Hordes of undead plague the earth, and the only one who can stop them is a bikini-clad samurai cowgirl. Abandon all hope of taste and decency–this is Onechanbara Z2 Chaos.
To see why this gratuitous display of girls and gore even exists, let’s travel back to the days of the original Playstation, to a magical land we call Japan. The publisher known as D3 Publisher had created a lineup of budget software known as the Simple 1500 series–so called because of each game’s 1500 yen price tag. (That very roughly translates to about 15 bucks.)
The Simple series was initially full of card and board games with titles like “the Solitaire” and “the Chess,” but gradually grew to include more substantial games in action, sports, and other genres. By the time these games reached the PS2 and became the Simple 2000 series, D3 Publisher had begun to employ schlocky, B-movie concepts to sell these budget titles.
The now cult-classic Earth Defense Force series got its start here, and a few obscure one-offs like Demolition Girl would get English localizations for the European market and go on to become bizarre curiosities for Western gamers.
But it’s specifically the 61st Simple 2000 game that interests us today. Titled the Onechanbara, a portmanteau of Japanese terms for “big sister” and “samurai films,” this 2004 game featured Aya, a protagonist whose interests included katanas, swimwear, cowboy hats, feather boas, and the extermination of the undead. It was developed by a company called Tamsoft, whose only other recognizable work is the fighting game series Battle Arena Toshinden.
The Onechanbara was, by all accounts, a very bad game, featuring monotonous combat through a series of dull, gray boxes that were considered “level design.” The questionable concept of “bikini girl versus zombie” was pretty much the game’s only entertaining aspect, and that concept was fully explored by the time you finished looking at the front cover.
While the box art held basically all of the Onechanbara’s entertainment value, the kitsch factor brought the game enough success to see a sequel. Multiple sequels, in fact, across multiple platforms. The series would even end up spawning multiple live-action film adaptations, which are of pretty much the exact quality you would expect.
The games didn’t see a worldwide release until 2009, when the 2006 Xbox 360 and the 2008 Wii games were released as Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad and Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers respectively. While perhaps not AS bad as the original game, these titles were still dull, slow-moving slogs through ugly, repetitious levels.
A few unique mechanics–like the need to occasionally clean the gore from your blade to keep it at peak effectiveness–kept the games from being totally valueless, but there wasn’t much charm there aside from seeing a schoolgirl delivering suplexes to the undead.
Those games reviewed poorly because, well, they were bad, and the series disappeared from Western shores for several years, during which time the games switched protagonists and started redeveloping their combat system.
Now, six years later, Onechanbara Z2 Chaos has arrived in North America with a downright lavish collector’s edition that pretty much cements the series’ turn from budget oddity to cult classic. This “Banana Split” edition includes the game! A full-color, feature-length manual! An art book! A soundtrack CD! Some downright Freudian disc art!
And a bonus DLC code for the Strawberry & Banana Surprise costume! Oh dear god. I’m pretty sure the FBI has a watch list for people who purchase packages like this, and I guess I’m now on it. Thanks, Onechanbara. We’ll… This needs to be addressed, but we’ll come back to it.
Regardless of questionable costuming choices, Z2 Chaos plays significantly better than its predecessors. You play as not one not two not three not five but FOUR lovely zombie-slayers, and you can tag between them at any time.
You have light and heavy attacks, either of which can be mashed into multi-hit combos. A chase move lets you home in towards nearby enemies, knocking groups of them into the air and into position for mid-air attacks. I generally found myself chasing towards a group of enemies, running through my current character’s basic combo, then as the last big hit comes down, switching to the next lady and continuing the combo.
It’s basic, but it moves fast, and seeing waves of enemies destroyed in the chaos of whirling blades can be pretty satisfying. And there’s significantly more complexity than that. …significantly. When you start the game, you’re greeted by way too many tutorial screens explaining way too many systems. There’s a meter that fills in over time to let you call in another character to fight with you simultaneously. There’s a meter that fills in as you attack which governs your use of special moves. There’s a meter that fills up as you get splattered with blood whichand lets you transform into a form that’s more powerful, but slowly drains your health. There’s a meter that fills up as your weapon gets splattered with blood which governs its effectiveness.
Speaking of weapons, every character has two, each of which has different damage properties and combo timing. The timing of those combos comes into play for cool attacks, which require you to avoid button mashing and time your attacks precisely for extra damage. If you manage to follow a cool attack all the way through to the end of the combo, then you get extra attacks and can then directly continue the attack with the next character. Dodging with precise timing gives you a moment of slow-motion invulnerability. You can purchase weapon upgrades. You can purchase rings to enhance your abilities. You can purchase healing items and other buffs. You can purchase additional moves and specials. There’s a lot of stuff.
There’s a mechanical density that, if nothing it else, at least sets it apart from the plodding, dull combat that filled out the other games. It took me roughly the length of the breezy, four hour campaign to get a grasp on most of the mechanics, but even after getting through most of the game on hard, I’m barely paying attention to how and when to use these options. I’m still mashing out basic combos and then just hitting the appropriate activation button whenever my meters fill up.
The game features a practice mode that’s actually pretty exemplary for character action games, and there’s just enough here that high level players will be able to do cool stuff with the systems, but for me, there’s not enough reason to engage with that level of strategy. My “mash and meter management” tactics got me perfect ranks on nearly every stage across multiple difficulty levels with barely an ounce of effort.
What this complexity actually does is add an almost accidental sense of discovery and progression. Because the game frontloads you with all these unique, interoperating mechanics, there’s no way you’ll figure them all out right off the bat. So in pretty much every level that followed, I figured out what another one of those flashing lights did. It’s not exactly good design–it’s an overly complex layering of systems over basic gameplay that doesn’t have much substance–but it serves to make the game interesting for the length of at least one playthrough.
And that’s what this idea of a campy, B-movie style game has been missing all along. Watching and laughing at a bad movie takes up maybe 90 minutes of your time, and it fills that time with fresh stuff to laugh at or cringe over–dialog, visual effects, and writing will always manage to find new, exciting ways in which to be terrible.
But bad games usually task you with hours of walking through repetitious levels killing the same enemies with the same moves over and over and over again. The entertainment value of laughing at bad game mechanics lasts for maybe 15 minutes, but you have to spend hours and hours continuing to engage with those mechanics in order to make it through the game.
Z2 Chaos is actually pretty successful at being a B-movie game (no not like the Bee Movie Game) because it keeps moving. Now don’t get me wrong–this is a bad game, and I could spend all day enumerating the ways in which it’s bad, from the PS2-level environmental graphics, to the terrible camera positioning, to the wild flailing that makes up boss battles, to the awkward touch pad quick-time events, to the total mindlessness of basic enemies, to the nonsensical story, to the not-quite elevator music that makes up the soundtrack, to the repetitive dialog during combat, to–well, you get the idea.
But Onechanbara’s entire appeal is its gaudy, kitschy terribleness, and enumerating all the ways in which it’s kitschy and terrible is missing the point. Z2 Chaos is very bad, but it’s not boring, and it’s not really since the days of full motion video that a game’s been so simultaneously awful and entertaining.
As for that banana split costume?
Well, think of it this way. Think of the scene towards the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, where Raiden is stripped naked after being captured. Naked Raiden is uncomfortable, degraded, and powerless, and the intent of thate scene is to drive home those feelings of discomfort, degradation, and powerlessness. Wearing a fruit salad for clothing is? It’s uncomfortable, degrading, and disempowering. And the intent here is to drive pre-order sales.
Onechanbara has continued to exist for eleven years because we still believe that this is what gamers look like and that this (sex!) is the best way to market to them. One sexy video game lady is not the end of the world, or the foundation upon which misogyny is built–but we need to recognize that a lot of our depictions of female characters are basically indistinguishable from pornogrophy. That pushes a lot of women away from this hobby and tends to make the entire community look like a gang of horny teenage boys.
Onechanbara. Play it if you like stupid shit.