Koei is a fascinating company! Established in 1978, it made many fantastic and strange games. At least weird for me as I only know them for their historical simulation and Dynasty Warriors games.
When I look at their library now, I see the franchises that sparked my interest in history and storytelling. I remember finding their games in the late 90s when I was collecting games and trying to figure them out without the help of a manual. I wasn’t on the internet back then, so looking things up was a bit harder.
Let’s examine the games they released on the NES and how they set up some long-lasting franchises and some games that should have sequels. First, a little history about Koei.
Koei was established in 1978 by Yoichi Erikawa and Keiko Erikawa. Yoichi had pursued a degree in programming while at Keio University. The company started by selling pc games. In 1982 they released their first erotic title, Seduction of the Condominium Wife. This is a graphical adventure game with some role-playing elements.
Based on the screenshots, I didn’t play the game; it is what you would expect it to be. I will say it is better than Custer’s Revenge, from what I saw.
Also, in 1982, Koei released the game Underground Exploration. This is the earliest known Japanese RPG that has been discovered so far. There might be some other ones out there, but so far, this is the earliest one. Suck it, Dragon Quest fans!
In 1983, Koei released the first game in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series. This is a strategy game that has you play as one of the lords of Japan during a warring states period. While not the series I think of when I think about a Koei strategy game, it is a long-running series much like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series.
This marks the beginning of the Historical Simulation series that would become a staple for the company. These are also the games that I would most associate with Koei until Dynasty Warrior 2.
During the 80s, Koei made many games that would appear on the NES. Several of them never left Japan. It might have been due to having a similar game on the market, but I can’t be sure, and given some of the other games they released, I find it unlikely.
Here is a list of the games that Koei released in the 80s:
- Nobunaga’s Ambition (1983) would get an NES release
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1985) would get an NES release
- Genghis Khan (1987)
- Bandit Kings of Ancient China (1989)
- Ishin no Arashi (1988) this was a Japan exclusive like the other games in the series
In early 1990, Uncharted Waters was released on computers. It was later released on the NES. With those games wrapped up, let’s get into the NES ports.
If you can’t tell, I love Koei games! I didn’t play them in the 80s and would have a different opinion of them if I did. These aren’t the games that you would give to a five-year-old and expect them to have fun.
Most of these are historical simulation-strategy games. There isn’t much action in them. The only exception is Uncharted Waters. Here is a list of the games and what genre I think they best fit into:
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Strategy/Simulation
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms II – Strategy/Simulation
- Nobunaga’s Ambition – Strategy/Simulation
- Nobunaga’s Ambition II – Strategy/Simulation
- Genghis Khan – Strategy/Simulation
- Bandit Kings of Ancient China – Strategy/Simulation
- Gemfire – Strategy/Simulation
- Uncharted Waters – RPG
- L’Empereur – Strategy/Simulation
I don’t think these games translate that well to the NES. They work, but I think the PC is a better fit for a turn-based strategy like most of these games. Uncharted Waters is the only one that I think plays well without the manual.
I wanted to single these games out. This is a series of four games that Koei made and then tried to forget about. They were left off of the company’s history when it was published on their website.
As you can imagine, these are adult video games. I mentioned them earlier, but I wanted to do some more research into them. Here are the four games in the series:
- Night Life
- My Lolita
- Do Dutch Wives Dream of Electric Eel
- Seduction of Condominium Wives
These games are what you would expect from the genre. They involve the player trying to undress women or trying to sleep with them. There isn’t too much more to mention here.
Let’s go over the NES games and forget about the adult games! I’m also going to wash my eyes for good measure.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms I and II
These are the two games that I remember seeing when I was looking for NES ROMs back in high school. I didn’t know anything about these games and was a little confused after playing them. For some reason, I thought they were RPGs.
I didn’t think to look up how to play these games. I tried to learn as I went, and this led to a lot of frustration and starting over. I had no idea how to play this game.
Over the years, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games would become more accessible to new players. The seventh game would become a personal favorite of mine.
In these two games, you choose a scenario and a lord to play as. Your goal is to take over China or the provinces that make up ancient China. It isn’t an easy game, and many things can go wrong for you.
You have to recruit other generals to lead your armies. These can be prominent figures in the novel, or they can be people who are briefly mentioned or known to have lived at the time. This is where some of the problems begin.
If you try to play as one of the smaller or lesser-known lords, you make the game harder than it already is. You also have to deal with keeping these lords happy, so they don’t abandon you. There is a surprising number of things going on in these games.
Later in the series, you can play a warlord and join one of the people trying to unify the country. This is what I like doing the most, and it is one of the reasons I like the seventh game the most.
I could keep going with these two games, but I want to move on to the other Koei games. Some are going to play similarly to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, they will take place in different periods.
Nobunaga’s Ambition I and II
This is the other series that has lasted the longest. Like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the period would be visited in other games. Specifically, the Kessen series would see Koei return to the settings of both Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Unlike Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition has a confusing history as the games aren’t numbered. It can make collecting the games harder, or at least it was before the internet. I wasn’t aware of the NES games when I started collecting retro games, and the first one I came across was the SNES game. Then there is the spin-off RPG Inindo. Let’s stick with the NES game.
The NES games play like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. I think they were created using the same engine. I think this series is a little more challenging of the two. It is possible to win, but it is tough to do so.
These are turn-based strategy games. You have many tasks that you can do during your turn, and if you don’t know what to do, then you should train your troops. It won’t always work in your favor, but it is a good idea.
When you find yourself in a battle, there are a few things that you can do. Defeat the enemy army, outlast them, or cut off their supplies. Sometimes, I found it best to avoid enemies until their supplies run out.
As you take over more regions, you can assign warlords to administer them. However, this is where you need to try to keep them happy. It can also be hard even to try to take over other regions. At least it was for me.
This is the game that I wouldn’t recommend. It is way too complicated for someone new to these games, and I struggled to figure out what I was supposed to do. This is one that you would need to get the manual for, or you would need to look up how to play the game.
The Genghis Khan series plays like it was for people who wanted a more in-depth experience. I could see it being fun to play on the PC. Controlling things with the NES controller was awkward at best.
You have a few scenarios in this, just like the other games. It all depends on when you want to start your journey as you try to take over the world or clan.
In other Koei games, you get some visual indication of what your selections do. In Genghis Khan, this isn’t done as you only get a one-word text. It makes the game much less accessible to new players. It is also a challenging game!
Bandit Kings of Ancient China
This is a weird game. It is based on the Water Margin novel, where ten heroes work together to overthrow the Emperor’s War Minister. I find the book to be more interesting than the game.
This game is a little different as you’re on a clock. You must defeat the War Minister, Gau Qiu before a foreign invasion happens. Also, you need to be sufficiently popular with the people, have gained the emperor’s attention, and receive an edict from the emperor before you can try to arrest Gau Qiu.
There are 49 provinces that you can capture. I don’t think you need all of them to beat the game, but I’m guessing you need to be allied with the lord who rules them. I haven’t tried every possible scenario for gaining popularity. I usually try to take over the whole country.
For some reason, the localization team translated all of the names. I had never seen this before, and it was very odd. You end up with names like Nine Dragons, Tattooed Priest, and Heavenly King. I have no idea why this was done.
Thankfully, you don’t need the manual to play this game. Because it is all up on the internet now, this is one of the few retro games I have the manual for! It made things much easier when I was trying this game out.
It is one of the better Koei games. I like it more than Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition. It’s also much better than Genghis Khan.
Have you ever wanted to help Napoleon take over Europe? Well, that is what you do in this game. There are four scenarios that you can choose from. However, it ends after he becomes the Emperor of France. It plays like the other Koei historical games.
This was one of the games that I didn’t know about. I might have seen it on one of Funcoland’s pricing guides. I never knew if this was a complete list of all the games, but I think it showed Koei that other historical games were possible.
Koei would later make or publish games about the American Revolution and the Pacific campaign during WWII. I’m not sure how well those games did, but I think they played better on the PC than on consoles.
This game plays much like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition. It’s not a bad game at all. However, I would still start with Gemfire if you want to get into the Koei strategy games.
Of all the games that Koei put out on the NES, this is the one that I come back to. This isn’t the version of the game that I like the most, but it is a great RPG on the NES. I prefer the sequel, Uncharted Waters: New Horizons.
This is as close to an open-world RPG as you could on the NES. You play as Leon Franco and try to bring some prestige back to your family. You can also ignore the story and do whatever you want.
I was a little overwhelmed when I first played it as I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I wasn’t aware that I could do anything I wanted to.
I had a similar experience when I played Pirates! It is a similar game where you have a story, but you can do anything. Both are open-world games that see you sailing around with the option of being a pirate, merchant, or explorer.
There are a few other games that Uncharted Waters reminds me of. Most of them are simulation games. This is a unique game on the NES!
This is a high fantasy strategy game. It is a bit more simplistic than Koei’s historical strategy games. It also has a better combat system that reminds me of Heroes of Might and Magic or King’s Bounty.
This is one of the games that I wish Koei had done more with. There is a Japan-only sequel that was released as Royal Blood II. Royal Blood is the original title for the game.
The thing that I like the most about Gemfire is the battles. They’re more interesting and a lot more fun than the historical games.
Each side has five units. The four regular units are:
- Knights with shields
- Knights without shields
I’m not sure what the difference between the two knights is. Visually, I can only see that one doesn’t have a shield. You move each of these units around, and their strength depends on how many soldiers you send into battle. If you seed 100 soldiers, each of these units will have 25 soldiers.
The last unit is determined by the monsters your recruit. These are specific to the region that you’re attacking. Some regions let you recruit Orcs, Fairies, Dragons, or other creatures. You can also use a wizard unique to the faction you selected at the beginning of the game.
This is the one that I would recommend. The other strategy games have a steep learning curve and are too hard for someone new to the series unless you want to jump in on one of the more recent games.
Novels Behind the Games
I love books almost as much as video games—especially those about history. I know I’m a strange person who loves reading about history and then sharing weird facts with people.
Many of these games are either based on historical accounts or historical novels. There is a difference between the two. However, for this post, I’ll spare you the details.
Koei likes to make games that are inspired by literature and history. Many of their games are based on Classic Chinese Novels. Specifically, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and the Water Margin.
Koei took on Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin for the NES games. These were loosely adapted into Romance of the Three Kingdoms 1 and 2 and Bandit Kings of Ancient China. Journey to the West would be made into a tactical RPG on the PS1.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms follows the civil war that took place at the end of the Han dynasty. It is a fascinating book! The Water Margin takes place during the Song dynasty and sees a group of bandits taking on a corrupt government official. I’m more familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it is the setting that Koei would revisit time and time again.
These Koei games are some of the strange games on the NES. They aren’t the weirdest, but they are pretty different from most of the NES library. Just looking at the licensed games, they are very different.
Looking at the other strategy games on the system, there aren’t many of them, but these are the best. Uncharted Waters is a standout for the early RPGs on the NES. The more I look at the NES library, the more RPGs I find.
Overall, I think some of the Koei games didn’t make much sense as console games. They were a little too complex. I could imagine getting one of these and being very disappointed when I was little.
Gemfire and Uncharted Waters are the two that I would recommend. Koei has had a long and interesting history in video games. I’m looking forward to examining other parts of it.