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Stuck on PS2: Nobunaga’s Ambition (“Dm Dm Dmmm....”)

posted Aug 6, 2012, 2:32 AM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 6, 2012, 2:40 AM ]
Originally posted: March 20, 2009

I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I’m pretty sure it was right in the middle of my Chicago years, probably 1989 or ’90. I do remember that it was a spring day and I was a little bored, so I wandered up to the Egghead Software store in the Loop to look for a new game. It was almost a lost errand; the only game that really caught my eye was called Nobunaga’s Ambition and it was from a publisher I’d never heard of before (KOEI), dealt with a subject that seemed awfully exotic (the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Era, of Japanese history) and it was a mite expensive, especially for a grad student’s budget. But it was also the only Macintosh strategy game on the shelves that I hadn’t already played. So I shrugged off all other considerations and took it home.

It shows you how much influence Nobunaga’s Ambition had on me that I can remember that much about the circumstances under which I bought it 20 years ago. Not only did I spend hours on end in its warlike grip, but it probably marks the start of my interest in Japanese history and culture that eventually led me to watch almost every episode of NHK’s 100-hour biopic of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and later into the dark woods of anime fandom in which I am now irretrievably lost. I still have my copy of the game; I can’t quite bear to part
with it even though it’s
System 6 native and I haven’t had a

Nobunaga’s Ambition, Macintosh-style. Note the heavy plastic case and the thick documentation booklet. And the pic doesn’t even show the color fold-out map of Japan showing key battles of the Warring States Era. 

Mac that could run it in over 15 years. 20 years on, and I can still hear the three-note war drum cadence that it used to
warn you of a major event or impending tactical battle (hence the title of this post).

Nobunaga’s Ambition wasn’t perfect; there were things about it that bugged me. The event notifications literally flashed by, and I couldn’t ever figure out how to slow them down so that I could actually read all this important stuff that was happening at the strategic level. The province management AI had its flaws, so that if you set provinces under your control to auto-pilot (a theoretically helpful thing late in the game, once you had conquered most of Japan and just needed to focus on a relatively small portion of the map), a handful of them would inevitably rebel, forcing you to scrape up an army and chase around behind your front line, stamping out the fires. And the game could take hellaciously long to finish, because in order to win you had to subdue every single damned province on the map, 50 in all. Given the aggressiveness of the opponent AI, this usually took a while.

Even so, it was a heck of a game for its time. It modeled logistics with relative sophistication, adding a layer to the strategic challenge so that you weren’t just moving armies across the map. The tactical battle mode made the game something much more than an amped-up game of chess, forcing you to master army tactics as well as grand strategy (and this years before Shogun: Total War achieved such success with a very similar formula). And you could play as any of the 50 Daimyo selected for the game (not just Oda Nobunaga, the theoretical hero), giving it about as much replayability as you could ask for in a game without a randomly generated map.

But what really sold me on Nobunaga’s Ambition was that it was clearly a labor of love. I had no idea who Kou Shibusawa was (except that he was credited as the producer), but without a doubt he and his team cared about the history that they used as their setting. Nobunaga’s Ambition is not an historical simulation in any meaningful sense. But in those days, you didn’t include 120 pages worth of documentation with a game only to devote half of it to historical commentary, Not even SSG did that with their historical wargames. But Shibusawa laid it on, potted biographies of all 50 Daimyo that he chose for inclusion in the game, as well as a longer — and nearly rapturous in tone — essay on Oda Nobunaga, the context of his career and his legacy. I mean, dude was into it. And it was righteous.

pastedGraphic_2.pdfKOEI ported another one of their NES games, Bandit Kings of Ancient China (which is a whole other kettle of weirdness) to the Mac, but no more after that. No love from them from System 7 onward, and they eventually left the personal computer all together, focusing on consoles. So I had no idea that they were still around until I picked up a PS2 and saw that they had gone through more iterations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms than you could count on one hand. But there was no sign of Nobunaga’s Ambition, at least in the U.S., and no plethora of RotTK versions, or Dynasty Warriors or Dynasty Tactics, could quite fill the void for me... until last fall, when Nobunaga’s Ambition: Rise to Power appeared, localized and wreathed in Region 1-encoded glory. The price was reasonable for a PS2 title, but I think I would have parted with a kidney or two to get my hands on it.

But enough memoir.

In posts to follow, I will compare this latest version of Nobunaga’s Ambition to the one I knew two decades ago and offer up some tips and observations that I hope will prove useful to anyone interested in playing it.