Koei's 'Universal Ruler' simulator lets you live the life of the Mongol legend himself. You'll go where he goes, defile what he defiles and eat who he eats. But before you misjudge this game as an indecipherable Japanese take on medieval Mongolian life, understand that Genghis Khan II is actually a conquer the world style game (think Risk meets Civilization) in which you can play a variety of different countries ranging from England to the Byzantine Empire, to Japan, and yes, even Mongolia. The first Genghis Khan game in the series offered perhaps the best example of the genre. So does the sequel build on that foundation?
First, let us fondly remember the years 1989-1993 for a moment. U2 was playing on the radio, Madonna was in all the tabloids, and America grappled with salvaging a collapsed banking industry. Ah yes, much has changed since then, but one thing that hasn't changed is that a small Japanese video game maker was at the time flooding the North American market with complex, difficult to digest historical simulation strategy games. And 1989 was the year they released their very best…Genghis Khan. This is not that game.
This is Genghis Khan II: Clan of the Grey Wolf (or Super Genghis Khan as it was known in early promotional materials), released in 1993. Generally with strategy game sequels the basic premise remains the same while new features and upgrades are added to make the new release superior and the old release obsolete. That appears to have been the basic intent behind some of the changes made here. But sadly some of what made the first game great was lost along the way. To explain why, let's give a history lesson for the franchise.
Genghis Khan was one of many Koei games that allowed the player to step into the shoes of a historical figure and prove how easy it would be to conquer the world if only you had been there to call the shots. With game play that felt very much like a sequel to the earlier Nobunaga's Ambition, Genghis Khan took place all over the known ancient world, added deeper empire management options, and more complex combat. The game wasn't overly difficult to learn or play, but there was just so much to do and so many options available to the player that the game could be overwhelming to beginners. In short, Genghis Khan was a spectacular example of what strategy gamers look for in a strategy game.
So flash forward four years later and Koei made the understandable decision to revisit that success but with flashier graphics on the SNES as well as add a few new bells and whistles. Like most strategy game sequels, one would expect the exact same game but with slight interface improvements and graphical upgrades. And for the most part, that is the exactly what Koei delivered. But as we alluded to earlier, Koei gives with one hand while taking away with the other.
For starters, many of the options of the first game have been streamlined or even outright eliminated. The 'ninja' is most notably gone. It was almost always a waste of one of your turns, and frankly didn't really belong in a game about a Mongolian nomad. But rather than fix the option to make it more worthwhile it was cut outright. The biggest streamlining is in the order system. No longer are you limited to three actions per turn. Now you are given points to spend and each action takes you a set number of points. This helps balance the game but also makes it more complex to plan out your actions. Similarly, the first game's emphasis on training your leader and maintaining his various skills has been dropped from the game this time around. In the first game this was a major balance consideration and its removal helps to streamline the pace of the game but also takes away one of the game's strategic challenges.
The biggest change is that combat is a much more complex affair than before. In the first game, combat took place in a sort of side game that took you temporarily away from the world map while you fought for control of a specific country. This system remains in place in the sequel, except now there is one more sub-level to combat. Now, after you move your legions around a map of the country much like in the first game, when they engage in combat you are taken into a second combat game to resolve the individual battle. Where in the first game combat between individual units would be resolved in a matter of seconds, it can now take a half hour or more just to resolve one round of combat between two units. In this way, the war to capture a country takes much longer than before and while it makes your conquest that much more rewarding, it also greatly slows down the pace of the game.
You go to war with your army organized into legions as in the first game. But to spice things up, Koei added more unit variety this time around. In the first game you had a choice of only three units-Swordsmen, Archers, and Cavalry. The three unit types each had their own strengths and weaknesses and the players could organize their armies in whatever balance they preferred at any time. For the sequel, Koei hoped to combat repetitiveness by increasing the number of unit types to 16, including crossbowmen, elephant cavalry, and other culturally unique units such as Samurai. Each unit type can only be purchased in certain pre-designated countries. So for instance, if you want to hire Samurai, you must do so in Japan and then later move them to other parts of your empire. You can no longer simply reassign unit types like in the first game. Now if you want a specific unit type you must occupy a specific country and purchase it there, then move it to where it is needed.
One consequence of this is that although the game is still a paper, rock, scissors affair in terms of one unit type squaring off against another, it can now be much worse as one player may not have access to the unit type that counterbalances the type of unit his opponent is favoring. This adds realism, but also a sense of randomness that is out of the player's control. Another consequence is that players must plan for combined arms warfare when they are raising their troops. If their army is unbalanced, then they are stuck with it until they get some more money to raise more troops of the needed kind. This also makes army management more of a chore, as after every battle you will need to replace destroyed units. If replacements are not readily available it can require a tedious amount of purchasing and moving to get everything back the way you want it to be.
In addition to dramatically slowing down the pace of combat, another major downside to the new combat system is that the small-scale battles take place on maps that are simply too small and crowded. A legion of four units fighting a similarly sized opponent may find themselves so crowded that they simply cannot maneuver. Koei games typically do not allow friendly units to move through one another. And here they do not even allow you to move through trees. As a result, on a typical map there is very little room to move and if a corner of one of your units already occupies that space, then some of your units may find themselves stuck. Some will argue that it requires skill and planning to overcome this complication, but we also blame the clumsiness of the movement system that replaces the traditional Koei square with free movement fields that don't give the player a good sense of how much space needs to be left for other units to move through.
Some other combat oversights in these new small battles include: you can no longer give one of your units a 'wait' order. You must now burn one of your limited turns if you want to move another unit before the currently selected one. Additionally, there is no way to withdraw. If you find that you have lost the paper, rock, scissors match (i.e. your opponent brought cavalry and you brought mostly archers) you are forced to sit there and get slaughtered until a set number of turns run out. You cannot retreat or call for reinforcements, even if the battle takes place right next to another of your legions on the larger strategic map.
Overall, the small battles appear to be clumsily implemented and we would like to see an option to skip them entirely. Sadly, although you can choose to skip viewing other players' battles, so long as your leader is present you must also participate in these battle sequences as well. The only way to avoid this situation is to delegate the battle to one of your generals. But typically you can fight much better than your generals can, and if you are present you will be forced to watch it anyway. In the first Genghis Khan, delegating responsibilities was a strategy to conserve your in game time to focus your efforts on more pressing concerns. In this sequel, delegating warfare is essential to preserving your sanity as combat now takes exponentially more time to resolve than before. Ironically this new system designed to change things up and alleviate repetitiveness is actually quite a bit more drawn out and repetitive than the mercifully quick combat system it replaced.
The second big upgrade, after Combat, was the graphics. Here, the differences are clear and the SNES quality graphics look positively lavish compared to the NES game. Even so, they are not nearly as significant as the upgrade seen in the SNES upgrade to Nobunaga's Ambition.
This graphics upgrade came with a new philosophy regarding interface buttons. At the time of this release, Koei was going through a phase where it was believed that a picture was worth a thousand words. Perhaps they saved money in localization costs by not using words in their menus. But whatever the reason, most of the menu options of the first game have now been replaced by nonsensical picture buttons with no words. Pictures that were small and blurry on standard definition TVs, but blown up on large screen HD TVs these ugly, meaningless picture buttons are now, ugly, pixilated and unrecognizable meaningless picture buttons. What this means is that as you learn the game, you will be forced to repeatedly flip back and forth to the operation manual where a Legend of what all the buttons mean can be found. The descriptions are short and much of the detailed explanation that Koei lovingly put in their instruction manuals has been left out. So even once you have translated the meaning of the buttons, you will still have a lot to figure out regarding how and when to use the options these buttons make available to you.
Genghis Khan is not an overly hard game. Once you clear the hurdle of actually learning the game (which will not take that long if you have some familiarity with other Koei games) it is amazingly addictive and you will want to keep playing it for hundreds of hours (a single war to take over a neighboring country can require hours of maneuver and combat). In your quest to conquer the world you will find that you must inevitably stretch your resources too thin. And that's when the real challenge begins.
Although not as good as the first game in the series, the changes made in this sequel to Genghis Khan are improvements in the eyes of Koei and no doubt in the minds of some fans. Although many fans of the original have trouble accepting these changes and still swear by the original, the fact remains that the basic elements that made Genghis Khan one of the greatest Koei games are still on display here. Although the combat is slower, it is also more epic. Although the menus are more confusing, the graphics are more pleasing to the eye. And although not all of the options of the first game are still available here, what remains is a more streamlined game that focuses on what's important…conquering the world from the comfort of your living room.