Nobunaga’s Ambition, long one of publisher Koei’s flagship series, deserves its rightful place in the history of strategy titles. This SNES iteration, like many of its brethren, has an engaging setup that rewards careful planning and execution once the learning curve is cleared.

Actually, “curve” might be too gentle a term here; let’s call it more of a learning cliff. It’s certainly not insurmountable, but a lot of patience and some extra tools will certainly help.

In our current era of in-game tutorials and hand-holding helpers, Nobunaga’s Ambition stands out all the more with its steely demeanour. While some games ease their players into the water one toe at a time, Nobunaga gives you a deft jab in the back with a naginata and sends you hurtling into the deep end. Yes, you can adjust the difficulty of CPU opponents, but that doesn’t mean a Level 1 general won’t immediately rush your fiefdom and threaten to end your game before you’ve had your first turn. Its idea of an easier scenario is giving you 16 fellow daimyos who want to destroy you, which seems like an awful lot until you see the only alternative is 49. Feudal Japan was hard, you guys.

It quickly becomes clear that balance is essential to the goal of conquering the other fiefs and uniting Japan under your rule. The game is composed of two sides: governance and battle. Governance occurs once per turn, represented by a passing season, and allows control over a host of actions chosen from drop-down menus. Decrees include but are far from limited to invading a fief, changing the tax rate on your peasants, forming a temporary pact with a neighbour, and sending a ninja to try and assassinate another daimyo. The number of choices is nearly mind-boggling when starting out, and made all the more crucial by the fact most have consequences. Keep taxes high too long and morale will drop, potentially leading to a revolt. Keep the peasants happy by giving them extra rice or gold and that’s all the fewer necessary resources you’ll have on the battlefield. Since the vast majority of actions also take up an entire turn, planning several moves in advance is also essential.

Battle is conducted in a boardgame-like manner on a field of rectangular tiles. Units, decided mainly by one’s decisions in the governing phase, are placed down in a certain order, and commands will be issued to them every turn in that same order, no skipping. Units cannot pass through certain types of terrain or one another, either, so some thinking will be involved to keep things efficient and prevent a retreating unit from getting trapped by its own comrades.

It’s likely clear by now that data is highly valuable in Nobunaga’s Ambition, but reading the numbers will also take some practice. The interface isn’t bad in itself, but learning the layout can be somewhat toilsome thanks to resources and values mostly being represented by icons. While the game has serviceable visuals it’s no graphical marvel, and it isn’t intrinsically clear what everything represents at first glance. The Virtual Console manual does its best to explain all the icons, but you’ll end up going back and forth between it and the game. Having an original paper manual open beside you is a clearly better alternative but, barring that, an online strategy guide on your computer screen is just as effective.

It's a smart idea for any newcomer to seek out a strategy guide for Nobunaga’s Ambition. The game is so nuanced that the electronic manual can’t explain everything, and having tips such as the best fiefs and starting moves for beginners can save on a lot of trial, error, and mismatched fights.

As far as playing on the Wii U goes, the game is perfectly suited for the GamePad screen, and up to 8 players can go at each other locally by taking turns. The music has that lovely early SNES synth feel, but can become repetitive.

Conclusion

Aside from needing some additional clarity in its interface, Nobunaga’s Ambition is a very solid, classic in style strategy-sim. Its difficulty is part of its design; fair because those are the rules of the game. That said, it’s difficult to see a majority of people in today’s world possessing enough patience and resilience to truly master the ins and outs of feudal life. As noted in our previous review, Nobunaga is truly a niche title — a game for those who enjoy adverse odds, are willing to develop and revise strict courses of action, and see restrictions as challenges to overcome rather than sources of frustration. This is an undertaking best suited for the ambitious, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.