The History of Lewd: The Rance series

Let’s get the important news out of the way first: MangaGamer has announced the release date for the English localisation of Rance Quest Magnum, the eighth game in the Rance series. It’ll be available exclusively on MangaGamer’s website from February 25, 2021, and is available for preorder now. (NSFW link!)

But hold on, you might be saying. Why should I care? Isn’t Rance just a series about a horrible “hero” (in the loosest possible sense) who sexually assaults people on a fairly regular basis? Well yes, it is about that, but it’s also one of the most noteworthy series in the history not just of lewd games, but of Japanese gaming in general. So let’s find out a bit more, shall we?

Little Princess, the precursor to the Rance series

The Rance series has its origins in an illustrated text adventure for the PC-98 home computer platform: a game called Little Princess. While not originally intended as part of the Rance world, as the series progressed the lore of Little Princess was retconned to form part of this comprehensively realised setting; the leading lady became the current “Demon King” in the world of Rance.

Little Princess was released in 1987, which means that the Rance series is as old as Final Fantasy, and almost as old as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Several of the staffers on Little Princess continued to work on the Rance series for many of its subsequent installments, with the most notable probably being Kazufumi Tada, also known simply as “TADA”.

Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth
One of TADA’s beautiful creations, seen here in Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth.

TADA wrote Little Princess’ main scenario, went on to direct numerous Rance games over the years and was the head of Alicesoft for a significant time. He also makes a point of slipping at least one of his Microsoft Paint “creations” into every game Alicesoft puts out, and these are inevitably among the hardest things to defeat in the entire game. In 2010, he stepped down from his leadership position to focus on making Rance games.

The Rance series proper got underway in 1989 when TADA established Alicesoft and co-wrote Rance I: Quest for Hikari. Looking back on the period, this is considered to be an important watershed moment for the fledgling eroge industry in Japan, since it clearly demonstrated that erotic games could be something more than flimsy excuses for pornographic images. Instead, they could have meaningful stories and substantial gameplay, and integrate the adult content with those things. They could be proper, honest-to-goodness games for grown-ups, in other words.

Gameplay from Rance 01, the official remake of Quest for Hikari.
Gameplay from Rance 01, the official remake of Quest for Hikari.

Quest for Hikari, which combined role-playing game mechanics with an adventure game-style interface, established a common format for low- to mid-budget Japanese RPGs, both within the eroge sector and more broadly in the gaming medium. We still see this format today, particularly with dungeon crawlers — even well-known and successful series like Compile Heart’s Neptunia still tend to eschew fully explorable worlds and towns in favour of menu-based navigation and visual novel-style dialogue sequences.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just because it’s cheaper — it allows the games to place a strong emphasis on the characterisation of the main cast and explore a small part of the overall world in great narrative detail, rather than providing a sprawling map that features vast expanses of nothingness. This emphasis on the important characters in the story and just a part of the overall setting has remained a key part of the Rance series’ design over the years; each individual installment in the vast majority of the series focuses on a small, specific part of “The Continent”, the land in which it is set. It’s actually a rather similar approach to that taken by Falcom in both its Ys and Trails series.

Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth
Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth

Rance himself was designed to be a deliberate response to the archetypal “hero” found in a great deal of popular media, both back in the late ‘80s and even onwards to today. In contrast to a lot of anime, manga and video game protagonists, Rance is not “young” by anime standards — the series as a whole charts his life from roughly the age of 18 onwards into his late 20s — and he’s about as far from the bright-eyed yet awkward heroes-to-be that we’ve seen over the years. (Also, his theme music is based on the national anthem for East Germany. Make of that what you will.)

Rather, he’s confident in himself, he’s a selfish bastard, he’s cynical and his morality is often questionable at best. To put him in terms of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons alignment, a generous interpretation of his character would put him somewhere around the Chaotic Neutral area; he’s obviously not an outright “bad guy”, but tends only to do what can be considered “the right thing” if it conveniently lines up with his own interests.

Rance 5D: The Lonely Girl
Rance 5D: The Lonely Girl

This extends to what is probably the series’ most well-known — and most controversial — aspect, too, which is the sexual angle. Rance is absolutely not above raping someone if the opportunity happens to arise, and indeed we witness this happen on numerous occasions throughout the series.

But it’s also interesting to note that there’s a distinct difference between the way Rance treats his victims and the way we see the villains of the story depicted when they are engaging in rape and sexual abuse. Rance’s behaviour is reprehensible and completely unacceptable, but he never does it with violence as his top priority; instead, he does so to fuel his own gratification — and sometimes in a rather misguided attempt to prove something about himself to his victim. There are times where Rance honestly seems to believe that sexually assaulting someone will make them like him more. Please do not even think about trying this in the real world.

Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth
Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth

By contrast, any scenes of sexual violence perpetrated by the villains are inevitably about pain and torture rather than anyone actually deriving sexual pleasure from them. They’re about humiliation and breaking the spirit of the victim more than anything else — and somehow this makes them seem far, far worse than anything Rance does. It’s an effective way of raising some interesting questions in the player’s mind, particularly with regard to the nature of heroism — if the only person around to save the day is someone like Rance, do you really want to be saved at all?

Despite his most notorious characteristics, however, Rance is far from a one-note character, and undergoes some interesting development over the course of the series as a whole. In particular, we see some significant changes in his relationship with his long-suffering slave Sill Plain, who has been present since the first game, and the addition of characters such as Shizuka Masou (a fixture since the second Rance game) and Rizna Lanfbit (first seen in Rance 5D: The Lonely Girl) provide him plenty of opportunities to learn how to deal with very different types of people. And perhaps even respect them enough to stoke the honest fires of friendship rather than animal lust.

Rance Quest Magnum
Rance Quest Magnum

Mechanically, meanwhile, the Rance series has always been gleefully experimental over the years, with it becoming increasingly rare to find two installments that play identically the further you go into the series.

While the first two games unfolded as adventure/RPG hybrids, the second and third moved to top-down dungeon crawling, stylised adventuring in two spin-off titles and large-scale strategic conquest in the non-canonical Kichikuou Rance.

Rance 5D: The Lonely Girl, the first in the series to get officially localised some fourteen years after its original 2002 release, completely threw expectations out of the window by being a “roulette RPG” that had a very strong feeling of tabletop roleplaying to it. Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth, meanwhile, was a first-person dungeon crawler with a fascinating stamina management mechanic.

Rance Quest Magnum
Rance Quest Magnum

Sengoku Rance, seventh in the mainline series, was reminiscent of Kichikuou Rance in that it was a large-scale strategic affair with RPG elements. And Rance Quest Magnum, the next game we’ll be able to officially enjoy in English, combines top-down exploration with the management of a large squad of characters and turn-based combat.

Beyond that, there’s also Rance IX, which is a strategy RPG, and finale Rance X, which describes itself as a “Great War RPG” — these are both getting localised, but when we’ll see them is anyone’s guess at this point; Rance Quest Magnum appears to have been a rather bigger job than MangaGamer expected, and Alicesoft has established its own English-speaking branch in the meantime, too.

The Rance series is technically over now, pending localisations aside, but Alicesoft is still very active. Most recently, they’ve put out the excellent Evenicle games, which feature beautiful art by Nan Yaegashi, the man behind Senran Kagura’s distinctive sense of style. And doubtless there’ll be plenty more to enjoy from them in the years to come, too.

Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth

While Rance’s more controversial content may well preclude it from ever being a part of the established gaming “canon”, such as it is, it’s a legend of the lewd sector if nothing else — and should be celebrated for managing to survive as long as Final Fantasy, of all things.

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Pete Davison
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