Not long ago Senran Kagura Estival Versus was released to the English speaking video game market to very little fanfare. Estival Versus failed to make a seriously deep impression even with its over the top special edition box. Compare that to when the very first Senran Kagura was announced and its playful absurdness was something that seemed fresh in the English language portable game market. Now we are five games down the line, we see very little being written about Estival Versus beyond the required reviews.
Not to say there are none though. Sadly other writing about Estival Versus and games similar to it tend towards two rather shallow models:
First type being a complete dismissal of the game and a refusal to engage with it on its own terms. This can seem puritanical at best and the spread of national stereotyping at worst. That Japanese games in particular are singled out for this kind of focus has always made me uncomfortable. Especially as writers seem to want to push that a games perviness is somehow tied to its Japanese-ness.
But while that writing is simply born from having to deal with a game that you do not like, the other camp of thought is even worse. These articles are inherently reactionary, in that they are almost always written as a reaction to the previous kind of article, and are no less shallow. After the briefest acknowledgement of the game they are supposedly writing about these people only use their platforms to hurl venomous diatribes at those that dare hold any kind of differing opinion to them. We end up reading not a discussion of a game but a long angry forum post masquerading as an article.
So what is really wrong with Senran Kagura? While playing Estival Versus I came to a conclusion that there is a flaw that is built into the very core of Senran Kagura that stops it from reaching the kind of fun silly nonsense of other similar games like say Lollipop Chainsaw or a Hyperdimension Neptunia game.
The problem stems not so much from the fan-service inherent in the game but from the story that gives us the context for that titillation in the first place, in that there is none. Now you might disagree with me initially as while Senran Kagura can get quite melodramatic and serious it has plenty of light comedy moments in it. Indeed most of the games have strings of missions that are entirely comedic. Surely this meshes perfectly with the silly nature of the actual game?
I would argue not, even when engaged in a frivolous fight, such as in the opening few missions of Estival Versus, there is no acknowledgement of the absurd circumstances that we as a player in particular must work though. Thus the fighting parts of the game that we take part in seem entirely divorced from the story that is supposed to motivate us though the level (as actually playing Senran Kagura is bland at best and tedious at worst). Instead the mood whips around from serous story to silly service fighting game to silly story, and moving between two different types of ridiculous can be just as jarring as moving from morose to light hearted. The true problem lies with the lack of acknowledgement by the story and the characters of the inherently silly nature a fight in Senran Kagura. Characters speak like they are in a ninja battle out of ‘Shadow Warriors’ rather than the perverted strip fest that an actual player must deal with.
What is the solution? Well a hint can be found in Senran Kagura’s rhythm game spin off ‘Senran Kagura Bon Appetit’. In this game there is not enough time to create serious a story and so the entire game is totally on board with the absurd nature of its premise. That is exactly what you need when the main focus of your rhythm game is that it is also a cooking game… somehow; don’t ask, if you don’t already know it would take too long to explain.
What does this mean for the other Senran Kagura games? Well I would say to you that the solution is not to reduce the fan-service but to increase it! Go overboard and make seeing boobs the whole point of the game’s story. Have stripping your opponent be the whole purpose of the fight in the story rather than a side effect. How can this have any real stakes? Since such effort is made to animate clothes being torn off surely the focus of the characters motivation should be the clothes themselves!
Completely change the setting to be about Ninja fashion designers who secretly run Japan’s clothing industry. Have the fights be putting your very best design prototypes literally on the line so that you can destroy your rivals possible releases for the spring season. Revamp the schools to have different overall philosophies on what underwear should be worn to achieve the ideal panty shot. Get rid of the needlessly depressing yoma monsters that exist as the big bad yet are barely fought by the player throughout the games and if you must replace them put clear analogues of those who always seem to want to police what women wear. Oh look at that, without trying I found a far better way to work a serious message into a game about breasts. This also helps merge the dress up mechanic of the game with everything else that has always been completely ignored from the very beginning!
If Senran Kagura wants to be a game about boobs it need to go all in and embody everything about what such a game should be. By having a story that barely notices its own focus as a game Senran Kagura will only ever be half the game it should be.