In order to understand what Dynasty Warriors is really trying to tell us, let’s first get back to basics. Why is a video game series adapting the history of the Three Kingdoms, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms in particular, called musō (“unrivaled”) in the first place, and why would this be the game to pioneer “1 vs. 1000” combat mechanic it is so (in)famous for?
The mascot character for Dynasty Warriors has always been Zhao Yun, and I do not believe this is either accidental or arbitrary. Zhao Yun is known as one of the Five Tiger Generals, who were famed as the most loyal and revered generals of Shu. It is Shu’s emperor, Liu Bei, who is generally considered to be the actual protagonist of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (if you had to pick one) at it’s his exploits and deeds that are depicted in the most positive and sympathetic light. However while Liu Bei is certainly not a supporting character in Dynasty Warriors (especially if you choose to play as him), it’s Zhao Yun who appears on the box art of all the mainline entries and who is oftentimes used as the series’ representative in crossover works and publicity materials. He is also tacitly implied to be the default player character.
Zhao Yun’s feats are sometimes seen to have been exaggerated, but again, Romance of the Three Kingdoms *is* historical fiction. We have to think of the book as being kind of like the Robin Hood tales, except very much older. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other Chinese folklore, Zhao Yun is depicted as a warrior of unmatched strength, but also boundless humility and loyalty who never boasted of his achievements, did not seek out conflict and refused to draw attention to himself: The epitome of the perfect martial artist who never started a fight, but would always finish one swiftly and decisively if he was threatened or saw someone come to harm.
Historically Zhao Yun was known as an uncompromisingly just, loyal and honourable man who was driven by a desire to bring peace to the common people, and the stories emphasize this part of his character to a great extent. Dynasty Warriors shows this as being the ideal he sees in Liu Bei and the reason he is drawn to serve under him. The game even assigns as his signature weapon the Dragon Spear, an unpretentious implement dating back to the Paleolithic era whose beauty is in its elegance and simplicity (indeed, it’s for these very reasons spears have long been favoured by warriors the world over in place of bulkier swords, including by the Vikings, whom pop culture has made almost synonymous with gigantic swords) and also references his auspicious Dragon associations and motifs (his style name even literally means “Little Dragon”). After his death, Wei Yan remembered Zhao Yun as “A gentle, affectionate, wise, miraculous being who called the land to order” and that “With him, neither accidents or disasters could disturb the peaceful balance he created. I think it reasonable to call him the true general of peace”.
One of the things Zhao Yun is most famous for is an incident so incredible you’d think it had to have been fiction were it not based on a real event. During the Battle of Changban, the Shu forces were caught unaware by a massive Wei army led by emperor Cao Cao, and Liu Bei abandoned his wife Lady Gan and infant son A Dou to flee with his retainers. Zhao Yun faced the gigantic army head on all by himself, singlehandedly fighting off thousands of Wei soldiers with unstoppable resolve to rescue Lady Gan and A Dou. Miraculously, he succeeded. This then is the secret origin of the entire musō genre: Though he was chosen to be the mascot very early on in development, even prior to Shin Sangoku Musō, it seems unavoidably clear to me the “1 vs. 1000” brawler gameplay that Dynasty Warriors 2 codified as the core of musō must have been designed explicitly around paying tribute to Zhao Yun. He is the real Unrivaled One. The entire series, indeed, the entire genre, is built around him.
Now that we know this, reading the rest of what Dynasty Warriors is doing becomes much easier, even up to and including its offbeat release model and aesthetics. In spite of its breathtaking setpieces and endearingly firm commitment to tongue-in-cheek shōnen anime excess, Dynasty Warriors is still made by Koei, a development studio most known for historical fiction. The big secret then is that Dynasty Warriors is really an educational game; the only one to have snuck into the industry and achieved something akin to AAA success and credentials. Dynasty Warriors wants players to experience the valour and bravery of those who lived during the Three Kingdoms era, and it tries to immerse them into that world by connecting them out of the gate with one of the historical period’s most venerable and admirable figures.
The tagline for Dynasty Warriors 9 is even “History Reborn”.
Koei’s passion for history, in particular this era of it, is eminently palpable and it would love nothing more than to share that passion and enthusiasm with people through its games. The goal is to get young people excited about genuine history and mythology, instead of just the products of capitalism. It’s an open secret that video games are predominantly made for children and teenagers, and while this is true for all of pop culture the divide is particularly noticeable in video games. Perhaps this is also part of the reason Dynasty Warriors is looked down upon with some discomfort, as it has never once made an attempt to disguise who its target demographic is. The series’ animetic shōnen stylings, up to and including its iconic soundtrack of screeching J-rock electric guitars (a phenomenon that is even curiously unique to Dynasty Warriors among musō series: Contrast, for example, the new theme song to Dynasty Warriors 9 with the equally heavy, yet still considerably more eclectic fare from the Samurai Warriors soundtrack) are impossible to ignore.
That the musō genre is primarily intended to be a gateway to get young gamers interested in history and the flow of historical narratives and folklore is, I argue, best evidenced by Dynasty Warriors 9 and the pre-release decisions Koei-Tecmo made surrounding it. This newest entry is consciously populist, and while the series really never isn’t, it’s clear care was taken this time to never lose sight of this (whereas one could potentially argue the Dynasty Warriors 7 and 8 generations got a little too into their own complexities). Furthermore, it is following on from two very populist and well received collaboration titles: Warriors All-Stars with the rest of Koei-Tecmo’s stable (a game that is itself heavily inspired by Shinto and Japanese spiritual beliefs) and Fire Emblem Warriors, with Nintendo.
It’s Fire Emblem Warriors that offers the biggest clue, as it’s not only the game Dynasty Warriors 9 jacks its weapon class system from, but it being positioned as a tentpole release on the Nintendo Switch during a period where that console is seeing nothing but escalated momentum shoves musō onto a stage it isn’t usually afforded the chance to perform on (Fire Emblem Warriors is also on the New Nintendo 3DS, but, sadly yet understandably, nobody seems to much care about that version). That Dynasty Warriors 9 is landing not four months after Fire Emblem Warriors is, I think, telling. The last time Koei-Tecmo had a successful collaboration with Nintendo in Hyrule Warriors they were clearly unprepared for how unexpectedly popular it became, probably at least in part due to the struggling sales of the WiiU: In the months after that release, all Omega Force had on offer for the torrent of new musō fans they had just picked up was a half-baked PC port of Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires (a series which, to quote another reviewer, is a niche of a niche in the West) and the confusingly named Samurai Warriors 4-II (which is actually Samurai Warriors 4: Xtreme Legends…But with added focus on the Ii clan-Get it?). This time, it would seem, they have no intention of letting this opportunity go by without capitalizing on it.
(Indeed, Shin Sangoku Musō 7 Empires, Sengoku Musō ~Sanadamaru~ and Musō Orochi 2 Ultimate all found their way to the Switch within weeks of Fire Emblem Warriors’ release. Japanese owners can even unlock special bonuses in one game if they have save data from another.)
Speaking of Nintendo, it’s their own franchises that offer us another useful lens through which to view how Dynasty Warriors works. People just starting out in video game criticism or who haven’t put a lot of thought into it often criticize Nintendo franchises for, well, being the same thing over and over again. It’s not true to say Nintendo never innovates on their core series (in fact, it’s generally the opposite), but there is a very good reason they trend to recycling familiar beats and motifs more often than not. Actually, there are a few, but the only one relevant to this discussion has to do with the implied intent of products such as these. Every time a new Pokémon game gets announced, someone inevitably asks developer Game Freak why every entry reiterates the same basic coming of age story, and they always give the same answer: Because every Pokémon game could be somebody’s first Pokémon game. The implication here that nobody likes to talk about is that the other side of this is that you’re not supposed to play more than one Pokémon game. Once you’ve had your Pokémon experience, you’re supposed to grow from it, move on, and let the next generation have their chance. There is no point in a coming of age story if the player never comes of age.
And so it is with Dynasty Warriors, although it’s not a coming of age story (at least not usually: Interestingly, Sengoku Musō ~Sanadamaru~ depicts the life and death of Yukimura Sanada as a coming of age story set against the tragedy of the Sengoku period-A coming of age story done as a Taiga drama) so much as it is an attempt to give players historical and ancestral role models. There is one other crucial difference too: That release model. And that’s where Dynasty Warriors really innovates and, ironically, becomes the series to show a path out of the perpetual adolescence of the video game medium. The main numbered entries are unquestionably for new players and teenagers. There’s no way to seriously argue they’re not. However, the other two entries are interesting in their own right: Being a definitive edition, Xtreme Legends releases can be seen as the ones to go for if you’re a collectors or an obsessive person (like me) who needs to have the “best version” of everything (also hardcore gamers, but I’ll come back to that). This is the game you would consider getting a physical copy of, for example. And then there’s Empires.
That “niche of a niche”? Simply adults who cut their teeth on Dynasty Warriors but want, well, a more adult experience. The perfect union of Grand Strategy and musō, it could be argued the Empires series contain Koei’s real signature games. Empires doesn’t try to teach you the history of the Three Kingdoms or get you to “experience” it for yourself (although they do, like all Dynasty Warriors games, contain an in-game encyclopedia and textbook covering the entire period in detail for history buffs), because it assumes you already know it. It’s for people who love the era, musō gameplay and aesthetic, but who need a deeper strategy game experience backing it up.
Because of this, Dynasty Warriors Empires (And Samurai Warriors Empires) has settled their parent franchises in an utterly unique and fascinating intersection between Nintendo games, annual sports releases and PC strategy games (Koei has even explicitly called Dynasty Warriors a combination action and real-time strategy game). And unlike other video games, they truly do offer something for everyone. If you’re a young player susceptible to the age-old phenomenon of pre-release hype, have never played Dynasty Warriors before, or were tantalized by a musō experience in a favourite pop culture franchise and want to investigate what the genre is really all about, the latest main numbered entry is a perfect gateway for you. If you’ve played that and want a more polished and complete experience, or just want to wait for a definitive “Game of the Year” edition, hold out for Xtreme Legends. And if you’re an old hand at Dynasty Warriors, care more about the mechanics and the characters or are just well beyond the age where the term “story-driven single player experience” gets you excited, you are exactly the kind of person Empires was made for. No matter who you are or how old, there’s a flavour of musō you can thoroughly enjoy without qualifiers and feeling uncomfortably like you don’t belong.
Although in the specific context of Dynasty Warriors 9, it turns out you may want to hold off in general: I hear that game has some gnarly optimization issues on all platforms, so maybe wait to see if it gets patched first if that bothers you. On the other hand, the fact the game does seem to counterintuitively privilege visual fidelity over gameplay says a lot about who the target demographic is. Bluntly, young gamers care about graphical horsepower above all else. And that leads into my concluding thoughts on all this, because the one concern I would raise is whether or not this series is doing enough to attract women and girls. After all, Dynasty Warriors’ shōnen roots run deep.
Zhao Yun may be a model gentleman, but I don’t have a good grasp of how women respond to his series, especially in the west (the mountains of Japanese fanart I’ve found for Dynasty Warriors I tend to feel speak for themselves, but again, this is another consequence of how starkly different the reception to this series is across the Pacific). Given the source material it would be understandable that female characters would tend to play supporting roles more often than not (and this is sadly more of a problem for Dynasty Warriors than it is for even Samurai Warriors), but Omega Force deserve acclaim for bending over backwards to make every single one in Romance of the Three Kingdoms fully playable. And Dynasty Warriors 9 has taken a massive step forward with its individualized story progression and inspired choice of Xin Xianying as a viewpoint character.
But then I think back on how Lu Bu, a bloodthirsty, hypermasculine, tyrannical despot who views war as sport and only cares about challenging his abilities and nothing else, and who other characters literally refer to as a demon, is on the cover for many of the Xtreme Legends games. Although by no means portrayed as sympathetic, he is unsurprisingly the favourite character of most Western fans and considered the series’ iconic breakout character here. He’s even sometimes used as Dynasty Warriors’ mascot in the West in place of Zhao Yun, whose popularity here is nothing to write home about (the exact opposite seems to be the case in the East). And is there any wonder as to why? Who honestly would be a better poster child for hardcore gaming culture than Lu Bu?
There’s also the slightly squicky mechanics in Fire Emblem Warriors (“clothing damage” and equipable gendered weapon elemental effect abilities, to name a few particular gems) and the frustrating marketing for the earlier Hyrule Warriors games: The Zelda Musō subseries contains some of the most female-friendly games I have played in years, but you wouldn’t know that from box art and advertisements. At least Zelda Musō: Hyrule All-Stars DX finally seems to be changing that, but frankly, being on the Switch, it had to. I am actually more inclined to blame Nintendo for screwing up on their games rather than Koei-Tecmo though, especially since Japan absolutely *loves* its Dynasty Warriors ladies, Zelda has gender quibbles built into it from the start and Fire Emblem is a fucked up series.
(There’s also Tecmo’s general presence in Warriors All-Stars, but whenever Team Ninja is involved in anything you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. Full props to them for Nioh though, and Ruby Party, known for their groundbreaking visual novel games aimed squarely at girls, more than make up for it with their contributions to Warriors All-Stars.)
In the end though, this is just one more example of how communication barriers mislead people and keep us apart. Dynasty Warriors has an image problem in the West that is not strictly its fault, and this is just one more manifestation of that. The musō genre consistently and reliably shoots beyond the toxic and self-destructive provincialism of the video game industry, so perhaps that’s why it attracts its worst impulses. But if you can find it within yourself to rise above those, I hope you consider giving it a chance.