History fans love to ask a good 'what if?' question. A completely hypothetical situation to explore how small changes could impact the course of world events. Video games that explore these kinds of questions usually fall into the grand strategy genre, putting players at the head of a faction with the aim to dominate their enemies either through political manipulation or brute force, and seeing what might have happened if some grand historical engagement had gone the other way.
One developer that has always been at the heart of the grand strategy genre is Kou Shibusawa, a division of Koei Tecmo that has been producing some of the best and most celebrated historical strategy titles out there, dating back to the original NES. We had a chance to talk to some of the heads of this celebrated studio to discuss their history in the genre and what keeps players coming back for more.
What’s In a Name?
If the name Kou Shibusawa sounds familiar, it's because it casts a long shadow over the history of gaming.
Originally, it was a penname for Yoichi Erikawa, the co-founder of Koei back in 1978 who continues as the current CEO of Koei Tecmo. Through the years, he also produced games under his assumed name as a way to separate his role as head of the company from that of a game developer. In 2016, when the decision to rename the division handling Koei's historical strategy games was made, the team took the founder's pseudonym as its brand.
“From the early days of series like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition, ‘A KOU SHIBUSAWA PRODUCTION’ was displayed at the start of the game,” says the studio's head and Romance of the Three Kingdoms Hadou producer Ito Yukinori. “Therefore, some of our players might not know who Kou Shibusawa was, but they were probably familiar with the name.”
The choice to establish Kou Shibusawa as a distinct entity within the Koei Tecmo hierarchy seems to have had an impact on the studio’s focus.
"Each and every one of our development staff has become more aware of our IP," says Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV producer Echigoya Kazuhiro. "Before that, console and online/web games were being developed separately, so due to the different production processes, it felt as if the teams were doing completely different work and the awareness and/or stance towards the IP felt distant. But nowadays we all see ourselves as the guardians of the IP and we are committed to developing and expanding it further. As a result, the process of introducing new characters has become simpler [...] It has certainly become easier for us to focus on that.”
Kou Shibusawa – the team, not the man – develops some of the longest-running series in Koei’s catalogue. Franchises like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition allow players to explore a history that is not yet set in stone, carrying on its namesake’s legacy of deep historical strategy games populated with larger-than-life characters.
A Long Legacy
Koei has been porting PC games for as long as Nintendo has been making home consoles. Nobunaga’s Ambition casts players in the role of a daimyo or the titular Oda Nobunaga during the Warring States period of Japanese history beginning in the 15th century, while Romance of the Three Kingdoms — of which the Dynasty Warriors franchise is a spin-off — loosely adapts the events of the much earlier Chinese Three Kingdoms period.
By the time the Kou Shibusawa team was so branded in 2016, both series had more than 25 mainline games.
Not all its games have found much success in the West, unfortunately. Uncharted Waters continues to send players sailing the seas in the 15th and 16th centuries but never managed to find an audience outside of Asia, which is strange because it is one of the few series by Kou Shibusawa that focuses on events in the West.
“The theme of the series [...] originated in Europe, so we’d definitely like to see players in Europe and North America enjoy it as well,” says Shoji Yuhei, the producer of Uncharted Waters Origin, which rebooted the series in early 2023. It seems there's no specific opposition to bringing the series to the West — as always, it's a question of demand.
In addition to these historical titles, the studio has also had the odd collaboration published under its name. Pokémon Conquest was a turn-based strategy RPG crossover between Nobunaga’s Ambition and Pokémon for the DS.
Kou Shibusawa also worked with Intelligent Systems on Fire Emblem: Three Houses in 2019. “Since Koei Tecmo had a relationship with them through development of Fire Emblem Warriors, we were approached by them, and Kou Shibusawa, a brand mainly engaged in the development of simulation games, was assigned to develop the title,” explains the producer and director of the upcoming Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening, Ryu Michi.
While these collaborative titles might be rare, they've resulted in some very fun, unique games, even when they diverge from the rest of the studio's work.
The Devil's in the Details
Kou Shibusawa games never approach the Civilization series’ anachronistic tone, despite taking a flexible approach to events as written in the annals of history.
One key feature of every series the studio makes is a laser focus on detail. The price of grain, for example, can topple entire empires if those in charge aren’t careful. Let an ambitious subject gain too much power and you could find yourself with another rival to contend with.
These features are all part of the experience, and this isn’t a studio that shies away from giving players a challenge. "In Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden (released in 1992, Japan-only), we adopted a system that more closely reflected the real historical facts of giving honour commendation and dominion to officers," Ryu-san explains when we ask about which games in the series struck the best balance between detail management and player accessibility. "This title was enjoyed by many players, even though it was text-based since it was difficult to visualize with the specs of the time. Thus, some players may consider it a hardcore enthusiast title. We are making another try with our latest title Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening."
"With regards, to balance, it is difficult to say which 'struck the balance the best', and the answer depends on what criteria you use for judgment," says Ryu-san, citing the critical success of Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence as a potential candidate.
Since Koei’s early days, the company has focused on the idea of a malleable history. Games like Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening present an opportunity to explore alternate histories. How might these events play out with a different mastermind guiding them? Would Nobunaga achieve his dream of a unified Japan? Who will be the first to conquer the fractured landscape of China?
“It is generally believed that history, including Japan’s Warring State period, is something that cannot be changed, but what we know is only part of it,” Ryu-san continues. “Even today, new discoveries and interpretations are being made. This is why the more we learn about Japan’s Warring States period where Nobunaga’s Ambition takes place, the more it fuels our creativity.”
You might expect such matters of state to be presented with a tone of seriousness, but there is the occasional air of whimsy in how the team approaches these alternate timelines. Often, this entails merely removing certain figures from history or tasking players with helping a different warlord reach their goals, but the Japan-only Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence used the Switch’s IR Camera to allow players to import their family, friends, and pets into the game, generating a randomised warlord dependant on what shapes are visible to the camera in the bottom of the right Joy-Con.
“We wanted players to enjoy creating officers by taking [pictures of] their friends, dogs, and various other objects around them,” says Ryu-san.
On the subject of Switch, and given the developer's experiences with Nintendo hardware stretching back to the '80s, we asked how the process of working with the platform holder's consoles has changed. "I guess you could say that porting PC titles to Nintendo consoles is still a challenge every time, even now," Echigoya-san tells us. "We always design everything for PC, so there is a lot to consider when porting a title. Still, I'd say that the Nintendo Switch has made the development process easier, compared to the past... [laughs]"
Ryu-san echoes those sentiments. "As creators, we always end up thinking about what we can do when new features are implemented in hardware. The development process for the Nintendo Switch version[s] has been both easier and more difficult. To be honest, we often had a hard time dealing with how to deal with the simultaneous operation of the controller and touch panel. [laughs]"
The team at Kou Shibusawa was understandably tight-lipped about their plans for the future, but it’s clear there is still plenty of life in the historical strategy genre. Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening will feature officers that “think and act independently,” without the need for direct orders all the time, according to Ryu-san, carrying on the spirit of innovation that made the early games so influential in the genre.
Our thanks to Ito Yukinori, Echigoya Kazuhiro, Shoji Yuhei, and Ryu Michi.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening is coming to Switch on 20th July. Let us know below if you're a Kou Shibusawa fan — the studio or the man — and if you'd like to see more KS games come to Switch in the West.