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Romance of the Three Kingdoms (NES) artwork

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (NES) review


"After a short hour into a playthrough, the player may feel as though they've accomplished nothing---this is likely true. Do not mistake: there is strategy in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it is simply difficult to extrapolate when you are falling asleep in your chair."



"So real," claims the back of Romance of the Three Kingdoms' box, "you will swear you're living in second century China!" That claim is very bold and---judging by the accompanying screenshots---second century China was the most pixelated of centuries. The idea of an NES game attempting to capture genuine, real-world history is, however, compelling, and should the game meet even a fraction of its claim it would still prove very satisfying.

Those that do not know what the big deal is with Romance of the Three Kingdoms will not enjoy it. What such individuals will find is a very slow, very primitive strategy game where menus redraw the screen, bringing even the simplest of tasks to a snail's crawl. They will find a game with so many characters with so many Chinese names that are unpronounceable and easily confused to the average westerner that the take of keeping track of them is nearly impossible. Such individuals may even comically claim that the game is true to its claim of faithfulness to the 2nd century because it plays like it was made in the 2nd century.

The characters and scenarios in Romance of the Three Kingdoms---I use scenario loosely here, since these scenarios merely affect the states with which your player starts the game---are based on those from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an epic Chinese novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. The novel is part historic---itself drawing heavily from Chen Shou's historical Records of the Three Kingdoms---but mostly fiction. There is a seemingly limitless supply of characters in the story, and within a single page the reader may witness the fall of a general, meet 3 new characters, and witness 2 battles and a dozen deaths.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not a work that receives the attention in the West that it deserves. It is not uncommon for undergraduate students to be assigned the Iliad or the Aeneid, but students beyond Asian History will rarely see this novel. This is truly a shame. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a monstrously beautiful piece of historical fiction with a cast of characters proportionally memorable to its size.

It is not unfair to factor the book into a discussion of the game. In fact, the game itself invites this dynamic between the two; nearly half the instruction manual is dedicated to describing the significance of its characters. The significant appeal of Romance---perhaps its only appeal these days---is its association with this literary masterpiece.

For a game based on a book with so much political intrigue, however, there is surprisingly little to do. The player will often feel a sense of overwhelming boredom while playing Romance, grinding the same actions without getting any real feel of accomplishment. This isn't RPG grinding, where an hour of work can show a noticeable difference in combat prowess as you lay waste to a tricky boss; the grinding in Romance may simply net you a few extra points of damage in combat. The thick layer of metaphorical molasses that covers the whole user interface exacerbates this problem.


After a short hour into a playthrough, the player may feel as though they've accomplished nothing---this is likely true. Do not mistake: there is strategy in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it is simply difficult to extrapolate when you are falling asleep in your chair. The game revolves around managing the delicate balance between drafting peasants into your military machine and allowing the civilian population to increase so that higher taxes and rice can be collected each fall. There are several attributes for each of your generals that are very strong influences on how effective that general's army will be during combat, and the path the player takes to improve those attributes will be the biggest measure of success.

Playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms can best be summarized as primitive. It is never "bad" in any sense of the word; it has just soured with age. No stats are broken and random chance plays very little into outcomes, but demystifying such things as three stats named "loyalty" and having the patience to wait 2-3 seconds as the screen refreshes for seemingly every action really can't be described as fun. Later NES games proved more apt with its hardware and deeper in their mechanics---Koei's own games on the platform utilize many of Romance of the Three Kingdoms paradigms, but are far better in their execution.

So what are we to do with Romance of the Three Kingdoms in 2011? It is not bad, but it is entirely dated, and about the only thing the game shares with the book on which it was based is the names of generals. Is Romance of the Three Kingdoms relevant today or should it be shelved in favor of later titles developed by Koei?

That is a question that every lover of the NES simply must ask at some point. Many games on the platform have a level of genius---there is no better word to use---that is unique and timeless. Games like Mega Man 3, Super Mario Bros 3, Dragon Warrior IV, Kirby's Adventure, and perhaps a dozen others immediately come to mind. Then there's Romance of the Three Kingdoms; is its greatest quality the fact that it spawned a superior sequel?

There is something about Romance of the Three Kingdoms that is difficult to replicate and likely impossible to explain. Watching Liu Bei slowly retreat over a mountain and take refuge in castle as I, Cao Cao, set fire to the city, evokes a strange feeling. Romance may only share the names of the novel's characters, but there is amazing power in those names. Let your imagination carry you a bit and you may feel a strange connection to the history the game represents. It may be the primitive graphics, it may characters that, like a coloring book, offer the player glimpses of something that their mind can bring to life, but if one reads Romance of the Three Kingdoms the novel, then plays the game late at night without any distractions, those 8-bit can take on a very strange life. Perhaps there is something to the claim Koei makes on the back of the box after all.

Rating: 6/10

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (November 27, 2011)

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honestgamer posted November 27, 2011:

This was a terrific review, dagoss, and it's good to see you contribute to the site again. I haven't read the story on which this series of games is based, but I've played some of Koei's later games (including some in the RotTK series) and I can understand the feeling that there's a bit of magic hidden there underneath the rough crust. I do own this game on cartridge for the NES, I believe, so perhaps one day I'll play it. By the way, when you say "exasperates the problem", do you mean "exacerbates the problem"? I think you probably do. Otherwise, your writing throughout was flawless and you're probably one of the only people who could write a review of this game today and make it seem so intriguing.
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wolfqueen001 posted November 27, 2011:

Wow! Are you reviewing again, dagoss, or was this just a one-time thing? Either way, it's exciting to see you around again. It's been years since I even talked to you last, and wouldn't be surprised if you've entirely forgotten me. But that's alright.

I really enjoyed the review despite knowing nothing about the book on which the game is based. I've heard of it, of course, but like many people you describe, have never read it. Perhaps I'll do that one day, though I likely won't play this game afterward. I think I'd grow impatient with the sluggishness of the whole thing, from what you describe. Still, it is neat to see that the game can still have some sort of appeal despite its age and niche target audience.

Anyway, I hope to see you write more as time goes on, but if not, that's alright, too. I wish you well.
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dagoss posted November 27, 2011:

That's the word! I knew I had it wrong; thanks.

Thanks for the positive comments. Sorry for not posting many any reviews in like a decade. I've started a few but never brought any to fruition. I got into this game though, largely because I couldn't find anyone to talk about it with.

RotTK (the book) is very good, but extremely long. Robert Moss's translation, which is the best available, is about 1,2000 pages, and the shear number of characters can be very difficult to follow (at least, they were for me---I made a list for reference as I went).

How could I forget you Wolfie; you're on my Facebook page thing.
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honestgamer posted November 27, 2011:

I'm really hoping that HonestGamers can become a great place to talk to people about games both old and new, dagoss. That's always been the goal, of course, but that's really a core focus on the site now. I hope that you'll stick around and be a part of that. I don't believe that there's really a great place for gamers to get together and seriously discuss the older games (on multiple platforms) with a good audience made up of fellow retro gamers without it all turning into flame wars. HonestGamers can be that place if enough of us really want it to. Thanks again for your newest contribution!

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