Would you play a fighting game based on the Japanese art of Kabuki? That was the question that Japanese developers Genki and Lightweight apparently asked themselves at some point in 2000. In Japan it probably would be an easier sell for development – both teams had already made spiritually similar traditional sword fighting games like Bushido Blade and Kengo - not to mention the theatrical dance art form has a significant place in Japan’s cultural heritage dating back to the Edo period.
In the US, 2001’s Kabuki Warriors was a launch title for the original Xbox, which is really the only conceivable reason that it saw a western release at all — the game was pretty much universally panned upon release and largely forgotten afterward. If you remember the name, chances are pretty good you havent played it; if you happen to stumble upon a video of it online (like I recently did), you probably won’t have any idea what’s going on, because it makes no attempt to really explain itself.
Given the history of the original Xbox’s launch, it wouldn’t be surprising if the original Japanese release of the game just happened to feature some English and was ported over wholesale. Even the actual instruction manual gives only the barest bones description of what the game’s premise is, and no historical context whatsoever. So if you bought this game at the Xbox launch and had no prior inkling of what Kabuki actually is (not that anyone probably did that) you would’ve been greeted with an oddly sensual CG cutscene and then thrust onto a map whose cities are all written in Japanese. Fight!
The fights aren’t real, though. The “blood” that comes is imaginary. Instead, you’re fictionally battling your opponent, acting out whatever the conflict of the play is supposed to be – or perhaps simply competing for the adoration of the crowd, since big players in the Kabuki world developed huge egos as the art grew in importance. Either way, the meter at the bottom of the battle screen tells you how much the audience loves you, and how many tips you’ll make from the match. That money is then used on transportation to the next town, and it continues on and on until you make it all the way to Edo.
Sadly, you don’t need to take in much of Kabuki Warriors to see that it’s not well-made (probably only having one attack button in a fighting game didn’t help). It’s doubtful anyone had much faith in its quality, rather than just another game to list on the Xbox launch roster.
But it’s also kind of sad, because the ideas are actually pretty interesting. The games strategy guide — yes, it had one, and yes, I looked it up — actually explains some of the game’s historical authenticity, like how the actors would make their entrances and exist on stage via trapdoor or via wires and how audience interaction was unavoidable due to small performance areas. (You could even do a Kabuki dance at risk of being left out in the open to get more tips, similar to R. Mika’s mic performance in Street Fighter V).
Sometimes concepts just don’t work out; Shakespearean Slugdown, which I just made up, would likely not have been received any better. Still, it’s worth watching some gameplay to see just how strange this little piece of game history is.