Mystical Ninja Starring GoemonMystical Ninja Starring Goemon should ease the torturous wait for Zelda
Genre: Adventure/ Platform
It seems like it's been forever since I've played through the Japanese version of this game -- now, half a year later, we finally get to see Goemon in the west. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is already the fifth game in the ongoing Ganbare Goemon series. Unfortunately, Konami never released parts 2 through 4 in the US, so you may just know our spiky-haired friend from the atrociously translated Mystical Ninja for the Super NES.
Thankfully, Konami didn't mess much with the Japanese nature of the 64-bit Goemon, not only preserving the characters' names but also three excellent music numbers (complete with Japanese singing). All in all, the US version is the same as the Japanese one, minus only a few voice sequences.
Gameplay: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon continues the gameplay style found in Goemon 3: Exploration-based action, very similar to Zelda (the first two Goemon games were basically sidescrollers at heart). Similar to the upcoming Legend of Zelda 64, you explore ancient towns, haunted castles, and mysterious bamboo groves in polygonal 3D and solve puzzles to advance. But that's where the similarities end. Goemon is wacky. Really wacky. The game never takes itself seriously -- whether you're talking to the ghost of a wise man in a Hamlet-inspired seance (complete with laugh track) or smashing tiny mechanical armies in your Goemon Impact robot.
Like in all other Goemon games, you are safe inside the towns, except for the occasional thief or two, and can shop for power-ups, refresh your health by sampling the local cuisine, or pass out in little inns to prepare for the perils of travel. The gameplay offers mainly platform jumping and exploration, but there are of course plenty RPG elements and you can talk to everyone and everything (you'll know what I mean once you play the game). Unfortunately, much of the text in the game is silly babbling and there is very little character development. But that's not what Goemon is about. It's all in silly fun. If you're turned off by slightly strange Japanese humor, stay away from this game. If you're looking for something in the line of Zelda or the original Mystical Ninja, this is the game to get this month.
Although the game borrows a whole lot of ideas from Zelda (there's a turtle rock, a hook shot, and even an ice beam), the ability to switch between characters with unique abilities adds some more depth and originality to the game. For example, Ebisumaru will eventually learn how to shrink himself so he can fit into mouse holes, and only Yae can dive underwater and find hidden areas or passageways.
Once you leave a city, you can explore the 3D environments just like in Mario 64. But instead of jumping on enemies' heads, you whack them with a pipe, sword, throw coins at them, or use whatever weapon your character has handy. During the course of the game, you find different weapons and power-ups, and eventually increase your health meter like in the Zelda games.
Characters: Set in ancient Japan, the game gives you the chance to control the actions of up to four different characters (one at a time):
Story: The story is typical Goemon fare. An evil troupe of dancers and singers, called the Momoyama Shoguns, are unhappy with the spatial limitations of their theaters. They stick their heads together and come up with an unusual solution: Kidnap all children, turn them into dancers, and change the whole world into a musical stage. Of course, this is easier said than done. With their peach-shaped UFO, they set out to transform several Japanese landmarks into Western ones. But as soon as they change the beautiful Edo (Tokyo) Castle into a western mockery with flags and towers (critical overtones of Westernization, anyone?), things get personal. Goemon and Ebisumaru vow revenge and set out to free Japan from the entertaining threat.
Mystical Ninja's quest will take you from the warm South, Kyushu, to the snowy mountains of Hokkaido in the North. On the way, you will be able to marvel at many landmarks and towns that are loosely modeled after real historic locations. Who would have known that you actually could learn something from a game?
Well, okay, so the quest also leads from a pipe shop at the top of Mount Fuji to soup-filled submarines. Nope, it's not your average story and it doesn't make much sense -- but it's entertaining nonetheless.
Graphics: Many beautiful locales and pretty textures highlight the polygonal landscapes, but the 3D engine suffers from painful slowdown, and some of the enemy characters are simply lame, with little detail or originality. The bosses, on the other hand, are excellent. As a matter of fact, sometimes you will be able to ride in your giant Goemon Impact Robot (announced with the song "Gorgeous Impact") and deliver a hand-to-hand mech battle Punch-Out-style. The motion-captured animation (believe it, or not) is excellent. You will crack up the first time you see Ebisumaru's crawl move. Nevertheless, the graphics are often questionable with clipping and awkward camera angles and nowhere near the quality of Nintendo's or Rare's recent crop of titles.
Sound: The music is pretty cool, with memorable Japanese shamisen and pop tunes (that change depending on your surrounding) and even a complete opera finale. In addition to the many regular melodies, there are three cool stereo songs (mixed midi and voice) with sung lyrics in Japanese (English subtitles). After playing for a few hours, some of the songs will permanently burn themselves into your brain and you will hum them for days -- something that can't be said for most N64 titles.
Control: The often questionable control is another disappointment. It's not always bad, but camera adjustment is awkward and Konami tried nothing to fix some of the problems, such as aiming in 3D, inherent in the genre (Zelda will be the game to do that).
Data Management: Arrrgh. You need a controller pak to save. Good thing three saved game slots only take up 16 pages.
Compared with its predecessors the 64-bit Goemon falls slightly short of the mark. Sadly, the many mini-games of the first four Goemon games (such as a hidden version of Gradius, horse racing, or air-hockey) and the excellent two-player modes are not making a return. While it doesn't hurt the gameplay all that much, it severely limits the replay value, a strong point of the otherwise linear 2D Goemon games in the past.
Overall: With its quirky characters, easy quest, and great sound, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon should ease the torturous wait for Zelda for those who are willing to forgive slight graphical problems. N64 owners eager to get their hands on anything that smells even remotely of an RPG will find a funny title -- worthy of the Konami name that has recently been tried by heartless conversions. Unfortunately, the off-beat nature of the Goemon series also makes the games a matter of taste. There will be people who will absolutely hate this game because of its subject matter -- so definitely rent it before you buy. I like this game (mmmh, maybe I've spent too much time in Japan), even though it's strictly a first-generation title that will look hopelessly outdated in less than six months.