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Revenge of the License: Nobunaga’s Ambition (NES)

When other developers were looking at ways to maximize profits by way of comic books or television shows, Koei said, “Holy cow, it’s expensive to buy the rights to something current. Screw that! Japanese history is ripe for plunder and we don’t have to pay anybody a single yen to use their likeness because they’ve all been dead for, like, ever.” Thus began the descent into madness, Koei’s obsession with Eastern history, and their strip-mining of everything that happened between the 3rd and 17th centuries there as fodder for sims like 1989’s Nobunaga’s Ambition for the NES.


Oda Nobunaga, a powerful feudal lord, spearheaded an attempt to unify all Japan under the banner of a single shogunate in the late 16th century. He failed due to a coup led by Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s own generals, in 1581, but when the dust cleared no one was left to explain why Mitsuhide had committed high treason. Nobunaga committed seppuku rather than face the dishonor of capture, and Nobunaga’s son Nobutada died defending his father against the overwhelming onslaught from the betraying army. Mitsuhide had all of two weeks to enjoy ruling over damn near the entire Japanese mainland before getting run through with a spear, which had to lead to one awkward-as-hell reunion with his old boss in the afterlife. Debate rages to this day over the reason Mitsuhide turned to the dark side, but if you’re a big enough dick to even consider rebelling against your own Daimyo we’re guessing you didn’t need much of an excuse beyond bath water that was too cold.

Nobunaga's Ambition title screen

Title Screen

Just because Nobunaga couldn’t manage to bring 16th century Japan together doesn’t mean the cause was hopeless though, and since gamers love playing “What if?” with history, Koei let armchair strategists taste the hot Eastern action. Nobunaga’s Ambition was originally released for the Amiga in 1988, but the 1989 NES port is a phenomenal example of just how deep a game it was possible to create for an 8-bit system. While it’s on the light side in terms of graphics and music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a strategy title, military or otherwise, to match the sheer magnitude of options Koei dumped in gamers’ laps.

Nobunaga's Ambition Ming fief

Nice rice fields you got there, Asai…be a shame if anything happened to ’em.

Just to get an idea of this game’s complexity, it allows up to eight different players to assume control of their own Daimyo and command their fiefdoms. Depending on the game mode you pick there will either be seventeen or fifty total fiefdoms, and the AI will take control of every territory not picked by a human player. The goal, no matter how many players or territories, is to end one of your turns in control of every single fiefdom on the map. This thing includes a battery backup, which is good: playing a 50-fiefdom game can consume literal weeks of play, but don’t dawdle as your lords grow older and can even die of old age or sickness if you take too long fulfilling Nobunaga’s Ambition (heh heh…).

Nobunaga's Ambition menu

Who should I invade today?

Daimyos don’t just command armies though: there are resources to be managed; subjects to be satisfied (or pacified); diplomatic ties to forge and break; money to earn, spend and lose; assassin ninja to deploy; even the forces of nature are arrayed against you with the spring rains bringing the ever-present risk of flooding to your towns. Nobody ever said being leader was easy, but holy shit Koei, maybe a stat monitering dam building efforts is taking things a little too far?

Nobunaga's Ambition fight

MORTAL KOMBAT!! (Wrong game, Michael. -carl)

Because nothing is too insane for them to dump on gamers, Koei also made sure every single fiefdom in the game was period-accurate as to ruler, wealth, size, terrain, military skill, and a slew of other factors. Nobunaga’s fief (17) is easily the best in the game and in single-player mode is your intended starting point, but if you want a challenge beyond bumping up the difficulty, try playing one of the more average warlords and seeing if you can usurp Nobunaga’s territory despite his massive advantages. Koei also gives all AI fiefdoms a boost to their stats, so your rivals will be wealthier, hardier, and better-equipped under CPU control than yours. This includes Nobunaga, so I cannot stress how important it is that you play as him if you’re going it alone–I intuit the developers intended this since, you know, they called their game Nobunaga’s Ambition.

Nobunaga's Ambition Saito revolt

It’s not called “Saito’s Ambition” for a reason, people.

This is one of the most complex, insanely detailed strategy games ever released for the NES. Given Koei’s fanatical dedication to historical accuracy, it’s possible to play this cart and see a reasonably accurate portrayal of just what a nightmare trying to seize control of an entire nation without the help of massive voter fraud could be. Nobunaga’s Ambition is slow-paced and meant for gamers who can take a long view of events, not a game of light combat and personal battle strategy like Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tatics, or over-the-top one-against-a-million slaughter like the Dynasty Warriors franchise. There’s far more reading than action, and a lot of it involves numbers going up and down like yokels on a hayride. If that sounds boring, no one would fault you for passing over it. That said, how badass would it feel to succeed where Nobunaga himself could not? For further inspiration, please enjoy this retro ad goodie!

Nobunaga's Ambition ad

Gotta admit, that’s a badass tag line for a developer.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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