Content Warning: Descriptions of violence, inequitable treatment of women
Step into 2nd century China, near the end of the Han Dynasty. The Yellow Turban Rebellion left the Han court in shambles, a shadow of its former self. The Ten Eunuchs, a corrupt cabal of ministers had funneled all of the political influence of the emperor into themselves, effectively seizing power. Eventually, the Ten Eunuchs were eliminated. However, amid the chaos, a cruel man named Dong Zhuo forcibly took control of the capital, taking the emperor hostage, and ruling with an iron fist. A call went out across the land for a coalition to depose the vile tyrant.
Take control of one of the ambitious warlords vying for control of the land. Manage your territory while keeping diplomatic, domestic, and military affairs in precarious balance. Recruit wandering or disgruntled officers to your cause and make them fight under your banner. Slowly take control of the country, one state at a time, on your path to total conquest.
Fun Fact: The events depicted in this game are based on the historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to 14th-century Chinese writer Luo Guanzhong.
When starting a new game, you choose from 5 scenarios to play. Depending on which you choose, different rulers are available, along with a specific set of officers and territories. After choosing your ruler, you are taken to a character creation screen, where you roll (somewhat) random stats for your chosen ruler. Then, you are asked to set a view gameplay options, such as the AI attitude, and whether or not to view battles you’re not participating in. After all of that, you’re ready to begin!
Every month, each of your states has an opportunity to perform tasks. Certain tasks are more easily performed with more officers, or officers with a higher stat in a specific area. You can search for vagabond officers, spy on neighboring states, buy weapons and food, train your troops, or bolster your economy. While managing this, you must also take into consideration the happiness of your people, the probability of floods occurring, and the machinations of your enemies.
All of your tasks are executed using a list of commands. To the beginning player, it is not apparent that there are actually 5 morecommands, which can be accessed by pushing [right] on your control pad. It is here that you can save your progress.
When the time for war has finally come upon you, whether you’re being invaded or have decided that it’s high time for a neighboring state to become part of your demesne, you decide how many troops to take, which officers should lead them, and how much gold & rice to bring along. Plan carefully. Running out of rice spells disaster for any military campaign. Appointing commanders with low loyalty can also come back to haunt you, if they should find themselves swayed by the enemy in the middle of battle.
You can win the battle by decimating all of your opponent’s troops, or by forcing them to flee the battle. Additionally, if you can capture of the enemy’s castles, you automatically win. Finally, if you should happen to capture the enemy ruler at any point, you instantly execute them and win the day. However, you’ll have no time to rest on your laurels, for as the size of your domain increases, the more noticeable it becomes to the greedy eyes of your rivals, who have spent their time building up their forces while you were expending resources in a long, agonizing fight.
If you can successfully conquer without overextending yourself, keep your populace from rioting, ensure the loyalty of your retainers, and shrewdly build alliances that allow you to march using other ruler’s troops, you just may survive the tumultuous era known as the Three Kingdoms.
Fun Fact: Romance of the Three Kingdoms can be considered the “Great Uncle” of the popular Dynasty Warriors series of hack ‘n’ slash games, as they are based on the exact same story!
Visually, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not as impressive as some other popular NES titles, but the game is more focused on resource management and battle, and is largely menu-driven. If you are an aggressive warlord, you’ll be spending a lot of time on maps like the one above. Battles take place on a map that I can best describe as a grid of offset squares. The environments are well-drawn, and you don’t have to guess what kind of terrain each square is. Each type of terrain costs a certain amount of mobility, and mountains are impassible.
The strategy map, which you’ll get to stare at while waiting for your turn, is comprised of 58 states. Each ruler has a particular color associated with them. In several cases, one ruler’s color scheme is just a flip-flop of another ruler’s. It is on this screen that you’ll also be informed of events, that can happen depending on the season. There could be a flood, a disease outbreak, or a rebellion. Each event has its own little picture associated with it, which will pop up when it occurs.
On your orders screen, when confirming a number of actions, you will get a little animation in the bottom-right of your screen, showing the order you’ve given being carried out. If you’ve instructed your officers to develop the land, you’ll see a laborer chopping a tree. If you are spying on a neighboring state, you’ll see a little man peer through some tall grass and then pop back inside. If you drill the troops, you’ll get to see a couple of soldiers training with their falchions.
The music in this game is mostly enjoyable. There is one tune that is easily forgettable, but several others invoke a sense of meaning when heard. The game’s main theme, played on the title screen and during scenario setup, is a masterpiece. I still remember the first time I heard it as a lad of 10. It sent a shiver up and down my spine, and can only be described as “hauntingly beautiful.” A different version is played in-game, depending on who your governor is, and always when controlling your ruler’s state.
The battle theme is also very good. It sets the mood of battle perfectly, as you will be placing your troops while listening to it. It truly gives off a “battle march” vibe, and gets you excited to fight, even if you’re being invaded.
Both of these songs have been remixed and included in not only future releases of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but Dynasty Warriors as well.
There are copious sound effects in this game. There are barely any actions or occurrences that do not have a sound effect associated with them. Perusing your menus is one example. There’s even a sharp cracking sound when you roll your ruler’s stats. All of the command animations mentioned before have corresponding sound effects. You can hear wood being chopped, grass rustling, and swords slicing. In a game that presents a few rough spots in the graphics department, the music and sounds do much to pick up the slack.
The script for Romance of the Three Kingdoms is rather small. There is no introductory dialogue to speak of, or any description of how to proceed once you’ve finished tweaking your master and begin the game. This is one game where it’s imperative to consult the instruction booklet beforehand, if you are unfamiliar with strategy games. In fact, the only time your receive guidance is when you’re about to consider a course of action that has a chance of failure. If you have an officer with sufficient intelligence, he will automatically become your advisor, weighing in every time you’re about to make a decision. The veracity of their advice is based on their I.Q. score. So, it is incumbent upon you to enlist an advisor with as sharp an intellect as possible.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms can be fun, but it requires extraordinary time commitment, and is definitely a niche interest. This game is not for everyone. People who prefer lots of action will find this game incredibly boring. On the other hand, people who love micromanagement will find much to appreciate in this game.
The Bottom Line