Review: Nobunaga's Ambition (SNES)

An ambitious strategy game from a nobler time.

It is hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when strategy games were the primary style of play on home computers. Japanese game developer Koei made it their mission to bring this style of game to consoles. And by appearances, they were successful given the sheer volume of games they were able to release throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and even into the present. Over time, Koei developed their own style that was reused and modified from game to game. But it all began with one game…Nobunaga’s Ambition. And this is where you should begin, as well.

First of all, the purpose of Nobunaga’s Ambition, as with most Koei games, is to run a country and expand it through war. In this case one of the feuding medieval Japanese states battling to unite Japan under one banner. In many ways this is a ‘sim’ game as much as it is a strategy game because all the while you are balancing such factors as your economy, the satisfaction of your peasants, and the strength and training of your army.

As far as game play in Koei games, it’s never really hard. If you take the time to read the 100 page or so instruction book, or spend a day with a tutor, you’ll discover that the game play is actually quite logical and intuitive. Do you want to increase your army size? Just press the recruit button and choose the number of recruits you want to hire. Do you want to change your tax rate? Just hit the tax button and adjust it. Going to war is similarly easy…just press the appropriate button and choose which neighbour to attack. Everything you need to create and run your nation is at your fingertips. Of course, the consequences of your actions could come back to haunt you later.

The challenge in a Koei game lies in understanding what consequences these actions bring about, and making the best choices to put yourself into a superior position to your numerous opponents. There are five skill levels and even the easiest skill level can be hard for new players because there are so many variables to consider. Which enemy should I attack…the strong one or the weak one? And just which country is the strong one? And will the country on the other side of me attack me while I’m overextended? These are classic strategy elements dating at least as far back as the board game Risk and they work wonderfully here. You can even play with up to 8 human players (locally, of course) to make things really competitive.

The problem, however, is the interface itself. Admittedly there is a lot to like about it. For example, everything is menu driven and you simply select the command you want from a drop down list much like you would use Windows on a modern pc. However, many of the choices presented are completely inscrutable to a newcomer. In the NES version, each command that you could issue was identified by a single word such as ‘Assign’, ‘Recruit’, and ‘Rice’. That system mostly remains in this SNES upgrade. But here, pictures have replaced some of those words. For instance, you must recognize your rice store by its picture, rather than just the word rice. And yes, the pictures are tiny, grainy, and non-distinguishable for the most part. As a result, there is even more guess work involved in figuring out which button does what. If you are the type of gamer who likes to just pick up a new game and start playing immediately, then you are in for a rude awakening because it will take a lot of trial and error just to figure out what all of the commands and statistics presented mean.

As mentioned, this is a SNES re-release of an NES game from four years earlier. The game’s designers took the time to upgrade the interface to a more ‘modern’ aesthetic. One good consequence of this is more point and click functionality was added. And as mentioned, one bad consequence is that around this time Koei started substituting pictures for words which adds an additional hurdle to the learning curve in our opinion. The best consequence, however, is the upgrade to the graphics. Although they’re definitely not SNES pretty, they are at least brought up to par with NES quality graphics with this release. Don’t laugh…the graphics on the NES version were really that ugly.

In combat, you will be grateful for the graphics boost. Units are now distinguishable by unit type (infantry, riflemen, and cavalry). And the terrain actually has colour and variety.

Something unique here is the ‘rectangular’ board grid. Eschewing the conventional hexagon favoured by tabletop games of their day, Koei always tried to keep things a bit simpler for their console players and usually used a square grid for movement orders. Here, Koei tried out a longer rectangle. It doesn’t seem to make much difference over squares, but it is unique.

The key aspects to strategy in battle are that your units cannot move through mountains or water, nor can they move through one another. This means that friendly units can block one another’s path of retreat. Combined with the fact that combat is turn based and units must be given their orders in a preordained sequence every turn, units may have to wait a turn or two for their chance to move out of danger. Units can become trapped and slaughtered in the time it takes to shuffle your reinforcements to the front and your wounded troops to the rear. Ironically, this clumsy structure actually adds to the feeling of realism as this is exactly the sort of thing that could happen on a battlefield in that time period.

Combat is strategic enough to be satisfying. However, later games by Koei expand on this theme and provide the players with more options. So if you are already familiar with other Koei games, you may find this formula to be too simplistic. The game mercifully provides the option to let the computer play your battles for you, so you can choose to skip this aspect of the game entirely if it ever becomes boring.

The game goes on until you either finish the scenario or die. You can flee at anytime, so unless you badly miscalculate, you should not lose the game until you lose your last territory and have nowhere to flee. However, you can die of old age, so you are on a time limit. There are four scenarios, each taking place at a different time period and in different parts of Japan. Within each scenario, you can choose which country to play as, providing an incredible amount of replay value just from choosing different starting points on the map as each time the game will play out differently based on the choices you make, and the choices your opponents make.

Conclusion

Nobunaga’s Ambition is one of the most successful franchises in the Koei library and features game play that is fun and addictive to this day. Although later games in the series added more depth, this original game is still worth checking out for newcomers to the series because it offers so many choices that you can easily get 100 hours of play out of the game. More importantly, there is no easier gateway into the world of Koei than Nobunaga’s Ambition. In comparison, games such as Ghengis Khan II, coming soon to virtual console, feature a similar game design but with vastly more options to overwhelm you if you don’t have some idea of what to expect first.

It’s difficult to recommend a niche game to everyone. By their nature niche games are appealing to only a small segment of the population. And simulation/strategy games are even more of a niche today than they were when this game was released. Further, Nobunaga’s Ambition is by no means the pinnacle of this style of game. Being the first, there was definitely room for growth later. But this SNES release is the definitive version of Nobunaga’s Ambition. And it offers accessibility and enough variety to provide the ideal entry point for anyone who thinks this just might be the niche for them.