I Miss Rivalries in Senran Kagura

Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal’s faithful retelling of the original Senran Kagura Burst’s story is bittersweet. It’s a reminder of why I fell in love with the series in the first place, but it can’t help but also remind me of the fact that the later games have gone in a different direction that I find much less appealing. While I’m enjoying it more than I’ve enjoyed a Senran Kagura game in years, it doesn’t make me confident for the next game in the series if the way they’ve found to tell me a story I like as much as the first story is to just… tell me the first story again.

As much as I enjoy some of the characters introduced in later games, the apparent need to increase the cast size with each installment (it reached 33 playable characters before DLC in Peach Beach Splash) has obviously had serious negative effects on the games' ability to tell coherent and interesting stories and on its ability to develop its characters and their relationships. I’ve been lamenting that all along, but revisiting the Burst story has highlighted just how well its smaller cast is constructed. Each of the Hanzo students has a rivalry with a Hebijo foil who is specifically designed to emphasize their personal struggle in a way that makes them instant enemies now but fast friends once they understand each other.

Asuka, dedicated to understanding the way of the shinobi, is struggling with her grandfather’s advice that a shinobi must become both “a sword and a shield”. She encounters Homura, who suffered a betrayal in her youth that left her without a support structure resulting in her becoming an equally dedicated shinobi but one who just fights to feel alive. She shows Asuka what happens to a shinobi who is just a sword, and in so doing helps Asuka understand what it means to also be a shield - to have something to live for and something to protect.

Ikaruga, adopted into a rich and prestigious shinobi family when their biological child Murasame lacked the skill to become a shinobi, feels guilt for inheriting the family legacy in his place and pressure to be worthy of it. She encounters Yomi, who detests the rich after growing up in poverty and who gives away all of her own money beyond the amount she needs to stay alive. Ikaruga is forced to confront someone who hates her because of her station, someone she can’t convince of her worthiness.

Katsuragi hides her tragic and lonely past behind cheerful exuberance. With fighting (and, uh, groping) as her outlet, she craves a strong opponent. She encounters Hikage, who is all but emotionless but strong enough to truly challenge Kat, and their battles allow Kat to work through her emotions by awakening Hikage’s.

Yagyu is obsessed with protecting Hibari (whom we’ll get to in a sec) because she reminds Yagyu of the little sister she lost to a car accident. She encounters Mirai, whose history of being bullied means she hates being ignored. Yagyu doesn’t care about Mirai and just wants to get to Hibari, but Mirai won’t let her by without a fight. She forces Yagyu to take her focus off of Hibari and stop trying to save the sister she already lost.

Hibari, the youngest and weakest of her class, struggles with insecurity and feeling like a child (Yagyu’s overprotectiveness and her own sweet tooth and love of cute things don’t help). She encounters Haruka, the confident and sensual femme fatale (and sometimes outright dominatrix). Haruka sees Hibari as cute and doll-like, prompting her to prove herself as an opponent to be taken seriously.

I fully admit that Burst doesn’t take all of these stories to their full potential (the Yagyu/Mirai story in particular is kind of weak and Yagyu is still obsessed with Hibari in the end) but the setup here is incredible and later additions don’t come close. Some of the girls added in Shinovi Versus are foils (Yumi is Asuka without tolerance or belief in redemption; Minori is Hibari without the desire to grow up) but not generally in ways that set up interesting rivalries, and in later games they abandoned this approach entirely, dropping in characters who fill out various archetypes and are reduceable to one or two static traits. And like I said, I do like some of the characters who came later. But there was a lot more dramatic depth and room for character growth in the old approach, and I miss it.