By Tyler Lubben / October 26th, 2013
|Title||Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon
|Developer||Konami, Entertainment Osaka|
|Release Date||April 1998|
|Rating||ESRB – E|
It’s good to learn about other cultures. As a little Tyler Jr. growing up in America’s heartland, I didn’t exactly get a lot of exposure to the country that was giving me all the great games I loved. Back in the early 90s, getting my education entirely from Street Fighter 2, it was my assumption that Japan was full of karate men and sumo wrestlers fighting on roofs. I’m not even sure if I understood the concept of other languages. Imagine my surprise as a fifth grader firing up Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the first time, and witnessing this:
Needless to say, there was a bit of a culture shock.
The Mystical Ninja franchise, while virtually unknown here in the US, has a long history in Japan. Known as Ganbare Goemon, the franchise is set in a fantastical version of Japan’s Edo period. The game’s protagonist, Goemon, is loosely based on the Japanese folk hero, Ishikawa Goemon, who was said to steal from rich and corrupt lords, and give the spoils to the oppressed; something like a Japanese version of the West’s Robin Hood. The franchise has a large collection of games, as well as an anime, but very little of it ever made it across the Pacific.
One previous title did make it to the US prior to this 1998 outing. The Legend of the Mystical Ninja on the Super Nintendo was an entertaining little game with equal parts Zelda-style combat and 2D platforming that followed the adventures of Kid Ying and Dr. Yang (known now as Goemon and Ebisumaru, respectively). While fun, the game fell into obscurity, and the franchise wouldn’t make another appearance in the US until the Nintendo 64 title we’re looking at today.
After getting thrown out of a store, Goemon and Ebisumaru are stunned to see a giant peach-shaped spaceship descend from the sky and fire a beam at Oedo Castle, warping its shape and filling it with monsters. Goemon and Ebisumaru then race off to the castle to save the Lord and Princess Yuki. This sets off an adventure all across Japan, as Goemon and company work to combat the group known as the Peach Mountain Shoguns wherever they may be. Along the way, Goemon and Ebisumaru team up with Secret Ninja Agent Yae, and robotic ninja, Sasuke, whose unique abilities will help overcome various enemies and puzzles.
While previous Mystical Ninja games were generally 2D outings, Goemon is a fully 3D affair, giving players a huge game to explore. Towns, the wilderness and dungeons are made up of large areas, and players can fight enemies, converse with townsfolk and complete dungeons at their own pace. Even though the story itself is pretty linear, the sheer size of the game ensures that you never feel constrained. While there’s usually a very specific path that players will need to take to advance the story, the areas that make up the game just beg to be explored, and those who stray from the beaten path will often be rewarded with extra money, health or Lucky Cat Dolls, which will increase maximum health. With the linear story, it comes as no surprise that the narrative moves along at a fairly brisk pace, and players will usually know what to do or where to go next. Just in case, however, the resident fortune teller in Oedo Town can tell players what needs to be done next, for a fee.
Goemon, Ebisumaru, Yae and Sasuke are all playable once joining the party, and players can freely cycle between them with a push of the down C-button. Each character has a unique array of weapons and items that will come in handy in different situations. For example, early on in the game, Goemon receives a Hookshot-like Chain Pipe that will allow him to attack enemies from a distance, as well as latch onto Star Blocks to cross gaps. Meanwhile, Ebisumaru eventually acquires an item that can reveal hidden enemies and items, and Sasuke has bombs that can be used to blow out walls. In this way, players will constantly be switching between characters to solve different puzzles, ensuring that every member of the team sees a decent amount of playtime. Players have an unlimited supply of thrown items, so long as they have the money. On top of using money, or ryo, to purchase items, it is also used as the ammunition for ranged weapons. With Goemon, it makes sense, as he actually throws ryo at enemies. It is less logical when throwing kunai and bombs, which also seem to be powered by the almighty dollar. Even so, it at least helps to keep things organized. Rather than worrying about multiple ammo types, money can be easily monitored at all times. In terms of combat, it really comes down to personal preference. I usually found myself fighting as either Yae or Sasuke most of the time, as their bladed weapons would cause enemies to comically split in half when defeated.
Aside from these tools, each character will also learn a magical skill that will further help with puzzles. While not particularly useful in combat, magic is helpful in reaching previously inaccessible areas by means of shrinking, flying or swimming underwater. Goemon’s magic, however, is woefully underutilized. In the entirety of the game, his skill– increasing his strength to move metal blocks– is only needed a grand total of two times.
Mystical Ninja’s graphics just ooze charm. As you can see from the screenshots, the characters and environments are vibrant and colorful. More often than not, the environments are great to look at, especially the background images. From beautiful dusk skies to starry snowy night settings, almost every area that players travel through offer something to enjoy. While most of the game’s non-player characters only have basic walking animations, the four members of your team are well-animated. Running, jump and attacking animations are quite detailed. Some normal animations are pretty amusing, as well, like Goemon’s worm-like crawl, or Ebisumaru wiggling along on his back. Additionally, taking from the general anime facial styles, characters’ faces change based on what is happening. Faces glow with happiness when finding important items, they wince when taking damage and show great determination when attacking. It helps make your party seem just a bit more lively than what would normally be expected from a N64 game.
What can I say about the storytelling? A few words come to mind– humorous, nonsensical, ridiculous. There are very few points in the game in which the story actually takes itself seriously. Even finding out the villains’ ultimate plot may leave you saying “…Seriously?” Perhaps it was a strange localization, but some of the game’s jokes are eye-rollingly lame. Ebisumaru, in particular, seems to really enjoy hamming it up during cutscenes, making it very difficult to be absorbed in what the game may be trying to say. And yet, with that said, that may be the entire point. Throughout the game’s cutscenes, players can hear the sounds of an audience during the events on-screen. Laugh tracks are plentiful, as well as gasps and other such reactions. This leads me to believe that the story isn’t meant to be taken seriously, like a sitcom with purposely cheesy dialogue. I mean, how seriously can you take a main villain whose name is Spring Breeze Dancin’?
While most of the game’s enemies are pretty simple to defeat, only needing one or two hits to finish off, the bosses are a different story. While each boss has a fairly simple pattern that players will have to follow, they also have quite a bit of health. Boss fights can become battles of attrition as players whittle down their health, and making too many mistakes can mean defeat for those who get careless. It can get annoying waiting so long once you get the boss’s patterns down, but most of the fights are interesting enough to keep players on their toes until the end.
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