What do you get if you take a generous helping of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, mix well with a portion of Mario 64, and add a heavy sprinkling of traditional Japanese culture? The answer, of course, is Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for Nintendo 64. Developed and published by Konami, it was released in Europe and North America in 1998 as a follow up of sorts to The Legend of the Mystical Ninja on the SNES.
Playing as Goemon or one of his three allies, you are tasked with saving medieval Japan from the threat of the Peach Mountain Shoguns – a strange gang led by the flamboyant Spring Breeze Dancin’ and Kitty Lily, who want to use their “instant stage beam” to turn the land into one giant performing arts stage. Sounds bizarre? Oh it is, but it’s also pure brilliance.
As touched upon earlier, Mystical Ninja plays quite like Nintendo’s own Ocarina of Time. In order to save Japan, Goemon, Ebisumaru, Yae and Sasuke must travel all over the country, clearing enemy castles, collecting miracle items and generally undoing the dastardly handiwork of the Peach Mountain gang. However, while the dungeons of Zelda place an emphasis on solving puzzles and sword-fighting in order to proceed, with Mystical Ninja the onus is more on platforming skills; hence the comparison with Mario 64.
Each of the four playable characters has their own unique weapons and special abilities, and the player will need to make use of them all at some point or another. Certain parts of the game can only be accomplished through the use of a certain character’s abilities. For example, Ebisumaru can shrink in size to fit through small holes while Goemon can use his chain pipe to cross otherwise impossibly wide gaps. What’s more, Goemon and friends can also occasionally call on the help of the giant fighting robot, “Impact”, in order to engage in combat with giant mechanical foes. Yes, as if this game wasn’t amazing enough already, it pulls out some first-person giant fighting robot battles!
The amount of care and effort that has been put into Mystical Ninja is evident from the first time the power switch is turned on. Cut-scenes and in-game dialogue are filled with wacky humour, terrible jokes (so bad they’re good) and even worse puns, all of which are accompanied by canned laughter. The game breaks the fourth wall on several occasions and modern inventions like television and aeroplanes are mentioned even though the game is supposedly set in feudal Japan. Even the late Michael Jackson (or “Jichael Mackson, to be precise - possibly to avoid legal issues?) gets a mention. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what makes it great. For downright funky zaniness, there is nothing on the N64 quite like Mystical Ninja.
The game features a number of unique and varied locations from one end of Japan to the other - from the tranquil shoreline of the south to the snowy heights of Mount Fear, and the bamboo forests of Yamato to the groovy Ghost Toys Castle.
In-game textures are decent, especially for an N64 game, and the graphics on the whole are very nice. It’s certainly fair to say that Mystical Ninja is possibly the most colourful game on the system. Everything is bright and vivid, sometimes almost to the point of being garish, although with particular locations such as the Peach Mountain Castle, garishness is the whole point. Character models are nice and chunky but also detailed enough to portray facial expressions, such as grimacing when hit or gasping for breath while stationary. It’s the nice little touches like these that make the game so charming.
Also of a very high standard is the in-game music. Not content with somehow squeezing three fully lyrical songs onto the cramped confines of the N64 cartridge, Konami have ensured that the rest of the game’s tunes will have you bopping your head and tapping your feet in an approving manner as well. Combining traditional Japanese melodies and instruments with modern basslines, drumbeats and upbeat tempos, it’s without doubt some of the greatest music to grace the Nintendo 64. Words can’t do it justice: you simply have to hear it for yourself. A very nice feature is the way in which the further into a castle you get, the more complex the tune in the background becomes. You start off with a fairly basic beat, find yourself exploring deeper into the castle, and before you know it, a complex tune has gradually built up in the background. It’s actually possible to tell how far through you are by simply listening to the music!
Mystical Ninja is also fairly unique in the amount of cut-scenes that it has to offer. On a cartridge-based system where storage space was always an issue to developers, Konami outdid themselves and produced a very cinematic offering. However, it’s not just a nice novelty to be treated to so many cut-scenes on the Nintendo 64; the cinematic sequences are of a high standard in their own right and help move the story along nicely.
However, in squeezing so much high quality music, speech samples and cut-scenes onto the cartridge Konami may have inadvertently paid the price in other areas of the game. To put it simply, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is not very long. Even those playing through for the first time should be able to beat the game in around ten hours, and competent gamers will have it licked in less than a week. There are only five enemy castles in the game and none can truly be considered large. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is also rather easy and doesn’t offer experienced players much of a challenge: health is in plentiful supply and enemies are more of a mere annoyance than a true threat. As well as this, there are a few points where the game flat out tells you what to do. It’s normal to expect a few hints to tell you where to head next on your quest or how to clear a room’s puzzle, but subtlety was apparently a foreign concept to Mystical Ninja’s English localisation team.
Mystical Ninja is also a very linear experience. There technically are few sidequests, in the way that they aren’t directly related to taking out the Peach Mountain Shoguns. However, their completion is mandatory if you want to proceed on your journey as they are part of the story as a whole – so no optional extra Zelda-style trade-sequences here, unfortunately. The only extra challenge beyond beating the final boss is to find all of the Silver Fortune Dolls scattered throughout the game.
But by far the worst aspect of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is the camera, and of course, when a bad camera meets platform gaming, things get ugly. You have no control over the camera angle. It simply follows behind your character and automatically adjusts itself when necessary. To be fair, it works fine around 80% of the time, but there are moments when you have to make a tricky jump and have to wait for it to centre itself behind you. Seeing as you have no control, the most effective way to do this is to hold ‘Z’ to crouch and simply wait for it to adjust itself, which is as fiddly and tedious as it sounds. The camera will often also adopt bizarre angles and allow you to see through walls, which doesn’t really impede the gameplay at all but it reeks of a lack of polish.
Finally, the overworld map is no use at all: it’s just your head flashing over the area of Japan that you happen to be in. No routes, roads or anything. The overworld is basically just a series of large, inter-connected rooms with a sky, and it’s easy enough to get lost when travelling around without a horribly vague map as your only means of navigation.
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is something of a rarity – a quality third-party game for the Nintendo 64, and as such comes highly recommended. Mystical Ninja stands out from the rest of the N64 library as something with its own truly unique flavour; sure, it’s not the longest or hardest adventure game ever and the camera could be more refined, but you’ll want to come back and play it again and again – it really is that good. Here’s hoping that Konami can work around the need for a Controller Pak to save your data and get it out on the Virtual Console so that more people can get the chance to experience this hidden classic.