Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)

I finished, but I’ve only just begun!

It’s tough to know where to start with a game as legendary as this one. Released in 1995, Seiken Densetsu 3 is developer/publisher Square’s follow-up to their hit 1993 action RPG Secret of Mana. It’s also the first of the Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Sacred Sword”) series to never leave Japan. By 1995, the rise of next generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to Square deciding that investing the necessary time and money required to translate and localize a massive, text-heavy Super Famicom game like SD3 would be a bit of a fool’s errand. While this may have made good business sense at the time, it was a minor tragedy for English-speaking RPG fans and cemented SD3’s reputation as perhaps the most lamented of the great “lost” 16-bit games. Until 2000, that is, when the first version of the unofficial English fan translation hit the Internet. Does it live up to all the hype? Several times over!

I played SD3 on a reproduction cartridge containing the English version of the game ROM. The label on my copy bears the somewhat misleading title Secret of Mana 2. Many gamers have fond memories of Secret of Mana/Seiken Densetsu 2, but the first game in the series for the Game Boy, released in North America under the title Final Fantasy Adventure in order to piggyback on Square’s most popular franchise, is often unjustly forgotten these days. You can bet I’ll be showcasing Final Fantasy Adventure someday.

Like its predecessors, SD3 is an action RPG with a very distinctive art style that’s cute, colorful, and extremely lush. In fact, you could easily make a strong case for SD3 being the single best looking game ever released for the console. Sprints are sumptuously detailed and sport tons of smooth animation. Even the lowliest generic NPC townspeople in this game show off more visual detail and smoother walk cycles than the main protagonists in most 16-bit RPGs. Many of the backgrounds are positively jaw-dropping and could even be described as painterly. This music is almost as superb as the visuals. While I enjoyed the compositions in Secret of Mana a little more overall, the tunes here are very catchy indeed and the production quality is top notch. Like Square’s other soundtracks from this period, SD3’s is about as close to CD quality audio as it’s possible to get on the Super Famicom. It’s also quite extensive, with over fifty tracks.

This is all probably to be expected, though. Secret of Mana was also noted as one of the most gorgeous console games to date upon its release. Where SD3 really sets itself apart from the rest of the series is in its innovative story structure. The game has six unique protagonists to choose from, each with their own exclusive story elements to experience. There’s Angela the sorceres, Carlie the cleric, Duran the swordsman, Hawk the thief, Lise the amazon, and Kevin the werewolf.

The first thing you’ll do when starting a new playthrough is to select your main character. After that, you’ll pick two of the remaining five heroes to serve as support characters for your lead. This means that you can only ever have three of the six playable characters in your party during any single playthrough. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to see the entire storyline for your chosen lead, an abbreviated “Cliffs Notes” version for each of the two sidekicks, and the three characters you don’t pick at all will only appear in brief walk-on cameo roles as NPCs.

Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t really like having six RPGs in one. It’s more like one and a half. No matter which characters you pick, the overarching plot and quest structure will always be essentially the same. You’ll mostly go to the same places and fight the same monsters and the unique elements of each character’s storyline tend to be concentrated at the very beginning and very end of the quest. Still, it’s really cool to see the same events play out from multiple perspectives and to get more background and dialog for each individual hero. Your choice of main character also determines which of the game’s three villains will emerge as the primary antagonist.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to sabotage yourself by choosing a poor character or combination of characters. The designers did a great job of making sure that all the heroes are strong enough to hold their own and the game never gets so difficult that an optimized party or single strategy is necessary to continue. I went with the scientifically proven method of picking whoever I thought looked the coolest. I ended up with Angela, Hawk, and Lise and I did just great. Very smart design on Square’s part.

As if the multiple protagonists angle somehow wasn’t enough to make SD3 one of the most replayable RPGs ever made, there’s also a branching character class system. Any time after reaching level 18, a character can switch from their default class to either a “light” or “dark” class, each with slightly different abilities. For example, Lise the Amazon can pick the light option and become a Valkyrie or choose dark and become a Rune Maiden. Characters can repeat this process at level 38, so if Lise chose to become a Valkyrie, she can pick the light option again to become a Vanadis (light-light) or the dark option to become a Star Lancer (light-dark). There are thus a total of six additional classes per character, representing light, dark, light-light, light-dark, dark-dark, and dark-light. Once you make your choices, there’s no going back, so you would actually need to play through the game four times with a single character if you wanted to experience all six of that character’s class options. That seems a bit excessive to me, but the option’s there if you really want it.

It should be understood that class changing will never drastically alter a character’s role in the party. Using Lise as an example again, she’ll always have the same primary function no matter which classes you choose: She’s a robust “tank” style character that vanquishes foes with her spear attacks. Going down the light path will grant her “buff” spells that increase your party’s stats in combat while the dark path offers “debuff” spells that decrease enemy stats. Ultimately, though, she still remains a fighter type character. Similarly, no class change will ever make Angela the mage into a viable hand-to-hand combatant, but you can tweak her spell selection somewhat. This means that there’s really no way to ruin a character by picking a “bad” class, since the class changes only enhance an already competent character’s core strengths. They never undermine those strengths. Again, this is very clever design.

The main story of Seiken Densetsu 3 involves a fantasy world where the power of magic (mana) has begun to wane. Only the Mana Sword, a legendary weapon used by a goddess to create the world, can possibly reverse this process but it’s sealed away by the power of eight mana stones, each containing the essence of an evil god-beast vanquished by the goddess in primordial times. Three factions of villains send their respective nations to war against their neighbors in an effort to seize all the mana stones, break the seal, and claim the godlike power conferred by the Mana Sword for themselves. To stop them and restore peace, your heroes band together and set out to find the holy sword first. Each hero also has their own individual motives for joining the quest, including getting revenge for a fallen comrade, rescuing a kidnapped relative, and so on. It’s not the most unique premise for an RPG (every Seiken Densetsu game revolves around conflict over the titular sword, after all) but it does a serviceable job of pushing your party to every corner of the game’s diverse and charming world over the course of around 25 hours or so.

I’m very much pleased to report that SD3’s gameplay improves on Secret of Mana’s in virtually every way. Secret of Mana is a very beloved title among 16-bit RPG fans, even a bit of a sacred cow, but I’ve always had major issues with its gameplay. Hit detection felt highly inconsistent, the lengthy charge time on weapon attacks slowed the pace of melee combat to a crawl, and the optimal fighting strategy was usually just to cast the same attack spell over and over again in rapid succession.

Well, SD3’s hit detection has been honed, so say goodbye to well-aimed attacks that whiff for no apparent reason. The weapon charge bar has been replaced by a tech meter that builds as you land blows and filling it up allows you to release more powerful attacks without slowing down combat as a whole. Most importantly, the magic system has been tweaked with balance in mind and you can no longer abuse the trick of repeatedly opening the menu and tossing out an endless stream of spells before your helpless enemy can even react. The end result of all this is that combat in SD3 flows much smoother and feels much more engaging and all-around satisfying. It’s a real joy to beat up on fluffy little rabites and ducks in army helmets this time around. They even improved the pathfinding abilities of computer-controlled party members so that they get stuck on the scenery less often, although this will still happen on occasion.

Multiplayer gameplay also makes a return. I didn’t get a chance to try it out myself, but it seems safe to say that the faster weapon combat and more balanced magic would make for an improved experience.

Is Seiken Densetsu 3 a perfect game? Not quite. I already mentioned that the story a bit on the basic side, despite the promising addition of multiple viewpoints. Not every gamer has a problem with cliche JRPG plots, characters, and dialog. For some, an abundance of familiar tropes might even be desirable; a kind of “gaming comfort food.” If this is you, you’ll adore SD3’s simplistic narrative, in which one-dimensional cackling villains just can’t wait to reveal their “true forms” and mortally wounded characters exclaim things like “Goodbye, cruel world!” If you don’t prefer your RPGs lightweight and corny, though, just be aware going in that this one isn’t packed with thought-provoking concepts and big emotional payoffs.

I also wish that the class changing system could have been made available to the player earlier on in the game. Eighteen levels is a long chunk of time to be stuck in each character’s relatively boring starter class. After the first class change, there’s an even lengthier twenty level gap until the next. By the time you’re finally able to unlock each character’s final, coolest class at level 38, you’ll find that the game is almost over! My party was level 47 when I defeated the final boss and I didn’t even feel like I needed to be that strong. My take is that offering class changes at levels 10 and 30 instead would have improved both the early and late game experience significantly.

Seiken Densetsu 3 is still one spectacular action RPG, however, and a drastic improvement on Secret of Mana in virtually every way. It’s a huge title with so much going on that I didn’t even get around to mentioning some of the major new innovations, like the dynamic day/night cycle that affects enemy encounters and Kevin the werewolf’s transformations. If you liked SoM, you’ll love SD3. If you loved SoM, SD3 will likely secure a place near the top of your personal “best games of all time” list. It plays like a dream, represents peak audiovisual achievement within the 16-bit console generation, and will have you wanting to play through it all over again before you’ve even finished your first go-around.

I just feel sorry for all those sweet little rabites.

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Getsu Fūma Den (Famicom)

Yup. Whatever that says, it sure is satisfying.

Getsu Fūma Den (literally “Legend of the Lunar Wind Demon”) is a very interesting 1987 game by Konami for the Nintendo Famicom. As a side-scrolling action-adventure game with some first-person 3D elements, Getsu Fūma Den shares a lot of the same very ambitious design goals as two other Konami releases for the console that same year: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II. Each of these three games are flawed but still quite enjoyable attempts to take the action-platforming gameplay common in Famicom titles up to that time as a basis and then work in elements from the RPG and adventure game genres in the form of permanent character progression and large open worlds filled with mazes, puzzles, and inventory items to gather. Unlike Castlevania II and Goonies II, however, Getsu Fūma Den never saw release outside of Japan, probably due to its heavy use of cultural references that would have been lost on a Western audience.

As its title states, Getsu Fūma Den is the story of Getsu Fūma, a determined young samurai who must recover his clan’s three lost magical wave swords (hadouken), which were captured when his older brothers fell in battle against the forces of the demon lord Ryūkotsuki (“dragon bone demon”), and use them to vanquish the villain once and for all and avenge his fallen kin. Interestingly, Fūma is based (extremely loosely) on Fūma Kotarō, a famous historical ninja clan leader who rose to prominence in 16th century Japan. This makes him a sort of counterpart to another historically inspired Konami hero: Goemon from the Gonbare Goemon series.

I played Getsu Fūma Den using the original Famicom cartridge and a pin adaptor that I ripped out of a copy of Gyromite, so there was a bit of a language barrier to deal with. There is a fan translated version of the game ROM available online if you prefer to play that way but thankfully there’s no need. All you really need to complete the game is an understanding of your overall goal and a good breakdown of what the various items in the game do. Thorough exploration will take care of the rest.

The game starts you out on an overhead view world map very reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s, although it doesn’t feature the constant random monster encounters that Zelda II does during map exploration. Various icons on the map represent action stages, shops, dungeons, and houses where NPCs will dispense healing and advice. The goal of the game is to locate the three dungeons that house the missing hadouken and pass through them to defeat the bosses therein. Once you have all three swords, a bridge will appear on the main island that you can cross to reach Ryūkotsuki’s castle and finish him off. To enter each dungeon, though, you’ll need to acquire passes in the form of demon masks. These are dispensed by specific skeleton NPCs that you’ll find inside houses. You’ll need to fight the first two in order to get their passes but you can rather amusingly acquire the third one just by repeatedly visiting the skeleton and pestering him for it until he finally relents and hands it over so you’ll leave him be. Also, keep in mind that a few of the items sold in the shops (like the rock sword and candle) are actually required to complete the game, so make sure to check out all the ones you find.

The world map is merely functional but the side-view action stages are where Getsu Fūma Den really shines. These look fantastic and feature a large selection of enemies and background tiles for a 1987 title. Fūma has a very floaty jump and an interesting way of attacking with his sword. He swings it in a sort of wide forward arc that can also hit enemies immediately above and below him. It took me a little while to realize why Fūma’s controls felt so familiar but then it hit me: He handles a lot like Leonardo from Konami’s very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES, just with a faster running speed. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of Getsu Fūma Den’s staff later worked on TMNT.

You have a health meter at the top of the screen and right above it is an experience meter that will slowly fill as you kill enemies. The more experience you accumulate, the more damage you’ll deal with your sword and the less you’ll take from enemies. I was able to max out the experience meter fairly quickly during my playthrough, between the first and second dungeons, and it definitely made the journey much easier. The most fun part of these stages is probably using the various extra weapons that you can pick up and use in place of your sword for a little variety. You can find a magic war drum that shoots the Japanese work for “power” at foes to damage them, shuriken throwing blades, a devil top that gives you an invincible jumping spin attack similar to Metroid’s Samus Aran, and more. The top spin attack in particular is super strong against bosses.

Once you finally reach one of the three dungeons, you’ll enter the final gameplay mode: 3D maze exploration. Unfortunately, this is where Getsu Fūma Den flounders somewhat. Like almost all 3D maze sections in 8-bit console games, these sections are slow, unengaging, and confusing to boot due to every part of the maze looking exactly the same. Prepare to either draw yourself some maps Dungeons & Dragons style or wing it and accept that you’ll be getting turned around and unintentionally backtracking at some points. At least these mazes are better than the positively torturous ones in Vic Tokai’s Golgo 13 games. No multiple floors and trap doors to send you back here. There are non-essential bonus items and money stashes to find as well as enemies to fight but the combat here is pretty lacking. Enemy sprites will bob up and down to simulate being closer or further from Fūma but there’s no sprite scaling like there is in games like Sega’s Space Harrier, so judging depth can be difficult. In general, just try to avoid enemies when they’re at the bottom of the screen and jump up to slash them in the head as many times as possible when they’re at the top. Thankfully, you’ll switch back to the side-view perspective when you reach the end of the maze and it’s finally time to fight the boss. These guys are another highlight. They’re big, freaky looking, and fun to combat. I especially loved the giant cyclops demon head in a samurai helmet that flies around spitting flames at you.

Getsu Fūma Den isn’t a particularly difficult game. The trickiest elements are honestly learning your way around the overhead map and navigating the dungeon mazes. Fūma can take a lot of hits before dying and continues are unlimited. Losing all your lives and continuing will cost you half of your accumulated money but this is no real hardship. You’re practically drowning in cash in this game and most items for sale aren’t even that expensive. A couple of the later bosses can put up a decent struggle but once you find the devil top, you can spin them into oblivion easily enough. My first playthrough last night took me about 5-6 hours in total but none of that was spent stuck on difficult action bits. There are passwords available to resume your game if you want to take a break. Just select the second option on the continue screen to receive one. These aren’t too long but they are in Japanese, so I would recommend taking a photo rather than trying to transcribe them by hand unless you’re familiar with the language.

Getsu Fūma Den is yet another awesome 8-bit title from Konami. It has some great side-scrolling action coupled with a very surreal and striking ancient Japanese fantasy-horror aesthetic. There are games for the system that look better but none that could be mistaken for this one. The music is also a treat, particularly the epic overworld theme. It’s a pity that Fūma himself never found the same success that many of their other characters did. This game never received a sequel, even in its native land. Fūma would be playable in both the Konami Wai Wai World games for Famicom (along with numerous other Konami heroes) and he was also a downloadable bonus character in 2010’s Castlevania: Harmony of Despair but he would never again be a headliner.

At least he went out with honor.

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 “Go For It 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-scroling 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 play over a dozen different mini-games. The second mode is a straightforward, linear action-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 but loses a level each time you’re hit and a ranged attack the can travel across the entire screen but costs you 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.

(Originally written 6/28/2017)