I’m not going to tell you Harlem is magical. I lived there for a stretch, in a tenement that smelled of urine and had hallways dotted with rat blood. That’s because people peed in the elevator, and the super’s idea of pest control was a metal bat. Those blemishes don’t fade. It’s just that they’re eaten up in the tide of everything else. It’s Saturday salsa parties all spring beneath the Metro North tracks, the sweet reek of mofongo, and grousing about the weather with Anna from apartment 4J. These moments stick with me the most.
Yes, Harlem can be annoying as hell. I don’t want to hear reggaeton blasting out of ’87 Camry speakers at 9 a.m. That’s why Harlem’s family, though. Just because it has its irritating side doesn’t mean you don’t love it. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love gets almost everything about New York, especially Harlem, wrong. Yet its second level manages to capture that essential love for the neighborhood, even if it does fill the place with steam-powered mechs and filters it through a strange trans-Pacific mistranslation.
Released in Japan in 2005—it took another five years for the game to reach the States—So Long, My Love is actually the fifth game in one of Sega’s more obscure series, a weird collection of games that are part historical science fiction, part war strategy, and part dating game. Sakura Wars takes place during the first quarter of the 20th century, but instead of the Archduke Ferdinand beefing it and kicking off an era of global conflict, the peoples of the world band together to fight demons. Instead of the League Of Nations, there’s an international coalition of small armies that captain giant steam-powered bipedal tanks.
These squads are piloted by teams of beautiful young women who are invariably led by a young Japanese man. Naturally. Playing these games is kind of like watching a serialized anime. Most of your time is spent reading dialogue and getting to know characters, making decisions at decisive moments, with each episode culminating in a big robot-on-demon brawl.
Episode two of So Long, My Love, “Of The People, By The People, For The People,” is a disorienting experience for this former Harlem resident. Taking place in 1928, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, a little change in local atmosphere is to be expected. But when the demon fighter Shinjiro Taiga heads uptown for a meeting with his temperamental lawyer teammate, things get weird. Taiga gets chased right out of the neighborhood as soon as he shows up. His pursuers look like a gang of Polynesian punk rockers straight out of Mad Max.
At no point in time was Harlem populated by a gang of Polynesian punk rockers, but really that’s just one of the many bizarre attributes of Sakura Wars’ take on my old home. There’s a jazz club, appropriate for the era, but it’s sandwiched into a graffiti-laden, bombed out neighborhood that looks more like the blighted Bronx of the 1980s. Young Japanese men are chased out of dodge, but fiery redhead cowgirls like Taiga’s teammate Gemini are neighborhood fixtures. Even the aforementioned lawyer teammate is kind of an oddity: She’s a young black woman named Sagiitta Weinberg, for crying out loud. (For the English-language re-release, she was rechristened Cheiron Archer.) It’s not that the game is racist, just profoundly ill-informed at times.
Episode two is very much Ms. Weinberg’s story, and it sometimes drifts dangerously close to parody. She used to be a member of the same gang that chases you out of the neighborhood, but after one of her best friends was wrongly arrested, she devoted her life to studying the law. (Weinberg’s life as a cast member and mech fighter in the New York Combat Revue is really a side career. Oh, did I forget to mention that “Revue” part? These warriors also star in an all-female cabaret at the Lucky Lip theater, a giant playhouse that also transforms into your airship fortress. Try to keep up.)
At the beginning of this episode, Weinberg’s working for The Man, in the form of an evil development company that’s trying to buy up all of Harlem in order to build a shopping mall. Evil development companies back in the day had broader ambitions than just taking down the old community center, it seems. When you confront Weinberg, urging her to stand by her old home, she responds viciously. She says she’s only doing what’s right for the neighborhood. That’s when you challenge her to a mock trial to determine the fate of Harlem.
So Long, My Love could have gone off the rails at this point—if it could ever be described as “on the rails”—tumbling into a quagmire of anime silliness and racial caricatures. Not only does it manage to stay upright, the mock trial ends up as the level’s crowning achievement. In order to beat Weinberg at her own game, you have to gather evidence to prove that the developer is corrupt and that Harlem is worth saving. Some of these side adventures are as sitcom-ready as the “save the neighborhood” premise. You sneak into the Museum Of Natural History, for instance, to catch the evil developer bribing New York’s mayor. Afterward, though, you find yourself sitting down with the owner of a jazz club to talk about music’s role as “the soul of Harlem.” Later it’s just talking with the people that live there about how often they help each other out. None of these smaller moments play as mawkish. The jazz club may look historically out of place, but it’s not supposed to be a landmark. It’s just a good local hangout.
The trial itself has you standing opposite Weinberg in the ruins of a demolished building, recapping what you’ve learned about Harlem. Convincing Weinberg is only half the goal, as you also need to keep the crowd on your side. The developers are now boasting, predictably, that the shopping center will bring economic prosperity to the neighborhood. It’s a fight you can’t really lose, but it’s a moment when the silly surrealist parts of the game melt away. What you say to defend Harlem is true: The music, the food, and the neighborhood are all great things worth preserving, and they shouldn’t be threatened for the sake of short-term cash flow. For me, the trial reminded of neighbors I loved. In its awkward and inept way, So Long, My Love manages to capture Harlem. Maybe not its soul, but at least a piece of it.
It’s only after Weinberg comes to her senses, recommitting herself to the neighborhood and her friends, that the level loses its balance and descends into insanity. A witch in a golden thong shows up on a giant robot dragon, so you and the rest of the Combat Revue have to beat her up, at first in the streets and then in the subway system. Naturally. In that way, Sakura Wars can be a lot like Harlem. Right when it shows you its sweet side, it does something obnoxious. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, though.