Saturday, June 28, 2014

Three Kingdoms Media I've Been Exposed to

When I was in junior high two separate friends quite coincidentally bought Destiny of the Emperor for the NES with just a few months apart and both invited me over to play. Not much later, one of them, Gabriel, bought me Romance of the Three Kingdoms II for the SNES at an open air market just by chance. I'd like to give a word to the media I've been exposed to since then. In chronological order.

Destiny of an Emperor for NES

What got us into this one in the first place is that it shared many of the standard RPG elements we could relate to: an overhead map, encounters, towns, items you could equip, a party, 'magic' and HP in the form of your troops. The most innovative  aspect, which I've not seen since, which is a shame, is the All-Out option during fights; toggling it, you let your troops to automatically slug it out with the enemies and may the best win. If things go begin to look sour, especially against strong tacticians, you can regain control. This saves lots of time and is at times more fun than selecting actions for every party member each round.

The game does a great job of introducing the characters at the intro with just a few lines and along the story. We never were at a loss about what we were expected to do, despite not knowing who these people were at first. The crucial part were the character portraits, which appear to be a mainstay for the media. With them we could distinguish between the generals despite the unfamiliar names. At a glance we could tell if the opponent was  an important character or not, because either his portrait was a generic variation of a handful of templates or an extra effort was put into it. Also the stats. We could judge the different characters from them;  Zhuge Liang the most clever, Lu Bu the strongest, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei close behind.

The most frustrating part was meeting Zhuge Liang  in the first place and the getting him to wake up (If I remember rightly you have to keep the B button pressed or something). Unless you had him, you couldn't enter 'the peaceful land of Shu'.  This one also turned up to be one of those games where you can hardly string more than half dozen steps without having someone attack you (Dragon Warrior II apparently is the worst in this area). Fortunately, the programmers  thought of the 'smoke pot' item to avoid being always harassed.

The music fits the mood and some of the fight tunes are exciting.

The story follows the events of the novel broadly and it goes from the Yellow Turban rebellion to the final encounters with Sun Quan, Cao Pi and Sima Yi. You play as Liu Bei and his generals Curiously enough, Cao Cao is an ally on some part, and never an opponent.

On the whole a well-balanced game and pretty entertaining.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms II for the SNES

This one is a strategy game. You have to develop your land, collect taxes, train your troops, carry on diplomacy, recruit more generals and deal with natural disasters. You can start in one of the many 'Acts' of the novel from Dong Zhuo's seizing of Luoyang to the consolidation of the three kingdoms, the map reflecting each one's territory at the moment. You can play as any of the principal leaders and pretty much as any of the obscurer ones or conjure up your own.

Encounters are tactical in nature and very solid. At the start you may challenge the other side or be challenged by a hero of them to a hand-to-hand combat, the result depending on the strength stats of the generals. Each province have different terrains and you move your troop units through them in order to capture your opponents castle and win the province. One of the best parts is that of joint attacks and cpu controlled reinforcements which can event switch sides if it suits them. Speaking of the AI in the game, the computer is no pushover, although you're destined to win in the end, the computer puts in a good fight.

The most difficult part always is vanquishing Liu Biao. He rarely expands and stacks up on generals making him densely packed for defense and always ready for your onslaught. Liu Bei has difficult starting points in the first stages.

As in Destiny each general has his own portrait and stats. The portraits are better than in Destiny, but Zhang Fei's  and Zhao Yun's and perhaps Ma Chao's were better in the older game. With the aid of the portraits the instruction manual does a great job of explaining the situation in each time period, and of the story as a whole, in just a few pages. Aww… this were I first learned about the fate the three brothers.

The music is just acceptable but can get repetitive real quick. The ending consists of famous scenes from the novel graphically very good considering the medium. You can restart a play again and again as this one has a very high replay value. I still have my copy.

Of course, there is a whole series of games under this title. Since I've only played this one I cannot talk of all the rest. However, ROTKII is so good that, I can only guess at the improvements the publisher has made over this long while, The latest must be… superb.

Three Kingdoms: The Novel (translated by Moss Roberts)

The main course and holy grail of all three kingdoms media. I do not remember how I learned there was in fact such a book, but I think it was one of my first orders at amazon. It is a large book consisting of 120 chapters, which, like The Lord of The Rings, you drink it whole with gusto.

Everything is here: the characters, the action and battles, the different plots and counterploys, the inner stories of some characters all these enhanced with  maps and loads of endnotes. This is all very exciting and so much so that every chapter ends with cliffhanger. I feel guilty at having liked it even better than The Iliad (going to reread that in the future though).

After having played the previous games I could dive right in. I now knew who everyone, more or less, was and could now contextualize their relationships. Some mysteries were now solved such as why some minor characters were highlighted in the games, such as Li Jue & Guo Si; the rival tigers and tiger-wolf strategies; Zhang Liao's route; and why some allies were prone to betray you, like Wei Yan.

There are many memorable scenes here. Not everything is just the Red Cliffs. To me the most striking, is the visit of Cheng Gong and Cao Cao to the latter's uncle; the sudden realization, and Cao Cao's final decision and rejoinder.

I'll have to check back on this one (or confirmation please!), but to me it appeared that Li Dian unintendedly played the role of the recurring enemy that comes back each week with different ploys only to be defeated again and again.

Jiang Wei ended up being my favorite character narrowly edging the more famous ones.

If the story or generals are already familiar to you and you're willing to read, the novel is a must; you will not get bored and simply put you won't regret it. Be sure to get the Moss Roberts translation which flows just right and gives the names in Pinyin, which is the system shared by most (it appears to me) of the current media. If you want to read it but still are unacquainted with the characters, not to worry. Check out were you can find the portraits to many of the games out there and give a face to the name. If you live in Boston, the Boston Public Library at Copley Square has the four volume set.

Marionette theater

A troupe of marionetters from the East came to my town and offered two or three performances with scenes from the Three Kingdoms. I got a ticket for a Sunday morning show. The medium-sized theatre was full with mostly families with children. The introduction to the story was carried out by a local actress which gave the proper pronunciation, as far as I can tell, of the character names. I, for my part, invariably refer to Cao Cao inside my head as "cow, cow". The marionettes were of the giant variety controlled by black clad puppeters on stage. The performance was solid, submerging the audience into the drama. One of the scenes included was the visit to Zhuge Liang's house.
(Video shows not exactly what I saw, but you get the idea).

Comic Books from China

The rest of the Three Kingdoms sites out there are more complete than mine, but I think I've got something they don't. A family member brought me a boxset of Chinese novels from a trip to China which includes the Three Kingdoms.

What one finds inside is a series of comic panels, over 600 of them in all, following the plot. Each panel is numbered and captioned. This one too goes from the brothers' pledge to what looks like the fall of Shu. Some of the scenes and characters are recognizable, but the majority remain opaque to me. Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu, Lu Bu and Zhang Fei are among the identifiable personages. The captions look too brief to explain much, so I guess one has to know the story to enjoy the medium.
The other novels are in the same style and format. One is clearly the adventures of the Monkey King; as if there was a chance of ever mistaken him. The other two are a mystery to me. Apparently these are the Dream of the Red Chamber and Water Margin. Dream has a Jewel of the Palace vibe, while Margin looks like a brother or at least first cousin to the Three Kingdoms with battles, generals and lords. There is also someone with a feather fan…  Since I cannot read any of them I just regard these as a collector's item.

Koihime Musou (anime)

A surprise that refreshes the Three Kingdoms universe. Though mostly plotless, as it focuses more on character interaction, it is quite good and lighthearted in its presentation. The battle scenes, though brief, are not unsatisfying. The best, without doubt, is Gan Ning vs Lu Meng in the third season. Most of the production budget is used in the voice acting of some fifty characters and in their outfits which are very detailed and, yes, beautiful. These last also allow a sizable amount of tasteful fanservice.

It consists of three seasons that can be watched legally for free at Crunchyroll, and three (forgettable) OVAs.

Koihime Musou (Visual Novel)

Basically a dating game on which the anime is based. I downloaded the demo from Mangagamer and played up to the intro sequence and an hour or so after that. I have problems with this one. First though the good part: the more I browse around the Visual Novel Database the more convinced I am that visual novels are an art form in it of itself. Notable is the care taken on character design, settings, story, routes and even music. That said, they look like an enormous time sink. They are long and (based on just this one experience) long drawn. Boy, these people do talk: they are not kidding when they refer to the media as 'novels'. After all has been said and done, after all the girls conquered and all the endings achieved, what is one left with other than the good memory? Also, there's a huge risk of liking the characters too much. Do resist the siren call.
To top it off, the game is also adult oriented which may be a good or a bad thing.

Majikaru Musou Tenshi Tsuki Irase!! Ryofuku-chan (manga)

A story centering on Lu Bu. Not much to see here.

Mastering the Art of War. Thomas Cleary Edition.

Mastering the Art of War
Penned by Zhuge Liang himself this is the only nonfiction of the group. It is a set of recommendations and advice in much the same vein as The Art Of War. I saved it for years on my bookshelf waiting for the perfect moment to read it. When I finally did, it left no impression on me.  I'll have to take a deep thoughtful look on this one sometime again.

Others I've not experienced:

The Three Kingdoms has spawned a veritable parade of adaptations,  probably too much for anyone to find let alone consume. Here are just a few notable others that have come to my attention, but not watched, played or read.

Ikkitousen/ Battle Vixens

The Three Kingdoms reduced to a high school setting. A concept similar to Koihime Musou but more violent and racy.

The Ravages of Time (manhua)

Great artwork.

Three Kingdoms (2010 TV series)

A huge live production by the looks of it. Also feels like the best alternative to actually reading the novel.

Dynasty Warriors

Many people nowadays seem have had their introduction to The Three Kingdoms through this series of games. Never played any, but they must have something into them. I cannot explain how some bunch of unknowns (at first) slugging it out has been so successful here in the West. On a side note, though quite capable, somehow I don't feel that Cao Cao would deign himself to fight hand on hand.


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