Koei does a surprisingly convincing job of bringing its historic war sim to Game Boy.

Another major game publisher makes its debut on Game Boy: Koei, the durable simulation specialist that now comprises the better half of Koei Tecmo. And can you believe it, they come to Game Boy with… yes, a simulation. After suffering through a handful of really terrible licensed strategy RPGs from Bandai and Banpresto, Game Boy fans must have been relieved when Koei arrived and said, “Was it strategy? I will show you how!” Or perhaps not; this isn’t precisely the kind of thing young Game Boy fans would necessarily have been into. It seems better suited for the older types.

This handheld adaptation of Koei classic Nobunaga’s Ambition is, well, a handheld adaptation of Nobunaga’s Ambition. With all that entails. No doubt it had appeal to those who had been drawn to Game Boy by the likes of Yakuman and Tetris. For kids, however, Koei’s works tend to be a bit on the complex side—not to mention the opaque side. Compared to something like SD Sengokuden, Nobunaga’s Ambition has a lot more depth and substance; it also has a lot more math, along with far fewer cool robot fighters, and approximately zero in the way of player guidance.

The SD Sengokuden comparison isn’t frivolous, incidentally. That oddball Gundam game used strategy game mechanics to cover the same period of history as Nobunaga’s Ambition. Both sims take place in Japan’s warring states era, and the ambitious warlord Oda Nobunaga figures heavily into both games. The difference here is that Nobunaga isn’t depicted as a mobile suit, and you have to use intelligent leadership and resource management in order to win the day.

Nobunaga’s Ambition allows you to play as one of more than a dozen different 16th century feudal lords in their attempt to unite central Japan through alliances, conflict, and diplomacy. The Game Boy version follows on the heels of the NES game by the same name, which in turn was a console adaptation of an older game that had first appeared on Japanese home computers back in 1983. It was designed by Koei co-founder Youichi Erikawa, who (along with his wife) had launched the company five years prior to that, when they were both still in college. Nobunaga’s Ambition became their breakout hit, and it changed Koei’s focus as a software company from business applications to games—frequently with a strategic and historic bent that reflect the impact of this game.

By no means is this a straight conversion of a nearly decade-old PC title, though. Koei tweaked each new version of their golden goose with additional content and revamped graphics. The actual source version for the NES game was Nobunaga’s Ambition: Zenkokuden, 1986’s PC-based update to the original game that improved the graphics and expanded the scope of the campaign from 17 kingdoms to 50. Due to the limitations of the Game Boy platform, this conversion scales the adventure back considerably from the NES game—it offers far fewer menu commands per turn and narrows the scope of the campaign back down to the 17 central prefectures—while still retaining some of Zenkokuden’s revisions.

It’s not all about downscaling, though. At the same time, this port adds a huge number of generals for potential recruitment over previous versions. So, while Koei obviously had to put forth significant effort to get such an involved game up and running within the Game Boy’s limitations, this isn’t some stripped-down port. Instead, it makes simple compromises while attempting to maintain depth.

The interface graphics, for example, have been streamlined in order to make all the information you need to take in somewhat legible on the tiny screen. The color-coding used in other versions to denote territories is obviously out of the mix on a monochrome system; here colors are replaced by patterns, which gives the whole thing a sort of ’80s Mac game vibe.

What Nobunaga’s Ambition definitely doesn’t add on Game Boy is any sort of guidance or context. You begin the game by selecting your favorite warlord and rolling for their stat breakdown. You can roll and re-roll these as in an RPG, but each feudal lord of Japan has his or her own stat tendencies. That means you’re never going to be able to roll a completely terrible Nobunaga or Tokugawa, and you’ll never get an awesome Saito or Hetakeya.  Another factor in your selection of character to control will be that each ruler has a predefined territory based on the geography of those actual regions of Japan. Each one comes with fixed terrain advantages or setbacks, and their castle always appears in the same location, so you have to factor in those considerations irrespective of the lord’s personal stats.

It’s a lot to take in at once, and things don’t get any more accessible once you choose your campaign and leap into your quest to conquer Honshu. You’re dropped immediately into a menu screen full of stats and command options and left to your own devices. It’s definitely a game to play with a manual, or better yet with a walkthrough, because the in-game text does nothing to ease you in.

In short, this is a time-based campaign in which you attempt to jockey for control of Japan through conquest and alliances. Each turn comprises a season of a year, and time factors in to the long term of the action: Your daimyou can actually die of old age if you play for too long. Certain recurring factors come into play based on time of year, such as the prospect of a monsoon in the spring and the fact that you need to pay your army its salary each fall.

Mostly, though, you spend the game looking at a screen of icons and numbers. These represent things like your tax rate, the amount of cash and food you have on hand, and the commands you can execute per turn.

You’re allowed to take a single action per turn, which is to say per season. You can develop your kingdom’s infrastructure or hire soldiers and retainers, which costs money, or you can perform free actions like training up your army. Once you select your action for the season, the game updates you on notable actions by other leaders and the advent of events like a plague outbreak or a civil uprising. It all takes place in extremely abstract terms, and it’s difficult to get a real sense of your goings-on. 

Fortunately, this is one of those rare battery-backed Game Boy carts, so you can record your progress regularly and experiment with different actions. There’s no shame in this, since there’s a certain degree of randomness in every choice you make, and sometimes a computer action breaks the wrong way for you several years into a successful campaign. For instance, if you choose to invest in fields, you might enjoy a bumper crop, which you can sell off in exchange for cash… or nothing might happen. You can try to arrange an alliance with a rival kingdom through marriage, or send a ninja assassin to kill off another daimyou, both of which cost money and seem to have very expensive random outcomes.

The only aspect of the game over which you have any real direct control are the combat sequences, which play out by way of a simplistic war sim. You field an army and take turns moving your pieces around, clashing with rival forces. These engagements aren’t about total domination but rather conquering (or protecting) the region’s castle and the first regiment of the army. Once either of those elements has been conquered on either side, the battle is lost.

As the game proceeds, you continue to take turns and make choices that often have no immediate outcome or feedback. You fend off invaders and make occasional forays into the realm of conquest, until eventually you’ve conquered Japan… or else you lose. The game doesn’t necessarily end if your daimyou dies—if your castle is conquered, that’s it, but often you’ll have an opportunity to choose a successor when your leader falls.

It’s a difficult and complicated game, and it doesn’t help that there’s so little transparency in your actions. You spend a lot of time juggling numbers and diving deep into menus to peep the traits of various people or kingdoms, and it can be hard to know if you’re making the right choices until you manage to move the needle on conquest.

It’s a good game, of course, but this isn’t really the optimal format for it. I can’t honestly imagine anyone wanting to revisit this version of Nobunaga’s Ambition today. The series has shown up on nearly every platform imaginable by now, and this scaled-down version feels crowded and small compared to those alternative takes.

That said, you can easily see how Nobunaga’s Ambition would have clicked with its audience back in 1990. Even scaled down as it may be, this is a proper strategy simulation in portable form, with a no-fuss save feature—no passwords!—and a pretty solid recreation of one of the medium’s formative classics. It’s a no-frills, no-nonsense, no-holds-barred strategy title for Game Boy, and it’s the first of its kind. As with other portable firsts like Final Fantasy Legend and Super Mario Land, that gives it a certain historic import and makes it worthy of respect… even if time hasn’t been entirely kind to it.