I’ve played a lot of good games, a lot of bad games, and a lot that were somewhere in between. Dynasty Warriors does not fall neatly anywhere in the spectrum of videogame quality. It’s a unique beast – a class of its own, a force of nature.
The videogame is a medium that is constantly in flux. Graphics get better, gameplay becomes more intricate, and projects become more elaborate and expensive. Yet, Dynasty Warriors exists in a developmental black hole, where none of these realities apply. Somehow, Dynasty Warriors 6 is not a significant graphical improvement over Dynasty Warriors 2. The game design of the series has remained stubbornly entrenched. If the graphics, voice acting, and content are any indication, I doubt it was a very expensive production at all.
Yet in its first week of release in Japan, Dynasty Warriors 7 sold a quarter of a million copies. By contrast, Okami, the classic example of an undersold “good” game, sold a little over half a million copies over a period of three years and across four market regions.
See no evil…
Dynasty Warriors has never been a critical darling. Of the sixth entry in the series, GameDaily opined, “Hideous dialogue, repetitive gameplay.” Playstation Official Magazine UK wrote, “This is just like every other Dynasty Warriors game ever, but somehow duller.” EGM said, “It handles like a remote-control car.” It has an average score of 59 on Metacritic. The series is so popular in Japan that Dynasty Warriors 6 was included as a pack-in for the 40GB Playstation 3.
…hear no evil…
The games are tiresome, mind-numbing, and stale. It’s the only game released in the last ten years that can market the player’s ability to swim and climb ladders as a “returning feature.” What is it, then, that makes the series so popular? For all its numerous faults, even I cannot deny that the cooperative play is fun. Is it the thrill of conquest? Discovering new weapons? Gaining power and dominance?
…speak no evil.
Koei certainly didn’t come up with this unstoppable sales force by accident. They knew what they were doing – at least in some respects. After all, while saying that Dynasty Warriors is a terrible series is akin to saying “the sky is blue,” or “Batman has issues,” the fact that Dynasty Warriors is one of the most popular and long-running videogame series today is just as self-evident.
So popular, it’s even online.
Its curious appeal has long been a mystery, but over many hours of playing Dynasty Warriors, I believe I have discovered what it is that keeps people coming back.
In keeping with the series’ mantra of “if it would make sense, don’t do it,” the games have always been an ethnomusicological nightmare. Rather than something a little more in tune with the setting, we are treated to hard rock. The soundtrack certainly isn’t bad – the playing is solid, the tunes are catchy, and it’s professionally engineered – but it doesn’t make any sense from a cultural standpoint.
The important thing to grasp is that for a game like this, it doesn’t matter. In Doom, the last space marine alive is strapped to the nines and battling demonic armies. For the odds he’s up against, there is no better psychological aid than Pantera. It gets the bloodlust flowing, putting a person in the mood to just blast the hell out of anything in front of him.
I decided to see if this idea could be applied to other games. I booted up Torchlight, a droll hack and slash for the PC. I turned off the lilting fantasy soundtrack and cued up a playlist with Judas Priest, Motörhead, Megadeth, and Iron Maiden. At that point, the fundamental experience of playing the game changed. It was no longer about gaining loot or power. It became about embracing the bloodlust and letting the fury consume me. Guitar solos rang true as my own axe sallied forth. Once the dust settled, I turned to survey the destruction I had wrought. My foes had been legion – now they lay ruined at my feet. It seemed that the music was more destructive to my enemies than any weapon I could have possibly wielded.
The soundtrack in Dynasty Warriors behaves as as similar agent. It taps into something darker and more primal in the human mind. Listen to the music, and realize that Cao Cao is no longer simply an ideological opponent… he is the enemy, he must be slain, and the forces of Shu must kill the beast, slit his throat, and spill his blood!
Clearly, this is what Koei had planned all along.
In Dynasty Warriors, the player character can singlehandedly cut down more than a thousand soldiers over the course of seven minutes. He is capable of defeating two flanking cadres in a single blow. Generals can carry on full conversations with one another while separated by miles of the battlefield. Food acts as a miracle healing agent, staving off lesions that would slay lesser men. By no means is the game’s strangeness restricted to its design, either.
For comparison’s sake, here is a Qin Dynasty artist’s rendering of the Wei general, Zhang He.
Zhang He, as envisioned in
Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
And here is Koei’s rendition of the same general.
Zhang He, as envisioned in a drug trip.
What is this? I understand that this game is Japanese, and as such, young male characters are mandated by law to look fabulous and effeminate, but exactly what part of this character will strike fear into the opposing forces? Zhang He isn’t the only character to get such a treatment, either – each and every character is inexplicably nubile, possessed of aged, swarthy good looks, or is otherwise generally attractive.
The game’s absurdity only serves to enhance its bizarre appeal. Rather than getting frustrated over how little sense the game makes, accept that the player character really is an asexual Narcissus that eats medicinal rice balls, wears a spiffy costume, and fights with claws. Then, appreciate that Dynasty Warriors is the only game that will ever provide you with this experience.
The Cinematic Direction
The voice acting in Dynasty Warriors has the unique kind of charm found in English dubs of 1970’s Chinese martial arts films. The pacing of each line is just awkward enough so that listeners will understand what is being said even as they realize that no human would ever actually speak that way. The actors chew the scenery in hilariously new and inventive ways, and the writing goes between accessibly vernacular to strangely purple prose in an instant.
Like a fine stew, the cinematics synthesize each of these choice components. Characters tend to use the same dramatic gestures over and over, often to supplement the same hackneyed platitudes on war, battle, or being a warrior in battle. Zhang Liao prattles on about the “path of a warrior” in nearly every one of his cutscenes in Dynasty Warriors 6, while Lu Xun has one of the most hilarious cries of denial since the infamous Darth Vader yell. Zhang Jiao, the enigmatic prophet of the Yellow Turbans, has a great time chewing the scenery. Much like a Steven Segal film, these sequences are at once terrible and compelling.
Repetitive tasks, such as washing dishes or sorting mail, are therapeutic. They allow the mind to focus on an element of stability. Dynasty Warriors is a lot like washing dishes – it allows the players to enter that rare twilight zone between disinterest and focus, engaging the player’s mind solely at the lowest facilities. I have been known to exhibit a thousand-yard stare while playing Dynasty Warriors, and I doubt I am the only person to have done so. Research even suggests that the repetitive, task-oriented nature of videogames can help the brain repair itself after injury, which basically means that Dynasty Warriors will help stroke patients.
Dynasty Warriors: Strokeforce
Even if they don’t actually want to continue performing a repetitive task, people engaged in one will often stick with it and see it through to completion. To them, the accomplishment outweighs the costs. Dynasty Warriors operates on the same level. Each level is boring and tedious, but obtaining a new saddle is apparently worth playing through the Battle of Fan Castle for the fifth time.
I was initially unsure of whether or not I could tackle the formidable mystery behind the appeal of Dynasty Warriors. My investigation into its mystique has ultimately proven quite fruitful: the series has nothing to recommend it, but everything to enjoy. It is essentially a long-running string of B-movies. Four specific points seem to frame its success:
- The music doesn’t fit, but it doesn’t have to, because it is purely functional.
- The game has an odd cachet about it, making it an attractive bit of curio.
- The acting and cinematics are reminiscent of amusingly terrible films.
- The experience of playing the game is similar to being in a sensory-deprivation tank.
Perhaps my findings will help shed some light on why such a damnable videogame series is so enduring, so popular, and so commercially safe. It hits all the right buttons of its players, even if they aren’t realizing it.