It was a murky 2002 morning at my father’s when I heard the bell ring. I greeted him at the door and saw him with a new game. I looked at the cover and saw a badass Samurai clad in red armor, a sexy ninja next to him and a massive battle in the background with an ominous face looking over the carnage, Onimusha: Warlords the title said.
I popped the disc into the PC and eagerly awaited for it to install, my mind jumping with excitement. As soon as the installation finished I started it up, only to be greeted by the following message – “This game contains scenes of explicit violence and gore.”
“Cool!” I thought.
That thought disappeared as soon the first cinematic started rolling – a myriad of maggots crawling inside a rotting skull. That image got burned into my six year-old mind, haunting me for weeks to come.
A year later, I gave the game another chance, closing my eyes, at least until the maggots weren’t on the screen anymore and I was treated to an amazing cinematic full of beautiful visuals, haunting music and amazing action. The best I’ve ever seen up until then and for a while afterwards, as well. The game started off in a forest where you – noble samurai Samanosuke Akechi, were on a quest to save a princess from a haunted castle. It was a gorgeous game, and most of the beauty was the result of pre-rendered backgrounds. You changed locales and camera angles by walking off screen. Every environment, every camera angle was a separate painting. I haven’t seen anything so gorgeous before.
I never got past an hour into the game back then, but even that hour left a tremendous impact on my gaming experience and shaped the way I perceive hack'n'slash titles for 14 years to come.
In 2007, during my trip to Prague I strolled into a video game store and saw something that instantly caught my eye – Onimusha 3: Demon Siege. “I didn’t know there was a third game! Or even a second!” I thought to myself and instantly purchased the game. It was in a paper sleeve, thicker than a hefty book. The cover showed a face I recognized in a split-second – it was Samanosuke, looking more badass than ever, but was surprised me was the backdrop – modern-day Paris, and the other figure, award-winning actor Jean Reno with an Oni gauntlet and a magic light-whip. My curiosity peaked. Inside the plastic box there was a manual and three CD’s containing the game. I couldn’t wait to play it. That box is on my wall to this day, without a single dent on it.
Once I got back home a week later and played it, that’s when I realized just how deep these games are. Mechanics on top of mechanics on top of tactics on top of reflexes on top of….you get the point. Even at the tender age of 11, I knew this would be hard. I struggled and got stuck multiple times but I enjoyed every second of it. Over the years I replayed that game multiple times and even gave the first one a few playthroughs as well.
Story, Setting, Presentation
The Onimusha franchise is set in Feudal Japan which, due to the nefarious acts of the evil Oda Nobunaga, is being invaded by the Genma, demons, if you will.
Your goal in all three titles is to defeat hordes upon hordes of Genma, face off against bosses and stop Nobunaga once and for all. The first two games had gorgeously hand-painted locales of lush bamboo forests, dark harrowing castles, mountainsides, mines and much more.
Onimusha 3 took a drastic turn in design by not only having fully 3D environments which, for their time, were beautiful, literally using up all of the power the PS2 had at that point.
It also switched up the setting by sending Samanosuke (who was not present in Onimusha 2) into Paris, 2004. In his place, a SWAT officer modeled after, and voiced in the French version, by Jean Reno got sent back to Feudal Japan, 1582. The games were never too heavy on storytelling but what they did have, were utterly fantastic pre-rendered cutscenes which hold up to this day. Final Fantasy ain’t got nothin on these glorious visuals.
See for yourself:
The Onimusha titles were games oriented around tactical, precise and patient combat. You could rush in, swinging your thunder-imbued sword at everything that moved and, yes, it would get you through the game, but you’d be negating the main mechanic of the game – Issen. In Japanese, Issen means One Line, a technique in the Onimusha games that is the selling point – it’s easy to learn but excruciatingly hard to master. You could do one of three Issen – Critical Issen, Deflect Issen and Chain Issen.
Deflect Issen, or Deflect Critical in the western versions of the game was a move that could be executed by blocking an enemy attack a split-second before it hit you, and if the frame was right, a subtle ring of light would appear around you, indicating that if you press the attack button right then, you’d kill any non-boss enemy in one hit. If you did time it right, your character would dash towards the enemy, slitting him in half in a lightning-quick, bright animation, with the appropriately satisfying sound effect. What was hard about that mechanic was that every single enemy type had multiple different attacks and frames, even the slightly stronger color-swapped types of previous demons, forcing you to learn from error, time and time again until you’ve mastered first one enemy type, then the other and so on. You had to take into consideration your frames of going into guard mode in relation to the enemy, swinging his katana etc. etc.
If you thought Deflect Issen was hard, wait until you hear this. When trying to attempt a Critical Issen, you don’t block, but rather hit your enemy before his attack frame makes contact with you. This made the game heaps harder as every time you failed, you’d lose some of those precious health points. And if you’re wondering, no, they don’t regenerate. There are two sources of healing in the game, one, herbs, salves, medicines and other items that restore your health upon use and souls. That was another mechanic in the game – absorbing souls. There were three types of souls, yellow for health points, blue for magic points and red for upgrade points. The harder Issen you did, the more souls you would get, thus the incentive to master the game.
Chain Issen, or Chain Critical, is exactly what you think it is – if you pull off an Issen, you can chain it to another enemy. But there’s a catch, because who would make it so easy?! Calculating frames is an even bigger challenge for this technique as you have to keep in mind the distance from the enemy, how many frames it will take you to get to said enemy, your attack frame once you arrive so secure the next hit, so on and so forth.
What Capcom nailed with the Issen system is that it’s satisfying, the payoff is tremendous, both in terms of personal satisfaction and audiovisual feedback. You want to be good at the game because it just plain feels good.
The first Onimusha game had a tremendous legacy. Much like Resident Evil reinvented survival horror, Onimusha created a genre of slow-paced, tactical melee combat games that have been growing popular only in recent years in the form of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, For Honor and of course, NiOh, a title which is the lovechild of Onimusha and Dark Souls.
Following its release, Onimusha: Warlords achieved high popularity becoming the first PlayStation 2 game to reach one million sales. Its sales eventually surpassed two million units worldwide. The game has been well received by video game publications and has been recognized as one of the best titles on the system. Fun fact: Because of a certain bug in development that caused you to keep an enemy in the air indefinitely, it even inspired the director Hideki Kamiya to give his next title a certain direction. That title being the first Devil May Cry.
I was dreaming for an HD remaster during my Xbox 360 years, but as I grew older and got a better idea of how the gaming industry works, I realized it wouldn’t happen for multiple reasons.
We won’t get a remaster, why?
There are multiple reasons as to why we will never get a remastered version of the original Onimusha trilogy, the main one being the character likenesses. Onimusha 2: Samurai’s Destiny does not have this issue but who wants to play the worst entry in the trilogy? Even if it’s a fantastic game in its own right.
The character of Samanosuke Akechi, the definitive protagonist of the franchise is based on and voiced by singer and actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, star of films like House of Flying Daggers and Red Cliff. The second protagonist of the third game, Jacques Blanc is based on and voiced by Jean Reno in turn. Now, the issue here is that using a likeness costs money.
Money that I doubt Capcom will pay the actors again for a simple remaster. Of course, you could just remove the characters and replace them with generic protagonists, but for fans of the franchise it would be a tremendous disservice, insulting the legacy of the franchise. It’s the same if Batman: The Animated Series got a Blu-Ray release and instead of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising the roles of Batman and Joker we got, generic-hero #23 and standard-psychotic-villain #41.
The second major reason does not apply to the third title.
Onimusha: Warlords and Onimusha 2: Samurai’s Destiny have completely pre-rendered backgrounds, with every locale, every frame, painted by hand in 4:3 aspect ratio. Since the remasters have to be fitted to the newer, 16:9 monitors, every single environment has to be repainted again, which, obviously will take a tremendous amount of time and of course, extra expenses.
Both of these points mean expenses for an HD remaster of a franchise that has died out in popularity, and with remasters being means for companies to make a cheap buck, the expenses to make this happen would be too great.
There have been rumors floating around over the past two years of a possible reboot or sequel. Just last year, Capcom legend Yoshinori Ono – a man who worked extensively on the original Onimusha – told Daily Star Online last year: "Capcom as a company know we have many brands, IP’s and series that are beloved by players around the world and we always have fans asking us, when is this or that game coming back.”
This could be in reference to another classic Capcom franchise – Dino Crisis. “I've spoken internally with people who made Onimusha with me originally and talked about maybe how interesting it would be to revisit that series," added Ono at the time. This article spread like wildfire around the internet, the title reading “New Onimusha Discussions "Happening at High Levels," Says Yoshinori Ono”. The issue at the time, February 2016, was that Ono was too focused on Street Fighter V to bring up Onimusha to Capcom executives and to start development for it.
On the more recent side of events, Masachika Kawata, Resident Evil 7 Producer told Daily Star “Certainly, the series was a big hit back in the day and I do think there is something in that, which is worth considering” what we can speculate based on that statement, is that he, along with Ono have interest in a revival. “Conversations are happening at high levels, whether or not anything is happening, I cannot say” explained an honest looking Kawata, Daily Star reports. This writer hopes that Capcom has an ace up their sleeve, very inconspicuously denying any revivals, but it might just be a desperate fan’s hopes.