Keiji Inafune is a man guilty of many amazing things. From bringing Mega Man to life on paper to producing some of the goofiest zombie games you ever saw in the Dead Rising series, the man has had his fair share of triumphs. One of his greatest triumphs came in the form of a Playstation 2 launch title released in the year 2000 in Japan. This game was called Onimusha and is one of the most balls to the wall insane games you will ever play.
First, let’s have a little history. During the late 1990s, Capcom was going through a renaissance. After milking the Mega Man and Street Fighter franchises for all they were worth, Capcom finally found new teats to squeeze in the form of a little survival horror game called Resident Evil. After the first installment in this series became a best seller, Capcom proved themselves to be nothing if not predictable by pumping all the creativity out of their newest cash cow.
They soon began to implement the design and themes found in Resident Evil to other new intellectual property in the hopes that they would find the same kind of success. This blatant self-plagiarization would spawn such beloved series such as Dino Crisis and Devil May Cry, but would also give birth to a survival-horror themed action game with Keiji Inafune at the helm.
Developed for the original Playstation before being moved to the Playstaion 2, Onimusha was meant to be a hardcore action title set in the Sengoku period of Japan. This meant the player would be playing as samurai warrior who would do battle with legendary historical figures such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Nobunaga Oda, the game’s central antagonist. While this sounds fairly standard considering Oda had been featured in video games before, most which were historical strategy games with few distinguishing features. The key difference between those games and Onimusha was the way Inafune and his team chose to present their lead villain.
In history, Nobunaga Oda has been depicted as both a valiant hero and an abominable demon for essentially the same reasons. The man was really, really good at killing people. He was also really good at conquering medieval Japan until his untimely death put a pre-mature end to that dream. The Onimusha team decided it would be more fun to explore Oda’s villainous reputation by portraying him as a literal demon lord complete with flesh eating monsters from Hell at his beck and call (see what I did there?)
The first Onimusha game essentially cast Oda in the role of Dracula and gave the player control of a samurai warrior by the name of Samanosuke, this game’s equivalent to Simon Belmont. These characters combined with the game’s skill oriented mechanics and heavy emphasis on castle exploration made the game feel less like a traditional samurai game and more like someone was rebooting Castlevania through the lens of a Kurosawa film.
To top it all off, the game would present itself as neither a pure action game nor a pure horror game by presenting elements of both to create something unique. Because the game was made during the height of the Resident Evil craze, Inafune’s team decided to implement fixed camera angles, tank controls, and limited resources into the game’s mechanics. This forced the player to think carefully while navigating the game world despite how powerful Samonosuke was as a fighter. Because unlike Resident Evil, Onimusha allowed players to hack and slash their way through the horrors the game presented them, provided they had the skill and patience to fight with finesse. Combined with the limited amount of health items, the game proved itself to be both a harrowing and exciting experience.
This did not mean the game was any kind slouch when it came to the horror elements found in its take on survival horror. The game takes place mostly at night, giving it the appropriate spooky atmosphere along with all of the mutilated corpses of fallen samurai littering the game’s pre-rendered backgrounds. Along Samonosuke’s journey, the player will discover several journals written by side characters describing how much Oda’s demon army loves to snack on the delectable entrails of humans. These function much like the journals found in the earliest Resident Evil games as they helped to expand the universe while also filling the player with a sense of dread and purpose. While future games in the series would gradually filter out these more horrific elements, the original Onimusha probably has the most memorable atmosphere because of them.
The first Onimusha game continues to be one of the best games on the Playstation 2 and a prime example on how to make a launch title. Borrowing elements from both history and previous hit games, Keiji Inafune and Capcom were able to craft a game filled with personality, charm, and a unique aura all its own, much like how one might describe Inafune himself. It is definitely a game worth checking out for the uninitiated and one well worth revisiting for older fans.