In the mid-’90s, during the time when Sega still has the Sega Saturn console, they were looking for another solid RPG title to bring to their lineup. At that time, Sega had the Shining series and Phantasy Star series as their RPG staples, but the Phantasy Star series never got a Saturn game release and Shining has the Shining Wisdom in 1995 but was critically panned. Sega would then partnered with developer Red Entertainment to create a new RPG series. They brought in Oji Hiroi who is known for the Far East of Eden RPG to help them create a new game, there he pitched his old project that was too ambitious at its time, and it was called Sakura Wars.
Sakura Wars for the Sega Saturn was a combination of turn-based tactical RPG and dating simulation/visual novel, the game is set in an alternate Taisho era (around 1912 to 1926) with a touch of a steampunk vibe. You take the role of Ensign Ichiro Ogami as he becomes the captain of the all-female Imperial Combat Revue where their base of operations is inside an Imperial Theater as the girls also act as stage performers.
Visual Novels were a common thing in Japan especially in the 90s but the concept of combining with tactical RPG was new at that time, which resulted in Sakura Wars being called a dramatic ‘adventure game’, like being dubbed as a whole new genre. The game balanced its entire experience between interacting with the main characters and battling demons to progress through the story. The game introduced the fancy worded L.I.P.S. system, that stands for Live & Interactive Picture System, where your choice of answers to certain conversations can give a different response to the characters, and it may improve or worsen the relationship between them. As the game progress, players will be able to choose which main character to romance with, resulting in a different ending scene.
What makes Sakura Wars a great mecha game or even a mecha anime is its setting, as having a steampunk setup during the Taisho-era makes it appealing both for the narrative and the designs. Imagine steampunk machines that are inspired by Eastern aesthetics and steam-powered (with some little help from magic) mechs wielding a katana or naginata or even using martial arts makes it more beautiful. And who wouldn’t love mechas with waifus, it’s a neat combination. You get to choose which waifu you would fall in love with, like in any romantic visual novels, but the characters in Sakura Wars are memorable due to their personalities; Sakura Shinguji who is your typical protagonist girl but still a favorite by many due to her cheerful personality with a great sense of justice, Sumire being that arrogant yet very skilled, Iris who is childish but adorable, Kohran the good-humored inventor who usually invents stuff that is accident-prone, Maria the cold yet calm vice-captain, and Kanna who is the tomboyish and easy-going muscle of the group.
The designs of the mechs, which are called Koubu reminds you of other classic mechs such as the Scopedog from Armored Trooper VOTOMS, Dougram and the Tactical Armors from Garasaki, heck you can even say that it could remind you of Titanfall, but more waifu-oriented. Each of the Koubu that is piloted by the main characters and has their own distinct styles, one wields a katana which is great at dealing massive melee damage, the other uses guns that strike enemies from afar while the other has psionic powers that can even teleport. The mechs even have special attacks that shows a cool cutscene with flashing kanji text that you would usually see in anime.
Sakura Wars spawned several sequels that continued up to the Sega Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 that added new characters to the crew and expanded to other Combat Revues. The series eventually concluded in Sakura Wars 4: Fall in Love, Maidens but another title was released years later with Sakura Wars 5: So Long, My Love which is treated as a soft reboot due to the original characters not appearing to the said game.
And with that, the series garnered a huge following in Japan, where the entire franchise has sold over 4.5 million copies as of 2010 with the Sega Saturn games receiving awards. It also spawned an anime series, OVAs, films, mangas and even live performances featuring the entire seiyuu of the main cast.
Sadly the Sakura Wars series never reached that popularity outside of Japan as the majority of the games were only Japan-exclusive, which at that time was understandable as the concept of mixing dating simulation with tactical RPG was pretty much bizarre for Western gamers. Though it could have been a good potential to succeed especially in the 2000s when anime has become mainstream, it took a couple of more years to put up an English release with Sakura Wars 5: So Long, My Love for the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 2.
Fans had to wait again for another decade for a new game with Sakura Wars (New Sakura Wars in Japan) that just released recently for the PlayStation 4. It is a soft-reboot to the franchise featuring whole new characters yet still retains the popular dating sim/visual novel concept but this time replacing the tactical RPG elements with a hack and slash gameplay to make it appealing to newcomers. And of course the mecha designs were given a makeover that makes it as successors to the original.
The new Sakura Wars game could be a nice re-introduction about the series with a fresh coat of paint and hopefully a great jumpstart in continuing the franchise.