There has been an enormous number and diverse range of strategy games across all hardware formats. Even if you narrowly focus on just Japanese titles with an RPG slant, the genre is difficult to summarise. However, two of the leading series which readers will recognise are the Shining games (Shining In The Darkness, 1991 / Shining Force, 1992), predominantly on Sega formats, and Fire Emblem for Nintendo (1990). Both series have an enduring pedigree and loyal fans; in both, you'll command groups of distinct heroes in a fantasy-medieval scenario as they engage in a series of turn-based tactical battles.

Another landmark strategy series is Langrisser, which started on the Mega Drive in 1991 but would also grace formats by Nintendo, NEC/Hudson, Sony, Bandai, plus Windows computers. Receiving releases for roughly 28 years – and given Western audiences' love for strategy – it's sad that its only official release outside Japan was the first game, localised as Warsong. It's equally sad that Satoshi Urushihara's gorgeous cover artwork was jettisoned in favour of a generic dude on a horse, but Warsong did at least review well. Featuring a rich, complex set of mechanics and a scenario inspired by real-life conflicts, we were excited to speak with the military enthusiast behind it all: Masayuki Suzuki.

Masayuki Suzuki, the main behind Langrisser — Image: John Szczepaniak

"Masa-san is actually a huge military otaku!" says Satoshi Nakai, before both himself and Suzuki burst into laughter, hinting at a long-time in-joke between them. He's not wrong, as Suzuki attended our interview dressed in a military-style khaki garb, proudly displaying a Langrisser t-shirt. "I was a big war game nut, and very into military affairs!" admits Suzuki with a grin. "The title which I made the most significant contribution was the first Langrisser for Mega Drive. I created the original designs for the game systems and characters, did the graphics, wrote the story, designed the levels, and balanced the game difficulty all by myself."

We've been here before, having interviewed both gentlemen regarding the Assault Suits series and the games of NCS / Masaya. The names NCS and Masaya essentially belong to the same entity - and in the West, it was probably best known for big robots (Assault Suits) and big muscled dudes (Cho Aniki). However, the company produced an extremely diverse range of games from the mid-1980s through to the millennium, including one-shot classics like Gynoug, and import favourites like the Shubibinman tetralogy.

More significantly, Masaya contributed to the formative days of the turn-based strategy genre. While Langrisser became its flagship strategy series, several earlier Masaya games laid its foundation. Obviously, the concept of turn-based strategy is older than chess itself, but Masaya's Elthlead from 1987 sits between the genre's emergence in videogames from around the end of the 1970s (including titles like Koei's Nobunaga no Yabou from 1983), and the popular and well-established series of Famicom Wars (1988), Fire Emblem (1990), Shining Force (1992), and so on. Langrisser itself deserves to be on this latter list, having competed against the aforementioned three. Although you seldom saw Masaya's strategy titles outside Japan, the strategy titles from various other companies would have been developed with an awareness of Masaya's work.

Suzuki started his career at Taito, doing pixel art on arcade games like Wyvern F-0 and Metal Soldier Isaac II. At NCS / Masaya, his first project was a nude quiz game, followed by four strategy titles which, arguably, were the experimental precursors for Langrisser. The company produced other strategy titles, like Lightning Vaccus: The Knight of Iron and Hisou Kihei Kai-Serd, but Suzuki worked on these four specifically; it's worth noting since the entire workplace would have exuded strategy and tactics.

Elthlead (PC-88, Sep 1987) was Masaya's first strategy title. You position troops in "regions" on an overworld map before switching to localised battle maps containing a misaligned grid of squares. Gaia no Monshou (PC-88/X1, Sep 1987) followed and was later ported to PC Engine. Next was Dione (PC-88, Mar 1988), a strategy game published by Hudson, bearing a suspicious similarity to Hudson's later-developed Nectaris. Finally, Gaiflame (PC-88/X1, Mar 1988), which was like a futuristic version of Elthlead.

"The basis for Dione was a science-fiction proposal that was floated simultaneously while planning out Elthlead," adds Suzuki. "Hudson approached us initially because we had experience with strategy games, having already released games such as Gaia no Monshou. They wanted to release a similar computer game, so they proposed the idea of Hudson and NCS working together to release a new computer strategy game."

He worked on a couple more titles, including Assault Suits Leynos / Target Earth, then created the epic saga which defined him. Except initially, the Japanese (ラングリッサー) was romanised as "Lungrisser", and only after the third game did it adopt the name we now use.

"The word Lungrisser comes from the original design document," begins Suzuki, explaining that "it was originally 'Light Ritter', using the German word for knight. But 'Light Ritter' didn't sound good to me, so I just sort of came up with a more mellifluous title. <begins melodic enunciation> Li-li-li... la-la-la... ritter... risser… Lungrisser! Personally, I liked the letters L and U, so at first, I wrote it as Lungrisser, which was used for the first two games. Then there was Der Langrisser, or 'The Langrisser' in German. But in German, you don't use the letters L and U to make the 'la' sound. So I changed it to Langrisser, to adopt a completely German-style spelling."

A little later, Suzuki would describe how the Russian and Korean militaries influenced the game, but first we investigate this German angle - why the fascination? "Maybe it was a case of chuunibyou", laughs Suzuki, introducing us to a distinctly Japanese cultural artefact. He then adds, "In Japan, we often use the phrase chuunibyou, which means 'middle school syndrome'." Nakai then interjects, "Basically fantasizing about the types of things that 8th-grade boys think are cool. The narcissism that accompanies that stage of puberty." Suzuki nods, "To Japanese people, the German language just sounds cool."

We mention that we noticed a distinctly German or European medieval aesthetic to Langrisser. (It's an idea which would ripen into a full-fledged feature one day.) "That's my fault!" laughs Suzuki. To which Nakai then teases, "Wow, so the name was really kind of meaningless!" We all laugh for a time, and then Suzuki adds, "I liked the sound of it. And you use a lance, which is also L and A. I liked that, so I just went with Langrisser. Only a few people know about this."

Langrisser's Japanese packaging, featuring Satoshi Urushihara's iconic artwork

So we know Langrisser was influenced by the German language and historical examples of medieval combat, but what about the influence of other games? This is why accurate history and context are so important, because looking at the release dates, both Fire Emblem (1990) and Langrisser (1991) were released in April, one year apart, hinting that maybe the latter took inspiration from the former. Of course, we know this can't be the case, but we broach the subject anyway, so as to have an official statement.

"It didn't really influence us at all," confirms Suzuki. "After all, Fire Emblem was announced after Langrisser had already started development within Masaya." No, the actual influences were Masaya's own aforementioned Elthlead, Gaia no Monshou, Dione, and Gaiflame. In fact, several characters in Elthlead later appear in Langrisser.

"That was simply my own personal touch," says Suzuki. "I had a habit of taking my favourite characters from past games and using them in another game. And, of course, I was the one who created the story for Elthlead as well as Gaia no Monshou. I also created all of the characters and story for Langrisser. So it was natural for me to bring my favourite characters over into the new game."

Mega Drive enthusiasts may also have noticed another crossover, since the Japanese character ランス・カルザス appears in both Target Earth (Rance Culzas) and Warsong (Lance Kalzas). "Yes, that was my idea," confirms Suzuki. "I put him in Leynos, and was quite fond of him, so I put him in Langrisser, too. <laughs> With Langrisser, I constructed a relationship diagram for characters and included sub-episodes in the scenario. At one point, I added a rival, kind of like Gundam's Char Aznable, to increase the game's impact. This was the return of Lance from my previous game, Leynos. I inserted into Langrisser the 'becomes an ally at the end' idea that was cut from Leynos - because in Leynos, in the end, he died for what he believed in."

Over the course of our chat, a familiar misconception pops up, one that, sadly, a lot of Japanese developers have. "I did not think many people would be interested in an article about Masaya," says Suzuki at one point, with both he and Nakai surprised at our encyclopaedic knowledge of their careers. We reassure them their games are beloved outside of Japan; on RHDN, for example, there are currently five completed fan-translations for various Langrisser titles. We also point out how the majority of US and European magazines scored Warsong in the high '80s, and in fact, Videogames & Computer Entertainment awarded it the "Best Strategy Videogame" in its "Best Games of 1992 Awards" (#49, Feb 1993). Not to mention it's one of the favourite games of Time Extension founder Damien McFerran. In fact, Warsong was so beloved we wondered if Suzuki had any idea why the sequels were never picked up for localisation.

"Langrisser was released overseas as Warsong," nods Suzuki, casting his mind back a few decades. "I remember being asked to revise the graphics of the female characters in Warsong and even doing revisions myself. As for it receiving awards, this is the first time I've heard of that. Unfortunately, I do not know why the sequels weren't localised."

Langrisser became Warsong in the west

Today you can enjoy many of the mainline entries in English, each one of which improved and built on the original, either through fan translations or official remakes. Naturally, we spent time asking Suzuki about each of the sequels he worked on and how the entire grand saga knits together. We also wanted to know, which was his favourite? "My favourite is Der Langrisser for the Super Famicom," he reveals. "I was the one who came up with the idea of a branching story that allowed the player to join the enemy side. I also balanced the special abilities of each army."

While Langrisser's western localisation in the early '90s was never built on, the series gained enough notoriety in recent years to see instalments launch internationally. While 2016's rather lamentable Langrisser Re:Incarnation Tensei on Nintendo 3DS is best left forgotten, the first two games were lovingly remade for Switch and PS4 in 2020, while a smartphone version continues to receive new content even to this day. It's safe to say that while Langrisser isn't as famous as Shining Force or Fire Emblem, it continues to find its audience in the modern era. Oh, and Satoshi Urushihara's artwork arguably sets the high water mark for this kind of thing; it's a shame, then, that he is better known these days for creating 'hardcore' adult imagery than for his contributions to series like Langrisser and its spiritual successor, Growlancer.

Sadly, our day with Suzuki would have to draw to a close, and it felt like there simply wasn't enough time to discuss everything we wanted. So we asked Suzuki if he had any final thoughts and what his future plans were. "Personally, I'd like to continue my military research, which has always been a passion, and maybe write a book or something," he explains. "I'm collecting Japanese military manuals and other documents from the Second World War. A lot of the old documents are falling apart, so I'm in the process of converting them to PDFs and donating the originals to museums. Some of the older ones are from over a century ago, including books written before the Russo-Japanese war."

Clearly, Suzuki also felt there hadn't been enough time, since when we returned home, there was an email from him stating:

Tomorrow I'll send you some of my notes about Langrisser's AI and scenario. Please keep in mind that these aren't official documents. They're informal, intended for my own amusement. Also, they use a lot of military jargon. If there's anything you don't understand, please don't hesitate to ask. For example:

OMG = Operational Manoeuvre Group, the former Soviet armoured division that, as part of the Soviet strategy at the time, was deployed deep into enemy territory after their military was able to breach enemy lines.

Ney's Cavalry Assault = Largest cavalry-only assault in history, committed by the French army's Michel Ney against the British at Waterloo, during the Napoleonic Wars.

And so on. Furthermore, as these are just my notes written after the fact, there are errors. These are not materials created as part of the official development process. Rather than revealing the actual secrets of Langrisser, these documents are about how Suzuki was able to adapt his own personal interests and philosophies into Langrisser. While the focus is primarily on Langrisser, a few other games that Suzuki was involved with appear as well. Please think of them as describing the contents of Suzuki's brain, viewed through the lens of Langrisser.

As promised, we received two documents soon after, totalling 5,000 Japanese characters. The man - nay, the legend - had quite literally written two long-form essays to supplement the questions we'd asked days earlier.

Initially, we considered chopping them up for this feature, but ultimately decided to use the in-person interview for the Making Of, while preserving the integrity of these documents, which we now provide to you over the next two pages.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these two documents is how Suzuki meticulously wove both narrative and mechanics together, each influencing the other, in a perfectly organic fashion. Decades later and developers still struggle to merge story and gameplay, often shoehorning one or the other in, or even ignoring one aspect completely. These documents are a testament to the fact the best games can integrate both symbiotically, and should be considered a methodology to learn from.

Masayuki Suzuki truly is a master of the craft.