If you've played a bunch of Wii and Wii U games over the past few years, chances are that you might have noticed some references to a title you were completely unfamiliar with. Takamaru's Ninja Castle in Nintendo Land? Murasame Castle mode in Samurai Warriors 3? Or perhaps some music in Super Smash Bros. Brawl? All of these (as well as some more in other games) are references to this very game, which has now finally been released outside Japan for the first time since its original release on the Famicom Disk System in 1986.
The Mysterious Murasame Castle, a literal translation of its original Japanese title Nazo no Murasame Jou, puts you in the shoes of Takamaru, a samurai apprentice who has to defeat both an alien creature that has taken over the titular castle, and the daimyos of the neighbouring castles that were corrupted by said alien's power.
In a way, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is like a more linear, action-oriented version of the original The Legend of Zelda. It even uses the same engine, much like how Kid Icarus and Metroid shared an engine not much later. Although there are "only" five stages, each consists of two sections, one outdoors and one indoors, with each inside section ending with a boss fight, except for the final stage which has a boss in both sections.
In each stage, your goal is simply to make it to the end. While each of them is fairly maze-like, there are no puzzles to solve or keys to find, which means that you could technically just run to the end without ever fighting anything but bosses and a few other required enemies. Of course, that's much easier said than done, because this is easily one of the most fast-paced, hectic Nintendo games around, and there's almost not a single moment where you can stand still — enemies, which are for the most part ninjas, will be popping out of bushes, trees, water and even thin air left, right and centre, so you'll be dodging and attacking constantly.
Luckily, Takamaru is well-prepared for the onslaught as he has a number of tools as his disposal. By default you can slash with your sword (if you are close to an enemy) or throw shuriken (if you're not close). While the sword is quite powerful, there's usually too much going on for you to actually get close to something unharmed, so throwables tend to be the safer option. Of course, the trade-off is that these cost ammo, so you'll have to keep collecting more; luckily, enemies tend to drop plenty. Takamaru also has a highly limited-use invisibility cloak that, in essence, temporarily makes him invincible, which naturally makes it great for tough spots.
However, this is just what Takamaru starts with — there are plenty of additional power-ups and weapons that you can find through enemy drops or hidden pickups, or receive as gifts from friendly tanookis, such as fireballs or windmill blades to replace the shuriken, an explosive lightning attack to replace the cloak, shogi pieces that let you fire projectiles in multiple directions, sandals to speed up your movement or allow you to walk on water, and more.
Even when you're fully powered up, the game is still quite tough, but what is surprising is that there's almost no randomness — enemies will always pop out of the exact same spots and do exactly the same thing, which makes everything quite fair. However, in a Gradius-like fashion you'll lose almost all of the available powerups should you keel over, which can be absolutely brutal if you're in a later stage. Unlike the Vic Viper, however, Takamaru at least has three hit points, so he won't instantly disintegrate from the slightest touch — you can even find medicine to replenish lost health, and the game is kind enough to fully refill it after every segment.
For one of the earliest Famicom games, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is also fairly impressive in the audio-visual department, naturally all thanks to the fact it was on the Disk System rather than being a cart-based game. There's quite a lot of variation in the types of screens you'll run through and the enemies you'll fight, with each stage having a different colour palette and the enemies indoors being completely different from those outdoors. It's all accompanied by an incredibly catchy, upbeat soundtrack befitting a samurai that'll keep your blood pumping no matter how many attempts a stage takes. It should be noted that the game is completely untranslated — however, there is little to no Japanese text in the game to begin with, so this shouldn't pose any problem whatsoever.
It's anyone's guess as to why it took so long for this game to finally be released outside Japan, but it is without a doubt a very welcome release. The Mysterious Murasame Castle is unlike any other Nintendo game of the time, with incredibly fast-paced gameplay and a high degree of difficulty which, thankfully, manages to feel completely fair. With all of the references the game has had in recent years, you're now finally able to see what the fuss is all about.