Review: Goemon's Great Adventure (N64)

A spectacular sidescrolling sequel

When it comes to underrepresented genres on the Nintendo 64, the humble 2D platformer is perhaps the most neglected of all. Despite forming a cornerstone of the 16-bit generation, the genre suffered a spectacular loss of popularity as the N64, Sega Saturn and PlayStation ushered in an exciting new revolution in the form of 3D gaming.

It was all the more surprising then, when Konami announced that the follow-up to its Zelda-reminiscent adventure Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon would take the series back to its side-scrolling roots.

Goemon's Great Adventure sees the player travelling all over Japan through a total of five different worlds in order to defeat Dochuki, the demonic ruler of the Underworld. Summoned by the villainous Bismaru using the “ultra, gorgeous, electro ghost return machine” stolen from Wiseman, Dochuki seeks to take over the world with his army of monsters straight out of Japanese folklore (anyone who’s played Okami will surely recognise a few). Playing once again as either Goemon, Ebisumaru, Yae or Sasuke, it is up to the player to thwart Bismaru and Dochuki, retrieve Wiseman’s invention and return peace to the land.

You can play the game using either the D-pad or the analogue stick, and although one might think that the former would be the more natural option, using the latter doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all. This possibly has something to do with the fairly distinctive 2.5D graphical style, which at times can actually make this feel like a 3D adventure instead of a 2D sidescroller. Platforms jump out of the screen at different angles, while detailed levels rotate in three dimensions and frequently branch off on separate paths into the foreground and background. Most stages feature alternative routes and exits as well as often striking background scenery. The bold and colourful graphics are actually rather reminiscent of another underappreciated title, Namco’s Klonoa. Rather than playing like a traditional “jump-on-heads” 2D platformer, however, Great Adventure can be more accurately described as an action/platformer, drawing inspiration from earlier games in the series such as the Super Nintendo’s Legend of the Mystical Ninja and even classic Castlevania games.

On the whole, this controls similarly to the previous outing, only on a 2D plane. Projectile attacks are now far more useful here, whereas before the extra dimension made aiming fiddly and not worth the effort. It’s a good thing, too, because in terms of difficulty, this is a much harder game than the first – a stroll in the park it certainly ain't! Falling platforms, bottomless pits, relentless enemies and other hazards all stand between our heroes and the end of each level. Armour, rice balls and other power-ups, which were rendered largely unnecessary by the previous title’s ease, are now far more important for success.

Character-specific abilities return along with a radically overhauled weapon-upgrade system. This time, you start off with your weapon in its most feeble state; grabbing a Silver Fortune Doll will upgrade it by one level, and finding another will increase the weapon to level three – its most powerful form. For example, Goemon will start with a basic wooden pipe, which can be upgraded to a bigger, stronger metal pipe, and then finally a whopping great golden pipe that easily annihilates all enemies with minimum effort. Smashing robots to smithereens and watching them fly apart with a satisfying loud crash never gets old. Taking a hit will drop the weapon back down to its prior state, so watch out.

For the most part, the game is hard but fair – die and it’s your own lack of skill to blame, nothing else. Occasionally though, enemies will fly in at high speed from off-screen with absolutely no warning and providing zero chance to react, which quickly becomes very frustrating. Most players can expect to become swiftly acquainted with the Game Over screen – which would feel a lot more upsetting if it didn’t happen to be one of the weirdest and most hilarious of all time, depicting a bodybuilding devil in short trunks, flexing along to incredibly bizarre music.

On that note, the soundtrack is as fantastic as ever and certainly manages to live up to the impressive precedent set by its predecessor. Similar in style to that of the first game, combining modern sounds with traditional Japanese instruments, the music and sound effects fit each individual location perfectly and set the atmosphere appropriately – whether in a lush forest, a busy town, a seaside cliff, or a fortress in the sky.

As well as catchy tunes, it just wouldn’t be a Goemon game without the trademark crazy humour, and fortunately Goemon's Great Adventure doesn’t buck the trend. Among numerous other examples, Ebisumaru can’t hide his excitement at the prospect of using Wiseman’s resurrection machine to finally meet his hero James Dean, while one of the game’s earlier side-missions sees Goemon and company trying to track down a DJ’s missing records and audio equipment – apparently everyday items in 16th century Japan!

The giant robot battles, another memorable staple of the first game, also return and are more frequent and challenging than before. As well as being able to once again take command of Impact, players can now switch mid-battle to another giant mecha – also one of Wiseman’s creations, this time a female robot, imaginatively titled “Miss Impact”. Switching back and forth between Impact and his female counterpart is vital to avoid the enemy robots’ most powerful blows. Helpfully, you can now view attack commands upon pausing the game mid-battle rather than dealing with their exclusive relegation to the instruction manual. On a more sour note, however, the memorable Impact theme song, as well as the equally quirky and catchy opening number, “Smile Again,” are inexplicably missing from the North American and European releases of the game – a baffling and ultimately disappointing decision, since their earlier equivalents only served to add to the wackiness and charm so prevalent in the original.

Furthermore, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Goemon's Great Adventure isn’t quite as epic in scope as its predecessor. The sense of heading out into a sprawling, wide world for a grand adventure, a staple of the previous game, is now somewhat lacking. It’s an unfortunate yet unsurprising casualty of the switch to 2D, and can be attributed in part to the transfer from an open world scenario to individual stages connected only by a map screen.

One area where this does hold an advantage over the original, however, is in the impressive amount of objectives still to be met even after completion of the main adventure. There’s a whole secret world waiting to be discovered while multiple level exits yield hidden Entry Passes, each of which can be collected to unlock special rewards.

Adding another healthy dose of replay value to the title is the welcome inclusion of a multiplayer co-op mode. Reportedly, a two-player mode was originally planned for the first Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, but this was removed relatively late into the game’s development. Thankfully Konami saw fit to keep it in this time, and it's both entertaining in terms of gameplay and good for a laugh. It’s always fun to share the adventure with a friend, even if there are slight niggles. As is to be expected, characters are limited on how far apart from one another they can move, which feels slightly restrictive. The game is also made slightly easier by the fact that Goemon and company can now re-spawn on the spot rather than having to return to the previous checkpoint upon dying, as long as player two doesn’t happen to die at the same time. In addition, due to the side-scrolling nature of the game, the player farthest to the right will almost always encounter enemies and power-ups first, while the player following behind will do just that – follow. Minor criticisms aside, however, it’s nice to play with a friend and take the levels on cooperatively.

Conclusion

While there’s arguably a slight spark of magic missing in comparison with its simply enchanting predecessor Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, this is still undoubtedly a great game in its own right. Providing a brilliantly entertaining combination of colourful visuals, great level design, crazy characters, fast-paced platforming action, a wonderfully upbeat and diverse soundtrack and the added bonus of a co-op mode, Goemon's Great Adventure is essential for anyone searching for a more traditional platforming experience on their N64 – just don’t expect an easy ride!