Pokemon has made a lot of weird and wonderful spin-off games. There are games where you play as park rangers, photographers, and even Pokemon themselves, but there is only one that implements wartime strategy mechanics and sees you face off against a murderous warlord.
The Nobunaga’s Ambition series is a relatively niche turn-based grand tactics simulator. You might recognise the genre from the Total War or XCOM series, but Nobunaga’s Ambition preceded them all. The first game, Nobunaga no Yabō, is credited as birthing the genre. You’d be forgiven for not having heard of it, though, as the 15 games in the series have only reached a combined total of ten million sales.
These days, developer Koei Tecmo is better known for series like Monster Rancher and Nioh, but in the ‘80s it was a far more historical affair. It’s even stranger, therefore, that it partnered with Nintendo for a crossover named Pokemon & Nobunaga’s Ambition, known as Pokemon Conquest in the west.
Pokemon Conquest pitted you against actual warlords from actual Japanese history in actual fights, and your Pokemon took to actual battlefields where, presumably, they actually died instead of fainting. It doesn’t seem the type of crossover that Nintendo would pursue for its child-friendly series, and yet, somehow, it came to be.
The game itself was great, despite the strange crossover premise. Warlords are pseudo-Gym Leaders, each specialising in a particular Pokemon type. The designs are re-used from a previous Nintendo and Koei Tecmo partnership, Samurai Warriors, with adaptations from legendary Pokemon designer Ken Sugimori to bring them more into line with the franchise’s design ethos and link better to their partner Pokemon. Everything in the game is thought-through, including partnering military strategists with appropriate Pokemon. Hideyoshi, the Fire-type warlord, uses Chimchar because in real life he was nicknamed ‘the little monkey’.
Gameplay is heavy on the strategy, as you’d expect from Koei Tecmo. Pokemon only have one attack each, and the battles use tile-based movement as the basis for your tactical fights. Each battlefield also has a type that befits its region and warlord – Hideyoshi’s Fire-type battlefield is consumed by dangerous flame, for example – to make you think twice about every tactical decision.
While a lot of thought went into the bizarre partnership, the story was somewhat lacking. This was a game about the tactics through and through. That wasn’t to say there weren’t cool moments, though. Nobunaga, the game’s main antagonist, uses a shiny Rayquaza, which was one of the most exciting reveals for young Pokemon fans playing their first strategy game.
Conquest shone brightest in its post-game, which harboured new mechanics and recreated famous battles of Japanese history, like Mitsuhide's betrayal of Nobunaga, and Hideyoshi's attempt to unify of Japan. It’s a shame these were locked away until after the main campaign, but that’s nothing a sequel can’t fix, right? I’m serious. I’d love a Pokemon Conquest 2, complete with its DDR-esque rhythm game catching mechanic and intense strategic warfare. Modernised warlord designs would look great, and welcoming new Pokemon into the fold could only go well. At this point, with 1,008 Pokemon in existence, I’m sure you could build a strategy game that only uses Pokemon with weapons; Blastoise, Aegislash, Zacian, and Sirfetch’d would all be perfect, and Kingambit seems made for a repeat visit to feudal Japan. Sorry, it’s called Ransei. But why limit yourself?
Pokemon Conquest performed moderately well by all accounts, but it deserves another look. It’s as innovative as Snap, and despite being a genre mash up that really shouldn’t work, it somehow does. It’s a crying shame that the second-hand market is so committed to ripping players off, because Conquest definitely isn’t worth the £90 price tag it has accumulated. But it’s definitely worth digging out from the attic.
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