One of the most successful games released for the Sega Saturn and prequel to the phenomenal Sakura Taisen 2, the original Sakura Taisen carved out a whole new genre for itself. Combining elements of dating simulation and strategy, the game was one of the most wanted games of 1996.
Playing the part of Ichirou Oogami, a graduate from the Japanese Naval Academy, you are assigned a new post working at a... theater? Yes, that's right, you become the new ticket-taker! Oogami, confused as he is, soon learns that the theater only serves as a cover-up for the real events happening. The theater is really the headquarters for the newest command of the Japanese Navy, called the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi, whose main members are girls who fight in giant, steam-powered mechs. Although Oogami is often taken aback by his superiors, the drunken Yoneda and the sensual and mysterious Ayame, he does his best to command the girls to victory, fighting the dread Hive of Darkness that threatens to bring Japan to its knees.
The gameplay usually has two different parts to it. During most of an episode (there are 9 episodes total), you spend a lot of your time wandering around the theatre. You can buy a bromide at the theatre shop from Tsubaki, chat with Yuri and Kasumi in the theatre shop, see a drunken Yoneda-kun, or (your real goal for this) score points with the girls, ranging from the child Iris (no, it's nothing like THAT!) to the VERY tomboyish Kanna. The game contains six girls in all, each with very different personalities. Also during this time, if you trigger the right event, you can play a girl's mini-game.
Once or twice during the episode, the Hanagumi are called into action. After watching a really cool CG sequence of the koubus (the mechs) being launched, the Hanagumi are advised of their target and ordered to begin. Each character has its own strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks. Some can move more spaces than others. To pull off a special attack the koubus bar must be full. Each koubu can heal itself twice in case it gets damaged (but Iris's special attack is healing). Sometimes (mostly later in the game) Oogami can perform a super special attack with one of the girls, which look very cool!
Probably the major draws to this game are the artwork and the voices. Kosuke Fujishima (of Ah Megami-sama fame) did the character design, and the same man who wrote for the Tengai Makyos wrote the story. I'm not sure who wrote the BGM, but it's mostly either cute little Japanese-esque tunes, or the big band feel from the 1920's. Each of the female characters (including Ayame-san) also has her own image song (which is usually played during that character's ending).
Sakura Taisen also features very famous seiyuu, including Chisa Yokoyama (Lucia from Eternal Blue, Sasami from Tenchi Muyo), the girl who played Diana the kitten in Sailor Moon, the woman who played Bloodberry in Saber Marionette J, and Tomizawa Michie (Rei from Sailor Moon).
Sakura Taisen has achieved a strong popularity in Japan and a cult following here in the states. With an OAV (Original Animation Video) having been released and the third installment for the Dreamcast underway, hopefully this series will continue on for a very long time. With a combination of typical anime, dating sim, strategy, a wonderful story, and very good music, the game definitely deserves to be recognized. Unfortunately, a port to the U.S. is unlikely, seeing as it is a very Japanese game and video game companies don't seem to think Americans are cultured enough for this sort of thing. Fortunately, Sakura Taisen is very easy to play and there are many, many walkthroughs and translations available for it. And, while it is still very easy to beat without either one of these (the strategy part is very easy to understand), if you really want to get into the game and interact with the characters, I definitely recommend picking up a walkthrough.
I recommend this game for anime, dating sim, or light strategy fans (even though the real strategy isn't fighting, but getting the girl you want.). Also, give Sakura Taisen 2 a try! Soundtracks are available, just in case you were wondering, and the OAV is being released in the U.S. by ADV (pick up the sub though, the dub is terrible!)
Oh, and check out my Sakura Taisen 2 review!