Senran Kagura. Now there’s a series we’re no strangers to here on MoeGamer, but it’s been a long time since it graced the Cover Game feature. With the recent release of Peach Ball at the time of writing, I thought it was about time we fixed that.
This Cover Game feature is, as much as anything, me fulfilling a promise to myself; I absolutely love the Senran Kagura series, yet I’ve been falling very behind with it, so I’ve been promising myself for… probably a couple of years now that I’d get caught up!
Since Estival Versus was the first ever Cover Game feature here on MoeGamer back in April of 2016, we’ve had Peach Beach Splash, Burst Re;Newal, Reflexions and Peach Ball, plus a lovely Limited Run Games packaged release of Bon Appetit, a former digital-only title. And, with the exception of Reflexions and a bit of Bon Appetit, I haven’t played (or covered) any of these yet. This leaves me with a fair amount of work to do, but I’m looking forward to it; I hope you enjoy it too.
Let’s back up a moment. It’s entirely possible that you’re coming to this article with no idea what Senran Kagura is, where it came from, why it’s interesting and why it’s important to me personally. So with that in mind, I thought we’d spend today talking a bit about where the series has come from and how it has got to where it is today.
I won’t reiterate the historical perspective of how the series is an evolution of the classic beat ’em up formula, because I already did that back when we explored Estival Versus; I invite you to check that article out at your leisure, because it was a ton of fun to write.
But it does pay to take a look at the history of the series itself — and how it’s managed to find success, seemingly despite a fair amount of resistance. So let’s do just that.
Senran Kagura originated on the Nintendo 3DS in 2011 with Senran Kagura: Shoujo-tachi no Shin’ei (literally Senran Kagura: The Shadows of Girls, more commonly translated as Portrait of Girls or Skirting Shadows). The game introduces Hanzou National Academy, a prestigious high school with a secret: it also trains the best of the best to become shinobi. Specifically, it trains “good” shinobi; the ones who do things because it’s the right thing to do, rather than those who carry out the will of the highest bidder.
The game initially introduces us to a cast of five young female shinobi students as they continue their training and find themselves coming into conflict with the local “evil” shinobi training institution: Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy. As these things tend to go, there are also five young female shinobi students there, and throughout Skirting Shadows (as we shall refer to it hereafter) each of Hanzou’s girls “pairs off” with a rival from Hebijo who complements their personality traits in some way.
It’s not a simple story of good versus evil, mind you; a key part of Senran Kagura right from the very beginning has been the fact that such terms are very much relative and that “evil” doesn’t necessarily equate to “bad”, as anyone who has ever played classic Dungeons & Dragons will be able to tell you; rather, “evil” is a matter of self-interest rather than altruism.
One of the most interesting concepts that Senran Kagura introduces right from the start in this regard is the idea that there is typically a barrier to entry in order to be considered “good”, yet “evil” will accept anyone and everyone. Both sides in the conflict between Hanzou and Hebijo gradually come to understand this, and end up building solid, deep friendships with those who are supposed to be their most bitter of enemies. Those complementary character traits become the basis for these characters to learn a great deal from one another; opposites attract and all that.
Skirting Shadows only allowed the player to enjoy the story as the Hanzou girls Asuka, Yagyuu, Hibari, Ikaruga and Katsuragi, with the Hebijo girls Homura, Mirai, Haruka, Yomi and Hikage acting as antagonists. A year later, however, the game was expanded with Senran Kagura Burst, something of a “director’s cut” release which incorporated both the original Skirting Shadows storyline as well as the opportunity to play through the whole thing as the Hebijo girls, presenting an interesting new perspective on things.
For quite a while, Senran Kagura remained a strictly Japanese phenomenon, but it did well on its home turf; on its week of release it took the top spot in the 3DS sales charts with its limited edition version, and third place with its standard edition. Moreover, in October of 2011, Destructoid reported that Skirting Shadows’ strong performance had, alongside Vanillaware’s PSP title Grand Knights History, contributed to publisher Marvelous AQL reversing their fortunes from a predicted net loss over six months of 185 million yen (about $2.4 million) to a net gain of 192 million yen ($2.5 million-ish back then).
Destructoid suggested that strong Japanese sales such as those seen here often led to localisation announcements, but it took a while before anything happened on this front. There was interest, though, both from fans and localisation companies; speaking with Destructoid in May of 2013, XSEED boss Ken Berry noted that he and his team knew “the demand [was] there as lots of fans [had] asked [them] about it” — but he also said that he found it a “scary proposition due to the subject matter and difference in attitudes between Japanese culture and the more conservative culture in the U.S.”
Berry was referring to the fact that Senran Kagura has one immediately identifying aspect that has, over the years, proven to be something of a problem for mainstream Western games journalists: a heavy degree of fanservice. Indeed, legend has it that the very concept of the game came about because producer Kenichiro Takaki — who had previously brought us the gloriously bizarre but perfectly family-friendly Half-Minute Hero series — decided that two things people would really like to see popping out of the then-new Nintendo 3DS’ glasses-free 3D screen were big, jiggly, bouncy breasts and squishy, peachy butts. And so these things became a central part of the game’s overall aesthetic, even before anything else had been decided.
It’s important to note that Senran Kagura’s appeal does not and has never stopped there, however. Having established this very simple baseline of something to create, Takaki fleshed out a design document, budgeted the project properly, established some initial designs for the characters and considered its gameplay carefully, at which point he met with character designer Nan Yaegashi, who was a veteran of the visual novel market by this point under his Mochi Chinochi pseudonym, and scenario writer Yukinori Kitajima. We last saw the latter here on MoeGamer as one of the writers of 428: Shibuya Scramble and, as well as being a fixture on the Senran Kagura team ever since its first installment, he also wrote Chaos Rings, Fire Emblem Fates and Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. Quite the team, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Japanese pedigree counts for very little when it comes to certain quarters of the Western media, however; after XSEED finally bit the bullet and announced that it would be bringing Senran Kagura Burst to the West, the hit pieces began, with one of the most widely shared being an exceedingly ill-informed screed by the UK Official Nintendo Magazine’s blogger Chris Rooke, who boldly proclaimed that the game was “damaging the industry”, was “fundamentally degrading” and that people “shouldn’t buy it or support it in any way”. His arguments were all the usual non-specific fluff about sexualisation and driving women out of the industry and, as has become depressingly predictable at this point, did not actually engage with the game at all in order to determine if his arguments actually had any foundation. This is immediately apparent from the number of factual inaccuracies in his piece, which, frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to itemise right now.
Ironically, the notoriety that Rooke’s blog post brought the impending release of Senran Kagura Burst actually did more to promote the game than anything Marvelous or XSEED could have planned deliberately. Those who took umbrage with Rooke’s words having experienced countless other supposedly “problematic” Japanese titles previously bought the game to prove him wrong; those who had never heard of the series suddenly became aware of it and curious about it; those who were just sick of quasi-Puritanical finger-wagging from games journalists bought the game out of spite; and those who had been patiently awaiting the game became even more excited for it.
Back when I worked on USgamer, I had the opportunity to speak with Brittany “Hatsuu” Avery, who was XSEED’s production assistant at the time and a strong advocate for Senran Kagura. She had already torn Rooke’s article a new one on Twitter at this point — sadly those tweets seem to be lost to the mists of time — and was clearly champing at the bit to talk more on the subject, given the enthusiasm of her responses at the time.
“Despite the first impression it gives,” she told me, “Senran Kagura Burst is a complete story with fully developed characters. It’s about accepting those who appear to be different from you based on the surface. Some of the girls are relatable with their problems; I identified with certain personality quirks Katsuragi had, but other girls might identify with Mirai’s self-esteem issues, Asuka’s interest in self-improvement as an independent person over romance, or Yagyuu’s unrequited feelings. Each girl is quite different.”
When I asked her how she would respond to someone like Rooke if he came along and accused her, to her face, of peddling “insultingly misogynistic and degrading atrocities”, as he had done indirectly in his article, she had plenty to share.
“I don’t necessarily think anyone’s opinion is wrong,” she said, tactfully. “It’s a matter of whether they like or dislike the features. But I do think a lot of the people who disagree with how the girls are presented aren’t aware of the game in its entirety, so I feel it’s a personal mission to educate them about every part of the game. If you feel it’s important to discuss the 10 per cent of the time there’s girl talk involving boobs, I feel it’s important to also discuss alongside it the 70 per cent of the time when they’re struggling with the concept of what it means to be a shinobi and how they should really be perceiving their enemies, or the 20 per cent of the time when they’re just being normal girls doing normal things.”
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed; Senran Kagura Burst successfully got released on the Nintendo eShop in North America on November 14, 2013 and crossed the pond to Europe in packaged, physical form in February of the following year — thereby showing Berry that his concerns over releasing such a title at retail were seemingly unfounded, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
And, somehow, doubtless much to Chris Rooke’s chagrin, the industry survived this terrible ordeal well enough for the series to go on to produce eight computer, console and handheld games; two highly successful mobile games; five runs of manga; an OVA prequel to one of the games; two anime series (with a third on the way); and plenty of merchandise. (Interestingly, the manga and anime were actually announced for localisation before we had confirmation that Burst was coming West, perhaps highlighting the fact that those forms of media are a little “ahead” of games in being able to deal with content like this.)
Not bad work for an “atrocity”, and I believe there are still a few surviving women working in games to this day.
Neither the Senran Kagura series nor the Western outrage over it stopped after that first installment, however, though interestingly, second chronological release Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus escaped mostly unscathed in the latter regard. This probably speaks more volumes about the Western press’ regrettably apathetic attitude to poor old PlayStation Vita than anything else, but it was a welcome reprieve; those who had a real problem with the series were back with a vengeance as soon as third game (Senran Kagura 2, naturally) was announced for Nintendo 3DS.
But let’s leave that side of things be for now; I think I’ve made my point in that regard, and for all the odious things about it, Rooke’s original post is probably the most historically significant piece speaking out against the series — in that it is what actually brought a lot of people to the series in the first place! — and is, as such, the main one worth looking at.
Here’s the thing to take away from this: Senran Kagura is not a series for everyone. That’s been apparent from the very beginning; it’s apparently something that makes Western games journalists very angry; and, in fact, it’s one of the things that makes it good.
The idea of laser-focusing a new game or series on a very specific audience is one of the things that many modern Japanese developers are very good at — and an ideal counter to the common (and now long-running) argument that modern triple-A games are all boring, designed-by-committee, paint-by-numbers affairs.
Games like Senran Kagura are designed to appeal to a specific type of person who wants a particular type of experience… and no, that type of experience is not pornography; anyone who has explored Japanese popular media in any detail will know that if you want pornography, there is plenty of actual pornography to hunt down and enjoy. Rather, the audience for Senran Kagura is made up of most of the same people who enjoy action-and-fanservice shows like High School DxD and Ikkitousen. Particularly that last one, which Senran Kagura has often been compared favourably to — and indeed several Ikkitousen characters even showed up as DLC for Estival Versus.
These games don’t water themselves down in order to try to appeal to as broad a market as possible like modern triple-A games do; they concentrate on their core appeal elements and their target market, then say a big “fuck you” to anyone who doesn’t want to engage with them on their own terms. As Takaki himself once noted, “the world is full of stuff people will think is fun to them; it just seems so pointless to waste your time on things you don’t like or can’t understand.” Or, to put it another, oft-cited way: don’t like it? Don’t play it!
Interestingly, what often happens once any controversy has petered out is that the original appeal ends up spreading beyond that initial core audience via word of mouth and various other means; sometimes immediately, sometimes long after the fact.
Over the years, Senran Kagura has found a particularly strong following among gay and trans women for both its attractive cast and its positive attitude towards many different types of female sexuality: straight, gay, bi, dom, sub, asexual and more; they’re all covered here.
In later installments the series even touches on matters of gender identity (albeit without going so far as incorporating a full-on trans character) through elements such as Miyabi’s story arcs, where she is torn between wanting to be seen as a feminine woman and embracing what she believes to be her more masculine traits such as physical strength and stoicism in the face of adversity.
Thoroughly admirable and interesting stuff all round; but more on that sort of thing when we look at specific games in detail.
It’s probably clear by now that Senran Kagura is a character-centric series, and the way it has evolved over time has very much reflected that side of things. While the two 3DS games are the most serious in tone, they are also regarded as unfolding in a separate timeline to most of the rest of the series, with the other games (and this supposed second timeline) typically focusing more on the characters’ interpersonal relationships and backstories than the originally established overarching narrative.
Said second timeline also expands the core cast considerably from the original ten, initially adding another two full schools of five in Shinovi Versus, plus various additional new individual characters and groups in subsequent installments. On top of that, Estival Versus onwards even adds crossover DLC such as the aforementioned Ikkitousen collaboration, plus guest appearances from Compile Heart’s Neptune from Hyperdimension Neptunia and Koei Tecmo’s Ayane and Marie Rose from Dead or Alive; Dead or Alive 5, in exchange, also got a bunch of Senran Kagura-themed costumes in one of its many, many DLC bundles.
This shift in focus has been a bit controversial for some longstanding fans of the series, as the original narrative of shinobi being the only ones with the strength to overcome the otherworldly threat of youma, deadly creatures straight out of Japanese mythology, was cool, exciting and thoroughly intriguing. It also made for an appealing sense of juxtaposition in tone; the brightly coloured, fanservicey elements were seemingly at odds with the rather dark narrative, but this really worked; because the game looked so cheerful but was more than willing to hit you with an emotional gutpunch when you least expected it, it really worked as a story.
That isn’t to say that the “second timeline” games don’t have the same impact, mind. In fact, in many ways their stronger focus on the individual members of the cast rather than the broader context of the narrative provides much better scope for emotional engagement and a wider variety of situations for the characters to become involved with. Some of these situations are dramatic, some are comedic, some are heartbreaking and some provide the opportunity for personal growth.
The more of the series you play, the more it becomes apparent that the overall story is not really the important thing with Senran Kagura as a whole; it’s the characters and their own individual arcs. And that’s why it’s developed and evolved in the way it has.
Across the numerous games that have been released to date, the gradually expanding ensemble cast has become one of the most interesting, well-realised groups of virtual “actors” in gaming, and the fact that several games have broken out of the original beat ’em up/hack and slash formula is testament to that; when a game’s cast transcends its original genre and context, that’s when you know there’s something really special going on.
And that’s what’s caused Senran Kagura to have such an enthusiastic, passionate fanbase — a fanbase that I described back in the 2017 MoeGamer Awards as one of the best communities in all of gaming — and how the series has managed to endure in both Japan and the West for, at the time of writing, a full eight years; an impressive achievement considering how quickly some other franchises come and go, and especially considering the resistance it weathered in its earlier years.
And so in this Cover Game feature we’re going to explore some of the later, more unusual installments in the series — as well as Burst Re;Newal, a “second timeline” reboot of the original Burst — and get to know these wonderful, inspiring, beautiful girls even better than we already do.
Pack your best lingerie and some sharp pointy objects; it’s going to get dangerous in here!
The MoeGamer Compendium, Volume 1 is now available! Grab a copy today for a beautiful physical edition of the Cover Game features originally published in 2016.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
If you’d like to support the site and my work on it, please consider becoming a Patron — click here or on the button below to find out more about how to do so. From just $1 a month, you can get access to daily personal blog updates and exclusive members’ wallpapers featuring the MoeGamer mascots.
If you want to show one-off support, you can also buy me a coffee using Ko-Fi. Click here or on the button below to find out more.