura.
Deep Crimson’s notable additions to the main formula were the ability to cooperate with a teammate as well as boss battles against giant yōma.
Deep Crimson also saw the series return to side-on, fixed camera angle brawling rather than the true 3D freedom of Shinovi Versus, though its environments and settings did incorporate more depth than Burst as well as more dynamic camera angles. Its notable additions to the main formula were the ability to cooperate with a teammate — either AI- or human-controlled — as well as boss battles against giant yōma that demanded fighting in a significantly different way to the usual hordes of grunts or single shinobi opponents previously seen. It also dropped the option to choose which of the main narrative threads you wanted to explore first in favour of a single coherent narrative that switched perspective between the main cast members with each episode — a fact which worked in its favour despite its more limited flexibility, and which helped prevent some of the minor continuity issues that both Burst and Shinovi Versus ended up with in places.
And finally, then, we come to Senran Kagura Estival Versus, the most recent installment in the series, and a game which you’ll be reading a whole lot more about here on MoeGamer over the course of the next month. Estival Versus marks the series’ first release on a home console as well as a handheld — it’s available for PlayStation 4 as well as Vita — and follows Shinovi Versus’ pattern of being a direct sequel which focuses more on characterisation and stories of personal growth than advancing the shinobi-yōma plotline.
To reduce these characters to “blatant objectification of women and their bodies” is to miss the point, to fail to engage with a well-written and interesting franchise, and to miss out on experiencing a remarkably well-crafted narrative universe.
Consistently, throughout the entire Senran Kagura series, we’ve seen absolute commitment from Takaki and his team to making this all-female cast of characters believable and relatable. They each go on personal journeys of growth, both within each individual installment and within the series as a whole. They grow as individuals and develop their relationships with one another. And, as Bon Appetit aptly demonstrates, they’re at a point now where they’ve been portrayed strongly enough to carry themselves as individual characters even outside of their original genre context.
To reduce these characters to “blatant objectification of women and their bodies” and to write the series off as “one of the worst types of game around”, as Rooke did, is to miss the point, to fail to engage with a well-written and interesting franchise — and to miss out on experiencing a remarkably well-crafted narrative universe with solid, fun gameplay and a ton of value for money.
In the next article, we’ll be taking a closer, specific look at Estival Versus’ game mechanics and how they compare to the rest of the series as well as its influences and contemporaries.
Estival Versus is available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.