As you dig yourself into Fire Emblem: Awakening’s monstrously addictive campaign, spare a thought for some of the other turn-based strategy RPGs which haven’t been given the chance to impress an entirely fresh generation of players. Like Langrisser, for example. Chances are, unless you really know your ‘90s Japanese games, you won’t even have heard of the name, but at one point it was arguably Fire Emblem’s most potent rival.
Developed by Masaya, the Langrisser series can actually trace its roots back to the Japan-only PC-88 system, with 1987’s Elthlead effectively being the first game in the lineage. The Crest of Gaia and Guyframe would follow on the PC Engine — both of which occupy the same universe — but it wasn’t until the release of Langrisser on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in North America) that the franchise really began in earnest.
Like Fire Emblem, Langrisser is a turn-based game set in a fantasy land populated by knights, dragons, wizards and a multitude of other mythical beasts. Players are given a group of commanders who can be assigned troop types. Commanders gain experience in battle, and every time they pass ten experience levels they can change to a more powerful class — something which not only impacts which troops they can muster, but also alters their in-game appearance. Losing a commander means all of the soldiers under their control are also removed from play, and they are lost to you for the rest of the entire game — a devious tactic also employed in Fire Emblem. This lends each battle an additional layer of tension, and it’s not uncommon to have to restart a mission just to avoid the death of a key commander.
Langrisser’s biggest strength is the massive nature of its battles. It’s not unusual for stages to last well over an hour, thanks to the fact that you have so many units to control and the enemy’s forces are so numerous. Thankfully, you can give commanders instructions which will be passed down to their troops — such as engaging the enemy or forming a defensive perimeter — and this removes the need to move each unit individually. The battles themselves are also incredibly engaging; there’s a fine strategic balance to strike here, as killing an enemy commander removes all of his soldiers and therefore makes it easier for you to progress, but the trade-off is that you lose all of the potential experience points to be gained by slaying each unit before tackling their commander.
Although Langrisser may look a little rough around the edges compared to modern titles, the visuals are more than adequate. Character portraits and game artwork come courtesy of famed Japanese illustrator Satoshi Urushihara; the quality of the character design is nothing short of stunning, and really elevates the series above many of its rivals. The music is just as impressive; composed in part by Noriyuki Iwadare — famous for his work on Lunar: The Silver Star Story and Gley Lancer — it boasts some truly fantastic tracks, all of which suit the on-screen warmongering perfectly.
Langrisser received an English localisation in North America thanks to Treco, and was renamed Warsong. While the translation isn’t perfect and the character portraits have been tinkered with in an attempt to make them look “less Japanese”, the game is still fantastically playable and well worth investigating if you can track a copy down. Sadly, it didn’t sell particularly well, and the Mega Drive sequel wasn’t picked up for translation. Langrisser II also made it to the Super Famicom as Der Langrisser, but again no western release was forthcoming. This unfortunate trend remained in place for the rest of the series’ lifespan, with the three Sega Saturn instalments remaining Japanese exclusives. By the time the lacklustre Dreamcast entry Langrisser Millennium arrived in 1999, the core team behind the series had already left Masaya to form Career Soft, which would go on to make the popular Growlanser series for Atlus. However, the franchise is set to spring to life again with a new entry called Langrisser Schwarz, a free-to-play online RPG which is currently in development at Taiwanese studio Gamania. Sadly, aside from Noriyuki Iwadare’s music, it would appear that none of the original developers are involved and Satoshi Urushihara isn’t providing the artwork, either.
The Mega Drive version of Langrisser was given a Wii Virtual Console release in Japan, but unfortunately Warsong hasn’t appeared on the western version of the service. Although Langrisser Schwarz proves that there is still interest in the series, it’s probably not significant enough to warrant a new full-blown console release. This is a real shame, because Langrisser is easily one of the best games of this type, and can even show Fire Emblem a thing or two when it comes to pitting massive armies against one another. A remake of the original game — along with enhanced 2D visuals and a remixed version of Noriyuki Iwadare's incredible soundtrack — would go down very nicely here at Nintendo Life Towers, but we’re fully aware that hell may have to freeze over before that actually happens. In the meantime, we’ll just have to bust out the Mega Drive and hope that our dusty and well-worn copy of Warsong still has a working battery back-up.
Special thanks to Hardcore Gaming 101 for providing the screenshots used in this feature.