The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (Super Nintendo)

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Beats being boiled in oil, I guess!

So ends another awesome playthrough of Konami’s 1991 classic The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, originally known in Japan as Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki, which, very loosely translated, means something like “Let’s Go Goemon: The Picture Scroll of Princess Yuki’s Rescue.”

I first played this one back around the time it came out and it made a huge impression on me for several reasons. First, as a teenager in the early ’90s, I’d played a ton of games made in Japan but I’d never seen any piece of media that leaned this heavily on references to Japanese history and culture before. Every enemy, item, and location was drawn from medieval and Edo Period Japan. I had no idea what anything I was seeing was supposed to be, but it was all really colorful and cool and interesting. I felt like I was getting a glimpse into a whole other world. Beyond that, this game was really funny! Back then, you’d see absurd things in console video games routinely (a giant, fireball-shooting plumber jumping on turtles, for example), but not a lot of deliberate, sustained attempts at comedy as such. Computers had plenty of humorous games, which is why the NES port of LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion is famous for being perhaps the most comedy-laden title for that system, but usually consoles were a different story. Mystical Ninja is packed with genuinely funny slapstick from start to finish. Finally, the game looks and plays like a dream. This is the legendary Konami operating at its prime and the graphics, sound, control, and level design are all of the highest caliber. I was, and still am, blown away.

Mystical Ninja is an action platform game and part of a venerable series (starting in the arcades with 1986’s Mr. Goemon) based on the famous 16th century Japanese outlaw Ishikawa Goemon. He was a celebrated thief famous for two things: Stealing tons of money from the wealthy samurai class of the time and being boiled to death in oil after a failed attempt to assassinate a local ruler. Ick. Despite his bad end, Goemon became a folk hero among the common people due to his Robin Hood-like antics and was further immortalized in numerous Kabuki plays and later on in film, television, and the like.

In Mystical Ninja, you control Goemon and his sidekick Ebisumaru in a rambling quest across Japan, fighting ghosts, ninjas, mythic beasts, and more on your way to rescue Princess Yuki from a gang of criminals. Or I guess I should say: You control Kid Ying and Dr. Yang. Yeah, Konami’s localization team made the unfortunate decision to tinker with the main characters’ names here and it really doesn’t work well. Thankfully, the Yin/Yang aliases were given the boot by the time the second entry in the series to debut outside Japan was released on the N64. Good riddence.

Mystical Ninja is a side-scrolling action-platform game with nine levels and two gameplay modes. Each level starts with you in a sort of “town mode” where you explore a village to amass money, shop for useful items, get clues from NPCs, and optionally play over a dozen different mini-games. The second mode is a straightforward, linear platforming level with a boss fight at the end. Goemon and Ebisumaru have two main attacks: A short range melee strike that can be upgraded twice via lucky cat pickups (though it loses an upgrade level each time you’re hit) and a ranged attack the can travel across the entire screen, but costs you some of your money with each shot. You have a health meter that allows you to take multiple hits and this can be extended via pickups and enhanced with items like armor that absorbs damage and pizza that restores lost health. Each level is increasingly tough, but you’ll find that the unlimited continues and password system will keep any real frustration to a minimum. Mystical Ninja’s action is challenging and stimulating without being stress-inducing, which compliments its lighthearted tone perfectly.

There are a few things I’d change if I could. Most glaring is the timer: You’re given 999 seconds to complete a level, which seems like a lot, but it encompasses both the town exploration and action portions of the level, and having a cap on the time you can spend wandering around town and playing mini-games is just annoying. There are also a couple levels that cannot be completed until you purchase a specific expensive item from a shop, requiring a short period of money grinding. Thankfully, this only halts your progress for a few minutes at a time, not hours. It’s still pointless, however. Finally, Mystical Ninja uses relatively long (31 character) passwords for saving, which I know some players hate. Personally, I don’t mind it all that much in the era of ubiquitous camera phones that eliminate transcription errors, but I suppose you may.

Overall, any flaws in Mystical Ninja are incredibly minor and you shouldn’t let anything dissuade you from trying out this classic. It has more thrills, laughs, and sheer charm and any given dozen common SNES games. And tanooki nuts. Massive, saggy tanooki nuts.

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Journey to Silius (NES)

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You’re terminated, fucker!

I’ve been on a bit of a Sunsoft NES kick over the last couple weeks, playing through Batman, Blaster Master, and now 1990’s Journey to Silius, all for the first time. What a ride it’s been! I never completed any of these games back when they came out, but I did at least play Batman and Blaster Master briefly. Journey to Silius, however, I’d never tried at all before yesterday. That’s too bad, because while I don’t think it can match Blaster Master for sheer scope and creativity, it’s definitely on the same level as Batman in terms of being a short-but-intense action game with top-notch presentation.

It’s pretty well-known by now that Journey to Silius (also known as Raf World in Japan) was intended to be a licensed game based on the 1984 film The Terminator. It was even previewed in Nintendo Power magazine under the Terminator title. I don’t believe it’s known exactly why the license was pulled, but the financial costs to Sunsoft, the six year gap since the first film’s release, and the then-upcoming sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day often feature in speculation. It’s really too bad, as the official Terminator games that were released later in the 1990s were not well-received at all and better name recognition could have driven many more sales for the game we know as Journey to Silius, which remains to this day as obscure as it is excellent.

Forced to come up with a new story for the game, what Sunsoft gave us is this: In the future, the earth is so overpopulated that everyone is migrating to space colonies. Protagonist Jay McCray’s father, a scientist working to build a colony in the Silius star system, is killed in an explosion. The incident is ruled an accident, but Jay discovers a message from his father that reveals that he was actually murdered by terrorists intent on sabotaging the colony project for some reason. Jay vows to get revenge on the terrorists and complete his late father’s work. This is all presented in an opening scene when starting the game, but there is no further plot development or even a real epilogue, so it all seems very underdeveloped and forgettable. So just do what I do and pretend you’re Kyle Reese or John Connor fighting Skynet. It works a lot better.

Incidentally, my pet theory is that the setting of the game was supposed to be the Sirius star system, but that this was corrupted to “Silius” due to the sort of L/R confusion that crept in when many early Japanese games were translated into English. Other famous examples being “conglaturations,” “victoly,” etc. I can’t prove it, but it makes sense to me.

Journey to Silius is a side-scrolling run-and-gun style game that is often compared to Mega Man. Jay’s control options are fairly basic: He can run, shoot his gun forward, and crouch. There are five levels total and they are presented in a strictly linear fashion, with no stage select as in Mega Man. Defeating bosses in the first four levels will earn you a new special weapon to use. Jay starts out with a pistol and shotgun and then acquires a machine gun, homing missiles, laser, and grenade launcher as he progresses. Every weapon except the pistol has limited ammunition and they share a single ammunition gauge, unlike in Mega Man where each weapon has its own supply of energy. This makes special weapon shots very precious and best saved for bosses. Luckily, the pistol is sufficient to deal with most regular enemies.

One interesting quirk in Journey to Silius is the way that Jay jumps. He has momentum in the air, which means that he can’t completely negate his inertia and steer himself back the way he came if he’s jumping forward or backward. You have more control over his jumps than you do Simon Belmont’s in Castlevania, for example, but less than you do over Super Mario or Mega Man’s. He also can’t fall straight down off ledges, since he’ll drift in the direction he walked off the ledge as he falls. It takes some getting used to but you can eventually adapt to this more realistic jumping style.

Graphics and sound are above average across the board in this game. As befitting a game meant to evoke the dark future setting of the Terminator films, the art direction in general is very grim, with ruined cityscapes and labyrinths filled with killer robots. Indeed, all of your enemies are robots of various types, but there’s a great deal of variety among them. Bosses are huge and can fill the entire screen or even multiple screens in one memorable case. The Journey to Silius soundtrack is legendary for good reason, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many more people have heard these tunes than have played the game itself. The signature “Sunsoft sound” is in full effect here, with pumping bass samples and amazing percussion driving the very heavy score.

Journey to Silius can be pretty tough going. While the game is short and can be completed in about half an hour, you’re only given twelve lives with which to do so. You have three lives to start and three continues and there is no way to find or earn more, which seems to be a trend in Sunsoft NES games. These guys just hate the concept of the 1-Up. In addition, levels two, three, and four are very long indeed, easily twice the length of an average stage in most other games. The final level breaks with the standard established to that point by blindsiding you with an auto-scrolling gauntlet of traps and pits that demands you be both precise and rapid in your progress as opposed to the more cautious and deliberate pace that works best for the previous four stages. Don’t think you can count on health drops from enemies, either, as these are exceedingly rare and restore only a small amount when they do show themselves. They’re so scarce, in fact, that you can go several levels at a stretch without seeing a single one and they can’t be “farmed” from respawning enemies, as there are none to be found in this game. You’ll need to become very adept at memorizing the positions of the enemies and traps in each level and conserving your health and ammunition if you want to stand a chance.

There are some outright flaws to be found here, too. Vertical sections where Jay has to make leaps of faith onto lower platforms are pure trial-and-error, with no way to know what hazards are awaiting you or how to maneuver yourself to avoid them and this feels pointlessly unfair. There’s also an annoying quirk in the boss fights where you lose control of Jay the instant the boss is defeated but any projectile attacks headed your way at that instant stay active and can damage or even kill you while you’re stuck standing in place unable to dodge. I’ve had to re-fight several “dead” bosses because they’ve succeeded in killing me with these parting shots while I’m at very low health. It sucks.

Minor quibbles aside, Journey to Silius is a great action platformer. It doesn’t have the length or depth of a Mega Man, the frenetic multiplayer action of a Contra, or the epic storyline of a Ninja Gaiden, but it does have gorgeous art, responsive controls, incredible music, and substantial challenge going for it. Now go play it before I have to travel back in time and make you.

Blaster Master (NES)

My second successful amphibian rescue of the summer! What an odd trend.

This is, of course, Sunsoft’s legendary Blaster Master from 1988 and let me tell you, it is one remarkable experience. There’s so much going on here for an 8-bit action game that I hardly know where to start.

How about with the famously goofy story? Jason Frudnick is your typical high school kid with a pet frog named Fred. One day, Fred leaps out of his tank and hops out into the back yard, with Jason giving chase. Fred winds up landing on a box of radioactive materials that just happens to be laying around in the yard for some reason and instantly grows into a giant mutant frog before promptly dropping down a huge hole in the ground nearby. You with me so far? Jason continues the chase by leaping down the hole after Fred. At the bottom, he discovers a futuristic battle tank and decides to use to combat the hoards of mutants who inhabit the subterranean world and rescue Fred from the clutches of their leader, the evil Plutonium Boss.

Yeah, even for an old NES game, this is some high silliness. There’s a reason for this, sort of. Blaster Master started out in Japan as “Super Planetary War Records: Metafight.” The plot was very anime-inspired and involved an alien warlord invading the peaceful planet Sophia III and a lone warrior named Kane repelling the invasion. For whatever reason, Metafight sold extremely poorly in Japan, so Sunsoft decided to change the story completely for the international release and we got Jason and Fred instead. Ironically, the game sold like hotcakes here, so Sunsoft opted to ditch the Metafight idea completely and make the frog-centered plot the official series canon in all regions going forward. Even the corny novelization released as part of the Worlds of Power series is considered official lore, which frankly blows my mind.

But on to the game! Blaster Master is a hybrid of two gameplay styles: You get side scrolling platform action with elements of exploration and backtracking (similar to Metroid) interspersed with overhead run-and-gun action stages where you navigate mazes searching for each level’s boss and defeating it in order to earn the tank upgrades you need to continue your quest. There are eight interconnected levels total, each with its own unique music and visual style. The overhead dungeon levels all play out with Jason on foot, while the side-view sectons mostly have you piloting the tank. I say “mostly” because you can exit the tank at any time by pressing the select button, but you’ll rarely want to since Jason is much weaker and less mobile on foot. More on this later, though.

In terms of graphics and sound, Blaster Master was the absolute state of the art on the NES in 1988. Backgrounds and characters are extremely well-drawn, with the boss monsters in particular being some of the largest and most well-detailed ever realized on the console at the time. Sound effects are all on-point and the music flat-out rocks and can be heroic, sinister, and even heavy at times. If you want to know what speed metal sounds like played on an NES sound chip, check out level seven’s theme and throw up those horns.

If I had to describe Blaster Master’s gameplay in one word, it would be “intense.” This is a long game and will probably take an average player roughly three to four hours to complete, but only if that player already knows what they’re doing and where to go. Factor in the practice needed to learn the controls, explore the levels, and conquer some of the trickier bosses, and that time can easily triple. And there’s no way to save your progress here. No passwords, no save files, no nothing. Did I mention the limited lives with no way to earn more? Lose them all and it’s game over. It took me a total of three five hour play sessions to finally complete the game, although the first two didn’t end because I ran out of lives, but rather because I ran out of time. I’m too old to stay up past midnight on a work night gaming these days. Needless to say, the combination of a long, complex game, no saving, limited lives, and tough opposition means you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. You need to be thorough and cautious, carefully clearing out enemies from each level without taking too much damage on your way to the boss. In fact, damage is doubly deadly in the overhead stages, where each hit taken depletes both Jason’s health and weapon power. Just a few hits from common foes can degrade your gun from a screen clearing laser tsunami to a puny peashooter in a matter of seconds, and power-ups that replenish weapon energy are much rarer than the ones that restore health. It’s been said this makes Blaster Master a game that gets harder and harder the more you do poorly at it. My advice? Take it slow and take every enemy seriously. If you’re rushing in this game, you’re probably also losing at it.

Another factor that keeps this game consistently tense is how the developers deftly use psychological conditioning to keep you outside your comfort zone. One example of this is level five, the underground sea. Having beaten the first half of the game, the player naturally begins to feel confident, only to be confronted with a lengthy section where the fragile Jason is forced to leave the safety of his tank to swim through narrow underwater passages swarming with enemies. You don’t know how long you’ll be stuck away from the safety of your armored vehicle and you feel extremely vulnerable as a result. Another example is the wall climbing upgrades you acquire in levels six and seven. Both allow you to navigate to new areas, but they also change the way your tank controls drastically, as it now clings to almost any surface and you have to completely relearn how the platforming works after having mastered one style of movement for over 80% of the game. You can bet the final two levels are filled with deadly traps designed to prey on your instinctive reliance on the old controls. Again, the player’s confidence is expertly built up and then strategically undermined. If your palms weren’t sweating before these twists are introduced, they sure will be after.

Blaster Master is not a game for the impatient or the easily frustrated. It’s unashamedly tough and demands practice, dedication, and serious focus from players. It’s a high pressure experience by design and under no circumstances should the player sabotage that by abusing glitches and emulator save states if they want the full effect. If you love a good challenge and are willing to invest the time, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most riveting action gaming of the 8-bit era.

Do it for your boy Fred. I’m sure he’d do the same for you if frogs could drive tanks.

Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)

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Never piss off a ninja, chump.

Just got done playing through Ninja Gaiden Shadow on my lunch break. This one was developed by Natsume as a Game Boy follow-up to their decent NES title Shadow of the Ninja, but Tecmo bought the publishing rights at the last minute and released it under the Ninja Gaiden name in 1991 instead. Anyone who’s played Shadow of the Ninja will note the similarities here, as your character uses a grappling hook to hang from ceilings as he did in that game instead of clinging to and jumping off of walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden is better known for.

The cut-and-paste nature of the switch is also made apparent through the lack of another Ninja Gaiden staple: Plot twists and cinematic cut scenes during play. All you get is a brief pre-game intro stating an evil dude in a cape (named Emperor Garuda) is wreaking havoc and Ryu the ninja needs to stop him. That’s it.

Thankfully, the action is pretty good. Ryu can run, jump, duck, slash with his sword, use his grappling hook to latch onto the underside of certain platforms, and fire off a limited-use diagonal fire attack. The fire attack is the only secondary weapon you can employ in this game, unfortunately. Due to the motion blur that obscured fast moving objects on the original Game Boy’s screen, moving and attacking is much slower here than in any of the main series games and you will sometimes feel like you’re playing underwater Ninja Gaiden. That said, the control is solid and the stage layouts are pretty nice, incorporating both horizontal and vertical scrolling and sporting a few nifty set pieces like dark areas and a sequence where you must outrun a rising tide of lava.

Graphics look good for the system, with some nicely-drawn backgrounds and sprites. The sprites are a decent size without falling into the common Game Boy trap of being too large to allow for a decent field of view around your character. The music is fantastic and perhaps the best aspect of the game’s presentation overall. There are several remixes of classic Ninja Gaiden tracks and they sound excellent on the Game Boy. In fact, they ironically sound much better than the godawful versions Tecmo blighted the world’s ears with in Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for Super Nintendo. Ugh.

There are only five levels and five bosses in the game and the difficulty is very forgiving due to the combination of short levels, unlimited continues, and the relatively small number of enemies and tricky jumps when compared to the NES titles. Even players relatively unskilled at action platformers will probably be able to complete this one in an hour or less. Replay value is minimal. If I had purchased the game for full price back in the day, I might have been a bit disappointed at this, but if you can pick it up for significantly less today, it’s not a bad time killer on a bus commute, plane ride, or the like. Just don’t expect it to play like the NES Ninja Gaiden titles or add anything to the greater storyline of the series.

Ninja vanish! *poof*

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

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This is easily the most satisfying clown murder I’ve had all week.

Continuing this week’s trend of games based on ’80s movies, I played through Sunsoft’s very loose 1989 adaptation of Tim Burton’s Batman for the first time. Well, I suppose technically it’s called “Batman: The Video Game,” but nobody calls it that. That would just be silly. I’ve heard a lot over the years about how this is one of the best games ever made for the NES. Is it true? Well, while I liked it, I wouldn’t go quite that far….

There’s undoubtedly a lot to like about Batman. The music is amazing and matches the offbeat, brooding action vibe of the film. The graphics are well-drawn and lean heavily on a cool neon-like effect where brightly colored objects pop out against the stark blackness. Characters animate extremely well for a console game of this era. The play control is superb.

Batman is an action-platforming game divided into five stages. Each stage has multiple platforming sections and a boss fight, with the exception of the final one, which has only one platforming section, but two bosses.

Batman’s move set consists of a jump, a punch attack, and three ranged weapons with differing attack properties: The batarang is short range and powerful, the spear gun’s less powerful shots can travel across the entire screen, and the oddly-named dirk splits into three projectiles when fired. Each ranged weapon consumes a differing amount of your ammunition per shot. You can carry up to 99 bullets at once and they’re replenished fairly regularly by enemy drops, so you’ll rarely run out. As cool as these ranged weapons are, most enemies are easily dispatched with your fists, so while they make make some sections of the game a little easier, your guns are rarely necessary.

Batman’s most important technique is the wall jump. Similar to other games like Ninja Gaiden, you can rebound off walls to reach higher sections of the level. This is far from an optional mechanic. In fact, it’s arguably the game’s central gimmick, with the last level serving as a wall jumping final exam of sorts. If you haven’t perfected the technique by then, you’ll never even get a chance to lay eyes on the Joker.

It all sound great, but there are a few problems. Primarily, the game makes very poor use of the source material. The few cut scenes present between levels are a waste, as they don’t come close to telling a coherent version of the film’s story and most are only a few seconds long. None of the game’s locations are recognizable and neither are any of its enemy characters other than the Joker himself. If I had to describe the overall feel of the stages, I’d say they’re like leftover locations from Ninja Gaiden were populated with leftover enemies from Contra. It feels very much like a generic NES sci-fi action game with a Batman sprite pasted in.

The difficulty curve is also awkward. Batman took me about four hours to complete for the first time and nearly three of those were spent in the last level. The first 80% of the game really is a breeze, but the final clock tower level feels about as hard as all the previous ones combined. To cap it off, the Joker can deal a lot more damage than any other boss. Most hazards in the game will deplete 1/8th of Batman’s health bar on contact, but the Joker’s gun will shave off 3/8th. A relatively easy game with a solitary super tough level and boss just feels lopsided. At least continues are unlimited.

Leaving aside the generic trappings that largely waste the license and the strange difficulty balancing, Batman really is a fun ride and reminds me of a successful cross between Shatterhand and Ninja Gaiden. It’s absolutely the best game for the NES…where you play as Michael Keaton.

Super Back to the Future Part II (Super Famicom)

Biff receives his just desserts, 16-bit style.

I’m home sick in bed today, so I figured I’d do something I haven’t done in a while: Play through a Japanese exclusive game. In this case, it’s Super Back to the Future Part II for the Super Famicom, published by Toshiba EMI in 1993. I picked this one up at a gaming expo last year and haven’t gotten around to it until now.

This is a really weird one, which I’m guessing accounts for a lot of why it was never released outside of Japan. The character designs and humor are quintessentially Japanese and games with these sorts of aesthetics rarely saw localization back then, despite some awesome exceptions like Konami’s Legend of the Mystical Ninja.

Super BttF is a side-scrolling platform game based entirely on the famous hoverboard sequence from the film, which is genius if you ask me. I certainly never would have gotten off that thing. You play as Marty McFly and travel through time to stop the now uncomfortably presidential Biff Tannen from changing the future.

I found the game to be a pleasant romp for the most part. It took me four hours to get through the first time, which is about what I expect from a typical platformer. There are six levels, each of which consists of between one and three platforming segments followed by a boss battle. Each individual stage and boss encounter has its own password in the form of a four-letter word like BACK or KING, so it’s easy to resume a play session at a later time where you left off, if you so choose. Marty begins with three lives, but continues are unlimited, so the only consequence of losing them all is that you lose all your collected coins and will have a harder time purchasing health and power-ups from the vending machines scattered throughout the levels.

The core platforming is solid, but has some strange quirks. The controls are one of them. Only two of the controller’s six main action buttons are used here, in the form of a jump button and an acceleration button. You’ll be holding down the acceleration button most of the time, since Marty crawls along at a snail’s pace without it. In fact, Marty won’t even be able to build up enough momentum to jump any direction but straight up without using the accelerator. You’ll need to hold it down to jump between platforms and also get used to releasing it each time as you land on the smaller ones or else Marty’s momentum will carry him right off it. It’s odd and takes some getting used to, but it can be adapted to. Imagine Super Mario Bros. if Mario had to rely on running much more than he does just to get by.

Marty can kill enemies by jumping at them while spinning on his hoverboard and he’ll gain a little height on his jump with each enemy he kills. This makes for some totally gonzo sections where Marty has to ascend vertical sections of the level with no platforms by continuously shredding on his board up a cascade of falling boulders or other dangerous debris. Very fun.

The game does have some outright flaws, too. Marty is very, very fast on his board, but the view is very zoomed-in. Much like in the early Sonic the Hedgehog games, you want to have the exhilarating feeling of flying forward through the level, but the lack of warning you get of incoming hazards makes a patient, methodical approach more advisable much of the time.

There’s also a lot of slowdown when many sprites are on the screen. This is pretty common on the system, but it’s especially severe in this game, which can throw your jump timing off considerably.

One final thing worth mentioning is that the levels in this game can be quite huge and none of them have any checkpoints. Patience is definitely a necessity. From level four onward, making it all the way through a stage on Marty’s three hit points will require some focus.

Although Super BttF is short, simple, and a little rough around the edges, it’s far from the worst way you can spend an afternoon. The graphics are cute and colorful, the music will get you pumped, and the weird factor is a constant source of amusement and befuddlement. It’s a good option for Western gamers who don’t know the language, but still want to check out some quality Japanese imports.

Now why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?