Given the popularity of arcade titles like Final Fight and Double Dragon, the beat 'em up genre was a big draw in arcades during the late eighties and early nineties. Hoping to cash in on some of this success, SNK created its own unique take on the genre with Sengoku for its Neo Geo system. While the game borrows many of the same tried and true conventions of other brawlers of the time period, it did manage to inject a unique theme and a few interesting gameplay twists to go along with it.
If you've ever played a beat 'em up, you'll know what to expect from Sengoku. Whether you go it alone or team up with a second player, the goal remains the same: you're tasked with taking out a never-ending barrage of enemies as you make your way through each area. At the end of each stage you square off against a boss, some of which can be quite a handful. There are coloured power balls that you can pick up to add swords and fireball attacks to your arsenal, and as if this weren't enough, you can also transform into various types of fighters with the press of a button. You'll find this quite useful when it comes to tackling some of the more difficult bosses.
You have three buttons to maneuver. One button unleashes your current attack, which varies depending on your current form and power ups. For those times when you find yourself needing more flexibility, there's also a jump move. The last button allows you to toggle between the various forms you've acquired — something you'll find yourself doing quite a lot if you hope to make it through the game's trickier spots.
There's something to be said for the simplicity of the control setup in Sengoku. While having just one attack button might seem constrictive, the ability to transform on the fly adds a lot of variety to the fighting. It's also interesting that the game seems to constantly toss new types of enemies your way at a fairly steady pace. You'll find yourself wanting to see what's around the next corner, which isn't something that can be said about all beat 'em ups.
Since this is an early nineties release, don't expect it to set the world on fire from a visual standpoint. That's not to say that there aren't some impressive moments from time to time, especially some of the more eccentric areas and the way enemies come jumping into the foreground. Character animations are decent, but certainly not on par with some of the later beat 'em up titles.
The music in Sengoku is a bit of a mixed bag. While there are some really amazing tunes, they do tend to remain quite far off into the background with the sound effects taking centre stage. Some character sound effects can become a bit grating over long playing sessions, but all in all it's a fairly solid audio presentation from such an early Neo Geo release.
Sengoku might not have quite the gameplay depth of some more recent beat 'em ups, but it does offer up a unique experience that fans of the genre should enjoy. The transformations offer a solid level of variety and the sometimes spooky atmosphere helps it stand out from the crowd. A little more control over the various attacks would have been nice, but if you're just looking for a fun, solid brawling experience, you should find plenty to like about Sengoku.