The Senran Kagura series as a whole primarily has its roots in the brawler or beat ’em up genre, and while it draws mechanical influences from both classics in the field and contemporaries, it very much has its own identity.
Exactly how Senran Kagura channels the brawler genre has evolved somewhat over the game’s several installments. The first game in the series, Senran Kagura Burst, is most recognisable as a classic-style beat ’em up, but while all the subsequent entries make shifts into 3D to varying degrees, the fundamentals remain quite similar.
To understand the mechanics on display in Senran Kagura Estival Versus, it pays to look at the history of the genre as well as more modern contemporaries. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
The brawler genre can be traced back to the dawn of gaming.
The brawler genre can be traced back to the dawn of gaming, though it didn’t become recognisable and popular in the form it typically takes today until Taito’s 1986 arcade game Renegade, a heavily Westernised version of Technos’ Japanese title Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (literally Hot-blooded Tough Guy Kunio), which was the predecessor to later Kunio-fronted games Super Dodge Ball and River City Ransom.
Renegade set the template for brawlers to follow, and many of its most important, innovative characteristics and mechanics are still present in the genre to this day. Most notably, it eschewed traditional two-dimensional side-on gameplay in favour of what we tend to refer to as “2.5D” these days — players were able to move on both the horizontal and vertical axes as the action unfolded from a forced perspective slightly above and to the side of what was happening. It could even be argued that Renegade was one of the first games to have full 3D movement, since not only could you walk left and right as well as in and out of the screen, you could also jump, enabling movement on X, Y and Z axes.
The style of presentation and movement around the world wasn’t the only new thing Renegade brought to the table, though. It also popularised something that we tend to take for granted these days: enemies who take more than a single attack to defeat. While Renegade’s spiritual precursors such as Irem’s Kung-Fu Master (1984) adopted a similar side-scrolling beat ’em up format, the only enemies who took more than a single punch to fell were the end-level bosses. Renegade, meanwhile, brought us regular grunt enemies who would put up a bit more of a fight.
Renegade introduced us to what we now recognise as combo attacks.
Since we now needed more than one punch or kick to fell an enemy, it stood to reason that the way these attacks connected and interacted with the enemies would have to be reconsidered. There needed to be a feeling of impact to the strikes, as well as the ability for the player to gain an advantage over their enemies, even when faced with overwhelming odds. And so it was that Renegade introduced us to what we now recognise as combo attacks: a string of moves that came from the same button but didn’t use just the same single canned “punch” animation. Instead, in Renegade your first attack would stun an enemy for a moment, allowing you to follow up with subsequent attacks.
Renegade didn’t stop there, either; while previous fighting-themed games might have had multiple attack buttons — Kung-Fu Master had punches and kicks, for example — the only real difference tended to be the range of their animation and the amount of points they scored if successfully landed. Renegade, on the other hand, had two attack buttons for the two horizontal directions, and combining these with movement of the joystick and the jump button allowed for a variety of moves ranging from flying kicks to sitting on an enemy and pummeling them while they were helpless.
Renegade’s legacy lives on in modern brawlers such as Senran Kagura. While gameplay systems have become deeper and technology more impressive over the years, those basic fundamentals are still there — right down to most games of this type using two different attack buttons, though nowadays they tend to be weak and strong attacks rather than directional moves. Combo attacks are still present and correct, as is the idea of stun-locking enemies through relentless attacks in order to gain the advantage. And, of course, enemies with varying amounts of hit points, followed by powerful bosses to conclude each stage still form a core part of the modern brawler experience.
1989 was a particularly good year for the brawler genre, bringing us Golden Axe, Final Fight and River City Ransom.
The genre didn’t start with Renegade and then stagnate. The years immediately following the release of Technos’ Double Dragon in 1987 are regarded as the golden age of the genre, bringing us a variety of new innovations, beginning with Double Dragon’s implementation of simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay — a mainstay of the genre for many years, though not always present in more modern titles.
1989 was a particularly good year for the genre, bringing us both Sega’s Golden Axe and Capcom’s Final Fight, both of which incorporated multiple playable characters with their own movesets, strengths and weaknesses. 1989 also saw the release of Technos’ second follow-up to Renegade after Super Dodge Ball, River City Ransom, which introduced an element of character progression to the genre through upgradable, customisable attributes, letting the player feel like they were growing in power as the game progressed and the protagonist gained experience in battling his foes. All of these games played a part in helping to make the Senran Kagura series what it is from a mechanical perspective today.
On a macro scale, the Warriors games and the Senran Kagura Versus subseries are quite different; focusing on the moment-to-moment gameplay, though, it’s clear where the comparisons come from.
In more recent years, the games that the two installments in Senran Kagura’s Versus subseries (Shinovi Versus and the more recent title we’re primarily concerned with here, Estival Versus) are most frequently compared to are Omega Force’s Warriors series. The Warriors range is probably best known for its Romance of the Three Kingdoms-themed Dynasty Warriors series, but it has taken in a variety of settings over the years ranging from Japan’s Warring States period (Samurai Warriors) to Nintendo’s fictional, fantastic setting for the Legend of Zelda series (Hyrule Warriors).
On a macro scale, the Warriors games and the Senran Kagura Versus subseries are quite different: Warriors games set you down in the middle of a large, open, three dimensional battlefield and expect you to complete various objectives almost as if you were a unit in a real-time strategy game, while Senran Kagura Shinovi and Estival Versus put you in short missions that generally either offer linear progression similar to old-school brawler levels or straight-up arena fights against either a horde of enemies, one or more bosses, or both.
Focusing more on the moment-to-moment gameplay, though, it’s clear where the comparisons come from. Both series place an emphasis on an extremely powerful player character that has the strength to overcome hundreds of enemies attacking them simultaneously. Both feature a simple combo system where pressing the weak attack button a certain number of times followed by the strong attack button unleashes different special moves. Both feature powerful, cinematically presented super-moves that allow you to tip the odds in your favour. And both feature a large cast of characters whose basic mechanics — the aforementioned weak and strong attack button combinations — are straightforward to understand, but whose effective usage is a matter of understanding effective range, reach, speed, power, knockback and all manner of other considerations.
This emphasis on battling named, recognisable characters is firmly in keeping with the narrative themes of Senran Kagura as a whole.
In practice, Senran Kagura Shinovi and Estival Versus’ different macro-scale mechanics and structure make them feel very distinct from the Warriors series, as this different focus leads to the player having different priorities in a play session. In a Warriors game, the emphasis is not necessarily on defeating a particular unit — though many missions do end with fighting an enemy general to decide the battle once and for all — whereas Estival Versus in particular very much spotlights the fights that take place between the main cast, almost as if it were a one-on-one competitive fighting game: the vast majority of levels end with a fight between the playable character for that mission (who is fixed while you’re playing through the story, but who can be freely selected once you’ve cleared the mission once) and between one and three “bosses” drawn from the remainder of the cast.
This emphasis on battling named, recognisable characters with personality lavishly depicted through lengthy visual novel and dialogue sequences is firmly in keeping with the narrative themes of Senran Kagura as a whole, which we’ll explore further in a future article. Suffice it for now to say that the concept of understanding one another through battle is a key part of how the cast of Senran Kagura interact with their peers and rivals, and this is rather cleverly reflected through the gameplay. In order to beat each character, you have to understand how they fight — both through observing them and through playing as them in other missions. Running straight in while mashing the attack button absolutely will not work, particularly in Estival Versus, which ramps the difficulty up considerably from its predecessor by punishing those who just run in for a flailing frontal assault with a comprehensive beatdown from your target.
So how are those characters distinguished from one another? Surely there’s only so much you can do with two attack buttons, plus one for jumping and one for dashing? Well, much like the Warriors series, despite each character having the same basic controls, they all handle very distinctively from one another, a fact justified primarily by the fact they all use very different weapons from one another. These differences in weapons are reflected in a variety of ways: speed and power of individual strikes, the variety of possible combos available, the weapon’s reach, the arc that the weapon covers and its strength when compared to whatever the rival character is wielding.
Asuka and Homura are some of the most conventional characters in the cast; for more outlandish playstyles, look at Hibari, Mirai, Haruka or newcomer Hanabi.
To illustrate the differences between characters, consider a few examples.
Asuka, often regarded as the face of the series thanks to her role as the “leader” of the original “good” shinobi academy from Senran Kagura Burst, is a beginner-friendly character thanks to the dual kunai daggers that she wields. These allow her to attack quickly from a reasonable range, with her main strength being the sheer unrelenting nature of her continual attacks. Taking cues from the older brawlers, Asuka’s speedy attacks are good for knocking an enemy off balance and chipping away at their health bar before they have a chance to counterattack — though if they do manage to get a heavy hit in, Asuka is probably going to go flying.
Compare and contrast with Asuka’s main rival Homura, who wields six swords like claws — this is an anime-inspired game we’re talking about, remember. The fact that Homura’s swords are longer than Asuka’s daggers — and that she has six of them — means that she can cover a much wider arc with her individual strikes, and this makes just approaching her quite troublesome, since her weak and blind spots are relatively small compared to some other characters. While Asuka can be knocked off-balance by a well-timed heavy hit before she gets close enough to rip you to shreds with her daggers, dealing with Homura is often a matter of either waiting for the perfect moment following her finishing a string of strikes, or attacking with a powerful strike from above to launch her into the air and take advantage of the gravity-defying “Aerial Rave” mechanic, whereby you can continuously perform mid-air combos on a launched opponent, so long as they don’t right themselves or move out of your reach while you’re doing so.
Asuka and Homura are some of the most conventional characters in the cast. For more outlandish play styles, you need look no further than characters such as Hibari, whose clumsiness means that her combos often end with her tripping over; Mirai, whose “gunbrella” places a strong emphasis on attacking from range rather than in melee; Haruka, who has the ability to inflict debilitating status effects on her opponents — one of which even stops them from attacking altogether for a few seconds; and newcomer Hanabi, whose large, cumbersome, heavy weapon makes it very difficult for her to get a strike in — but she hits hard when she does manage to connect.
One of Senran Kagura’s most interesting mechanics, and one of its most distinctive characteristics, is its transformation system.
There are some behind-the-scenes differences between characters, too. Since its inception, the Senran Kagura series has featured a progression system somewhat akin to a role-playing game, with characters earning experience points through defeating enemies and stringing together long, unbroken chains of attacks without pausing. Earning enough experience points to gain a level increases the character’s maximum health, attack and defense stats as well as occasionally increasing the maximum number of ninja scrolls (used to trigger the characters’ Ninja Art super-moves) that the character is able to hold.
But there’s a second, separate progression system, too, that gradually evolves the character according to how you play, and it ties in with one of Senran Kagura’s most interesting mechanics, and one of its more distinctive characteristics that separates it from its contemporaries: its transformation system.
Characters in Senran Kagura have three forms. They start a mission in Flash form, which is fairly balanced but unable to use Ninja Arts. During the mission, it’s possible to change into Yang form by performing a Shinobi Transformation, which changes the character’s costume, increases their overall power level and unlocks various abilities such as longer chains of Aerial Raves and different movesets; it also restores their health fully, so should be used strategically to get yourself out of a pinch. It’s also possible to change into Yin or “Frantic” form, which causes the character to strip down to their underwear, sacrificing all their defensive power for an enormous boost in offensive potential and the ability to perform endless combos.
The player is given incentive to play the game in each of the three different forms; while it’s not at all necessary to do this, those who want to take their characters online will want to be as prepared as possible.
At the conclusion of a mission, as well as the character receiving experience points according to their performance, three Flash, Yang and Yin meters fill up according to how much time they spent in each form. When these meters are filled to one of five levels, the character obtains various benefits. In this way, the player is given incentive to play the game in each of the three different forms, since making the character as powerful as they can possibly be requires that they reach the level cap of 50 and fill all three meters. While it’s not at all necessary to do this to clear the game’s main story and its side missions, even on the hardest difficulty, those who want to take their characters online and battle other players will probably want to ensure that they are as prepared as possible.
Many of these mechanics have been in the Senran Kagura series since Burst. So what makes Estival Versus unique compared to its predecessors? Well, for the most part it’s a case of evolution from Shinovi Versus — its immediate predecessor Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson on 3DS played rather differently, being closer to the 2.5D brawling of Burst — rather than complete reinvention, but its most major changes come in the form of some new playable characters.
In addition to the 25 returning characters from Shinovi Versus — five each from four different shinobi schools — there’s a new group of three shrine maidens who have an important role to play in the plot, plus recurring sort-of-secret-but-not-really characters Rin and Daidouji. On top of that, towards the end of the game you get to play as the young form of Asuka’s grandmother, and several downloadable characters allow you to take control of recurring series shopkeeper Ayame, Naraku and Kagura from Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, and Ayane from the Dead or Alive series. Much like a modern competitive fighting game, there’s a sense that most people will probably find a “main” character that they enjoy playing as, though the game’s main story mode is set up in such a way that you get roughly equal time with each member of the main cast, enabling you to try them all out for yourself before committing to one for your own personal “endgame”, be it fighting online, grinding to max level or completing side missions.
Creative Finishers cause your opponent’s clothes to disintegrate completely and for them to be flung into some sort of humiliating situation.
There are a couple of new additions to the basic formula, too. You can now collect and throw bombs in combat, which have a variety of effects ranging from straightforward damage, inflicting status effects or summoning a horde of friendly grunt-tier enemies to fight alongside you. One even summons a giant mechanical “Walker” which you can hop into and, for a limited period, unleash powerful melee attacks and fire projectiles at your enemies.
And then there’s the Creative Finishers, which build on the ability you had in Shinovi Versus to strip your opponent completely naked by knocking off the last of their health bar with your Ninja Arts. Here, rather than defeating an enemy using a specific move, you need to defeat them in a particular part of the area in which you’re fighting them, usually conveniently marked with a sign. Successfully doing so causes your opponent’s clothes to disintegrate completely and for them to be flung into some sort of humiliating situation ranging from getting tangled in a volleyball net on the beach to being bent over a taiko drum and spanked by an overenthusiastic festival drummer.
It is, however, worth noting that in keeping with Estival Versus’ rather lighter tone for the bulk of its narrative, the Creative Finishers tend to be slapstick and humorous in nature rather than sadistic or violent. The Versus games are regarded as character-centric side stories rather than an advancement of the series’ larger overarching “ninjas fight demons” plot, and consequently are less serious in tone for the most part, though this emphatically does not preclude them from plenty of emotional moments, as we’ll talk about more when we consider the narrative in detail.
Senran Kagura reflects how the brawler genre — once considered to have been killed off by the advent of Street Fighter II — has evolved over the years.
The Creative Finishers perform the same gameplay function as flashy finishing moves in one-on-one fighting games such as Mortal Kombat’s notorious Fatalities: they provide a satisfying sense of closure to a fight, particularly if you’ve struggled to defeat a particularly troublesome opponent. They don’t provide any particular benefit to the player, but they most certainly can make you feel much better if a boss has been giving you grief. Not only that, they’re entertaining to watch; coming across a new trigger point you haven’t seen before stokes the fires of curiosity as you wonder what ridiculous situation your opponent (or, if you’re unlucky, you) will end up in at the conclusion of the fight.
The Senran Kagura series as a whole reflects how the brawler genre — once considered to have been killed off by the advent of Street Fighter II — has evolved over the years. It incorporates the fashionable trend to include RPG-style mechanics in disparate genres, and it’s designed to be replayed for higher ranks, hidden secrets and grinding characters to extreme power levels. It has an enormous cast that caters to a wide variety of fighting styles, and its single-player content is well-crafted to give you a bit of time to get to know how each character handles in battle. Meanwhile, the online aspect is crafted to, in many ways, be the “purest” form of the game from a mechanical perspective — freed from the constraints of a narrative, the game can focus exclusively on tasking players with making use of their knowledge of the game systems and the characters to achieve various objectives.
It’s clear that it’s a series that most certainly hasn’t forgotten its roots, however; its basic structure can be traced right back to Renegade, its variation in characters comes from Golden Axe, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, and the idea of a beat ’em up with character progression has been with us since River City Ransom. Only time will tell if, one day, Senran Kagura will be considered alongside these classics of the genre, since you never can predict these things; for now, anyway, it’s a damn good time that any fans of classic one-against-many beat ’em ups should strongly consider jumping on board with.
In the next article, we’ll be taking a detailed look at Estival Versus’ plot, and how it fits into the mythology of Senran Kagura as a whole.
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Estival Versus is available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.