Review by Matt S.
I don’t understand why anyone thought to go through the effort of localising Gunma’s Ambition. Actually enjoying this game relies on the player having a not insubstantial level of understanding of Japanese culture, knowing something about a particular region of Japan that isn’t exactly a tourist trap, and enjoying a video game series that most haven’t tried. I get it, and I love Gunma’s Ambition, but I’m in the inconsequentially small minority there. While I appreciated the opportunity to play it, this thing is so niche, even my by standards, that I would be surprised if it appeals to any more than a tiny handful of people (outside of Japan).
Through much of its history, Japan was effectively broken down into mini-nations, with distinct leaders and separate cultures. Much like Europe split land up across small lordships swearing fealty to the overall nation, so too did Japan, but here those lordships exerted a much greater level of control over their regions and people. While Japan is now a unified nation, the traditional nationalism within its prefectures (states) continues on at a certain level, and people tend to be fiercely proud of the area that they come from.
Gunma is one of the more rural prefectures, and that means the city folk (Tokyo, Osaka, Sendai, Sapporo) tend to look down at the prefecture as something of a wilderness of bumpkins. People from Gunma, meanwhile, take a great deal of pride in the local produce in particular (and having been to Gumna myself, I’ve got to say that it’s not misplaced pride). The rivalry between prefectures and state-level cultures isn’t hostile, but it’s present, and that’s what Gunma’s Ambition satirises first and foremost. Your job is to collect local Gunma produce, which converts into “Gunma Points” (GP) and then use those points to convert the population of other prefectures to Gunma. Because they see the light of how great Gunma is, see?
There’s no way to lose at the game – the joke being that it’s inevitable that all of Japan – and eventually, the world – will see the light of how great Gunma is. That works as a secondary bit of satire, too, as Gunma’s Ambition also pokes a bit of fun at Koei Tecmo’s Nobunaga’s Ambition series (as the name suggests).
Looking at the screenshots, the map on the right hand side of the screen is very reminiscent of what you’d expect from a Nobunaga’s Ambition title. The music that plays in the background also fits the thematic tradition of that series. As much as I love the series, one fair criticism that you can make of it is that victory often is a matter of perseverance, where you slowly build up your forces and then roll one enemy city after another into your empire. That adds resources to your cause and you’ll hit a point in every Nobunaga’s Ambition campaign where victory becomes inevitable. There’s little recourse for a come-from-behind win and the other, smaller nations can’t spit out new armies and competent generals at the rate you can.
Gunma’s Ambition gives you that sense of inevitability immediately. While it might look like a strategy game, the other prefectures don’t “attack” you back, and once you convert them to join Gunma, they can’t be un-converted. The challenge in the game, such as it is, is collecting the resources with maximum efficiency and aiming to convert Japan in the fastest time possible. On the left hand side of the screen, resources drop down like ball bearings in a pachinko machine, and you need to manoeuvre a bouncing mini-map of Gunma to collect as many high value ones as possible. The better you do, the more rapidly you’ll accumulate GPs to get on with the conversion. With no online leaderboards, Gunma’s Ambition’s focus as a arcadey time trial experience seems a little misplaced… or would be if the development team were looking to make a game. I’m entirely sure that this was never meant to be anything but a throwaway joke.
I don’t know why so many developers behind satirical games try to make their work seem as cheap as possible, but Gunma’s Ambition does have the “Flash Game” look going for it. As you capture new parts of Japan, you add the resources of that part to your own resource pool, meaning that the resource will start to drop down into the pachinko mini-game. Putting aside how cheaply those resources are drawn, I did get a kick out of pulling up the dictionary and seeing what local goods are associated with each area. Like I said, if you travel around Japan enough you do come to realise how proud these people are of their own unique food and craft traditions, and seeing that arrayed in front of me was certainly a fun reminder of my own travels through the country.
Unfortunately Gunma’s Ambition’s joke only sustains it through the one play-through. There’s no real reason to aim for a better completion time, and the gameplay is far too shallow to sustain the concept beyond the joke. It’s a great joke, don’t get me wrong, but given how specific it is to the Japanese culture, and given how little the game has going for it beyond that, I can’t think of a more esoteric experience that I’ve had on the Nintendo Switch to date.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb