Sakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Columns

Platforms: Saturn
Released: 03/28/1997 (Japan)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Translated Name: Sakura Wars: Flower Division Battle Columns

A mere 6 months after the release of the original Sakura Taisen on the Sega Saturn comes the Sakura Taisen series’ second piece of spin-off software. Whereas the first piece was a somewhat odd digital newsletter, making the second piece a Columns game made all the sense in the world since Columns is also a Sega property. A gut reaction may be that this is going to be a lazily put together game, crossing the two franchises in the most basic ways possible. I would urge anyone who feels this way to suppress this opinion and actually give the game a try though, as it ended up being quite surprisingly good.

The style of play is pretty standard fair to anyone who has ever played a Columns game before, or just about any puzzle game really: Sets of 3 colored jewels fall down from above in columns, and you can switch the order in which the colors are stacked (though not the horizontal or vertical orientation of the piece itself. This is Columns after all, not Tetris!) as the column falls down. If you match three or more of the same colored jewels horizontally, vertically or diagonally those jewels will disappear and you earn points. One new feature that doesn’t appear in basic versions of Columns is the gauge allows you to take special actions. The more blocks you clear, the more your gauge fills up. When it builds up once, you’re given the choice of a few different actions: Attack, Save, or Defend.

Sakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Collumns - Game PlaySakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Collumns - Gauge Menu
The details found in this game are very nice. Notice Sakura and Iris actually holding controllers and playing the game.The menu that you see when your gauge fills up.

Choosing Attack will fill your opponents screen with extra blocks, Defend will clear away some of your own blocks, and Save will keep your gauge so that when it fills up again, the effectiveness of your actions will increase by one level (with a maximum of 4 levels). At higher levels, the “Save” option will turn into “Magic Jewel Column”. This drops a Magic Jewel Column which flashes different colors as it falls, and when it lands destroys all jewels with the same color as the one beneath it. This system obviously adds a big strategic element to the game, which fans of more modern puzzle games will no doubt appreciate.

The real appeal of this game lies in its content though, not in its mechanics. It features your standard one and two player modes, but it also includes Story and Cinderella modes. In Story mode you choose a character from the Hana Gumi members, and are immediately taken into a game that seems to be in exactly the same style as the first Sakura Taisen game! The LIPS (Live Interactive Picture System) has returned, complete with the same menu format for interacting with characters as in the original game. The difference here is that you are occasionally required to complete some Columns challenges (for example, clearing out columns above a certain line within a given time limit) that are certainly not for the puzzle game inept (I can speak to this, as I am one of them) as they don’t offer too much advise as to how to go about completing them. Either way, combining a puzzle game with the interactive nature of Sakura Taisen is a very interesting idea.

Sakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Columns - Iris AttacksSakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Columns - Tree Iris
Iris raining down the pain on me as a result of her attack!But alas, Iris ends up playing a tree!

The highlight for me was Cinderella mode. Like in Story mode, you begin by choosing one of the Hana Gumi members to play as. In this mode however, the girls are putting on a production of Cinderella and we are left with a classic conundrum: All of them want to play the character of Cinderella. So naturally they compete for this role the only way they know how: By playing Columns matches. You work your way through each of the Hana Gumi members (with a few surprise matches at the end), and when you defeat them they are relegated to more minor parts in the play. These parts include old hags, sorceresses, horses, and even trees! In fact if you complete Cinderella mode you even get a customized set of credits listing which characters played which parts.

Sakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Columns - Horse KannaSakura Taisen: Hana Gumi Taisen Columns - The Play
And Kanna gets to play a horse!It’s a happy ending for Sakura, as she gets to play Cinderella in the end! And check out Ogami’s Prince Charming costume!

All in all, this title really has a lot of great things to offer to Sakura Taisen fans. There is a ton of original art displayed in the background as the Columns matches are going on, a good amount of original voice acting is featured, and you can even customize the jewels to be tiny Sakura heads. It was so well put together that in October of the same year there would be a port to the arcades, which is not something that has ever occurred very frequently (the arcade games tend to come first). At any rate, there is plenty here even for those who aren’t particularly interested in or great at puzzle games, and this is a fine side-entry into the Sakura Taisen franchise.