Dynasty Wars brings the Three Kingdoms to the arcade

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No, that’s not a typo; today we’re talking about Dynasty Wars from Capcom, which is emphatically not to be confused with Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series.

At this point, I suspect a lot of game enthusiasts are familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the famous tale of long-running conflict between several different states in ancient China. A number of video games have tackled this subject matter, and in a variety of different ways, too; the game series simply named Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a long-running range of strategy games, for example while the aforementioned Dynasty Warriors provides a more action-packed take on strategic battles.

Dynasty Wars

Dynasty Wars hails from 1989, which is four years after the first Romance of the Three Kingdoms game, but eight years before the first Dynasty Warriors game. In Japan, it’s known as Tenchi wo Kurau (literally “The Devouring of Heaven and Earth”) and is based on the manga of the same name, which specifically follows the battle between the kingdom of Shu and the Yellow Turban rebellion.

Dynasty Warriors fans will note that the Yellow Turban Rebellion is where many games in the series tend to begin, and it’s often acknowledged with just a single battle. Dynasty Wars, meanwhile, focuses more tightly on this specific period in history and consequently eschews the massive cast of Koei Tecmo’s later games; here, there are just four to choose from, including Liu Bei, Guan Yu (romanised here as Kuan Yu), Shang Fei (Zhang Fei) and Shao Yun (Zhao Yun).

From a game history perspective, Dynasty Wars is quite noteworthy in that it’s Capcom’s first game to feature multiple selectable playable characters with their own distinct abilities. This, of course, would become a major part of their more well-known output, beginning with Final Fight later in the same year as Dynasty Wars and continuing on into the company’s range of immensely popular fighting games.

Dynasty Wars

Gameplay-wise, Dynasty Wars is a beat ’em up with some interesting twists. Firstly, you spend the entire game on horseback, which gives mobility a very distinctive feeling to more conventional “on foot” beat ’em ups. Moving up and down the screen, for example, carries the distinct feeling of moving in “lanes” rather than having complete freedom, and it takes a little getting used to — though it also makes lining yourself up with enemies or sidestepping incoming attacks quite straightforward.

Your position on horseback also means that your attacks are designed to be delivered at a greater range than in many other beat ’em ups, with the playable characters making use of long bladed weapons, spears and halberds. Space management is of critical importance in Dynasty Wars, arguably even more so than in more conventional beat ’em ups; since your weapon has such a long reach, you really need to try and keep your foes at a distance as much as possible.

There are some other considerations, too. Since you’re on horseback, you can’t jump, meaning that you have to avoid incoming attacks through careful movement. On top of that, you have two attack buttons to contend with: one to attack to the left, and the other to attack to the right. It’s important to remember to attack in the right direction while attempting to stay out of danger — tricky to get to grips with at first, but satisfying and intuitive after just a little practice.

Dynasty Wars

Besides your basic attacks, you have a few other options. Hammering an attack button rapidly unleashes a quick flurry of strikes, while holding the button charges up a powerful, piercing attack. There’s also a “Tactics” button which is context-sensitive; by expending some of your character’s health, you can bring in support from your army or guest characters, who will do various different things according to the point in the stage you’re at.

There are also some light RPG mechanics at play. Golden orbs dropped by some enemies reward you with experience points, and completing a stage provides you with a large quantity of said points also. Levelling up increases your character’s maximum health, and collecting blue orbs alongside increasing in level allows you to upgrade your weapon. In practice, levelling up is more a necessity than a nice bonus, since the enemies you battle against also gain in strength as the game progresses, meaning you never really get to a stage where you feel like you’re overpowering everything.

Dynasty Wars nails the whole “one warrior worth a thousand” feel by throwing large quantities of weak infantry enemies at you, many of which can be dispatched with a single hit. These are supported by slightly more infrequent foes on horseback, as well as supporting enemies firing arrows from a distance or, in some stages, making use of environmental features and special objects such as catapults or pots of oil that they pour down a slope and set fire to.

Dynasty Wars

Most stages culminate in a battle against at least one enemy general character, and these also fight on horseback. These encounters are enjoyable and interesting in that simple button-mashing won’t get you through them; rather, a more reliable means of taking them down is to carefully avoid their attacks, charge up your characters’ most powerful strikes by holding one of the attack buttons, then unleash them during a suitable opening.

Like most beat ’em ups, Dynasty Wars starts off fairly gentle but quickly escalates in difficulty. The majority of the first stage is deceptively simple to get through, but the moment you confront the first boss, you’ll discover that the game most certainly has some teeth. In true arcade game tradition, the game can feel a little unfair at times when you’re first starting out — but once you get to grips with the unusual feel of movement and the effective range of combat, things will become a little more straightforward.

Dynasty Wars is not one of Capcom’s better-known arcade titles. Back in the day, it only came home in the west via some dodgy home computer ports that weren’t especially well-received, though in Japan it did get an enhanced port to the PC Engine Super CD-ROM; this version features more cutscenes and narrative content as the game progresses.

Dynasty Wars

It’s not obscure because it’s bad, though; on the contrary, it’s an enjoyable, unusual take on the beat ’em up with some excellent pixel art to enjoy. The sound’s a tad on the weak side, consisting mostly of farty FM synthesis sound effects — though the questionably acted voice lines between stages are always a delight to hear in all their cheesy glory and low sound quality.

As unknown as it is, Dynasty Wars has its own important place in Capcom history, and it’s worth playing as a result. Plus it’s fun to see how someone other than Koei Tecmo tackles the Three Kingdoms period once in a while, too!

Dynasty Wars is available as part of Capcom Arcade Stadium, which is available now for PC via SteamNintendo SwitchPlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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Pete Davison
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