Publisher: D3 Publisher
Release Date: Q1 2009
There are two Onechanbara games, but they're similar enough - and an interested gamer is likely to want to buy them both - that they're worth discussing together. Both games star the same characters and offer similar gameplay, but with controls and gimmicks tailored to their respective consoles quite well. As for who would be interested in playing Onechanbara … well, do you like awful, cheesy, exploitive blood-on-breasts B movies? Do you like terrible Asian B movies that are loaded with gleefully stupid fan service? Congratulations, you're the target audience for Onechanbara. Don't feel bad; there's something about the franchise so brilliant in its Z-grade incoherence that it has quite the fan following among lovers of spectacular trash.
D3 Publisher is quite aware of this part of the game's reputation, and is doing absolutely nothing to try and make Onechanbara any classier. Bless them for that! D3 seems to understand the appeal of these goofy games to the point where the localization doesn't bother with dubbing (so it comes off more like an incoherently subtitled bootleg video) and doesn't even bother cleaning up the translation all that much. Don't worry, you can still follow the plot, such as it is, with no trouble at all, and the gameplay is smooth and quick.
The title "Onechanbara" is something of a Japanese pun, combining a term for "big sister" (onechan) with a term used to describe low-budget samurai action flicks (chanbara). True to form, the Onechanbara games star a pair of sisters, with the elder Aya acting as the game's mascot. She goes into battle against legions of demons and undead, wielding a pair of swords and dressed in a superbly ridiculous outfit: tiny bikini, thigh-high leather boots, hot pink feather boa, and a cowboy hat. Her little sister Saki fights in a traditional schoolgirl uniform, using a single powerful blade and grappling moves to fling her opponents around. A noteworthy mechanic in the games involves the absolutely ridiculous torrents of blood that splatter all over the stage (and heroines) as zombies get hacked to bits. Blood clings more and more to your sword, and eventually your sword starts getting stuck in enemies unless you remember to shake it off every so often.
The rest of the game is about wandering from point A to point B on a map, encountering groups of zombies and monsters, and killing them in the messiest ways possible. In this regard, the Onechanbara games play like something of a simpler Devil May Cry, with a big emphasis on buying character upgrades, using special moves, and creating fast chain combos out of different types and strengths of attacks. Where the two upcoming Onechanbara games begin to differ most dramatically is in the fine details of the gameplay, as they use very different control systems and level design styles.
The first of the two games, in chronological sequence, is the Xbox 360's Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad. This game plays like something of a traditional Xbox 360 action game, with a big emphasis on juggling each attack type together into long combos, with the odd super move you can use to clear out thick crowds of enemies when they swarm around you. There's even a little Flash-style game you can play during the title's rather long loading screens, where you control a super-deformed Aya as more and more zombies swarm onto the screen, and try to get as high a score as possible before the real game loads up. This little game by itself is stupidly fun, and I kind of wish there was leaderboard support for your scores.
Once you're in the game, you can pick Aya or Saki and then go to clear a level. Generally, you have to navigate through a given map area to whatever your designated goal is. Once at the goal, you might fight a boss or just move on to the next area. Between where you are and the goal is, zombies and other enemies are going to spawn, and often a little fence spawns along with the enemies. You generally cannot progress until you wipe out each wave of spawns, although some areas will let you just run past spawns if you want. Of course, it's to your advantage to kill every enemy you see, as enemies drop random goodies when they die: health boosts, XP you can invest in various abilities at the end of the stage, and sometimes things that give you an immediate gameplay boost. That's really all there is to the basic Onechanbara gameplay.
Given Onechanbara's B movie themes, you might worry that it's going to be a B-grade production full of low-poly models, clipping, and ridiculous physics. While you would never confuse Onechanbara for a triple-A, marketing-driven, big-budget extravaganza, the game looks quite solid despite being a release from 2006 in Japan. Frame rate doesn't chug, there's no lazy clipping or gliding, and the backgrounds are presentable. Most of the love was lavished on the main character models, which look good through their animation cycles —although Aya's breasts gyrate hilariously when you leave her standing in place. There are some very slick FMV cut scenes that aren't quite good enough to be out of Uncanny Valley territory, but tell the story well enough (while layering on extra fan service, of course). The story mostly concerns how the two sisters have "evil blood" that attracts monsters, which somehow obligates them to go out and use their "evil blood"-based superhuman abilities to kill the living hell out of zombies. It's a simple but entirely acceptable narrative.
Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers is the Wii SKU of the game, and it picks up where the 360 title leaves off. In this one, the sisters are trying to investigate the secret of their tainted blood, so they seem to have some extra powers not available in the 360 game. Saki can enter a sort of berserker rage where she begins dealing ridiculously huge damage, while Aya gets a power that lets her entice zombies into crowding around her in huge groups that are easily shredded to bits by her super moves. The controls are also very different, built to use the Wiimote and Nunchuk, and emphasize the differences between the two characters. While Aya is still all about the fast button-pressing combos, Saki becomes more of a grappler under the new system. Using her single sword for crowd control, she can then grab onto enemies with the Wiimote and then throw them in a variety of flashy wrestling holds by shaking the Nunchuk. Her wrestling holds do huge damage to single targets and make the two sisters require more distinct play styles than they do in the 360 game.
Of course, the Wii version doesn't look nearly as good as the 360 iteration does, although Onechanbara Wii looks better relative to other Wii titles than Onechanbara 360 looks relative to other 360 titles (if that makes any sense). If anything, quite a lot of effort seems to have gone into it, as it features much nicer enemy models and far smoother animations than the vast majority of third-party Wii games that don't have huge corporate muscle like Capcom behind them. While the polycount isn't impressively high and areas get repetitive too quickly, the individual character models interact well with their environments and each other. There aren't any issues with collision detection, and about the worst thing you're encounter while finishing a level is your arms getting tired from all the shaking that the Wii control scheme demands. You can cut down on this a little by using Aya instead of Saki, but Saki is a bit more interesting to play as.
It goes without saying that I'm not really the target audience for Onechanbara, as I'm not really in the market for games that let me ogle boobies or schoolgirls. Still, the game has a certain cheesy charm that hits me right in the same part that loves Earth Defense Force 2017 and collecting awful B movies. The gameplay for both games is quite solid, if the level design a little repetitive, and in general, it looks like the Onechanbara games have plenty of stupid fun to offer when they hit store shelves in 2009. Given how painfully un-fun most fan service-heavy games are, that's rather high praise to offer.