Shortly after the original release of the excellent Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for Nintendo 64, Konami released another game with the same title for the original Game Boy. Tragically, the N64 game has still not been released on Wii Virtual Console, but is this handheld offering a good alternative?
This instalment of the Goemon series plays a bit differently from the other games released in the west, playing more like the Japan-exclusive Famicom titles. Stages are not half town and half dungeon as in The Legend of the Mystical Ninja on Super NES, and don't feature large open fields or long 2D platforming sections like the N64 titles. Instead, each stage is made up of a large number of separate screens in a maze-like fashion, with enemies, shops and citizens to talk to strewn about; it's all viewed from above, kind of like The Legend of Zelda, but a bit more straightforward.
The problem is that you essentially just wander around the substantial levels and hope you bump into whatever it is you need to find, because you're not going to receive any help or tips to find it. Mercifully, however, there is a map you can view on the pause screen, so if you just can't find what you need you can always just look for unexplored squares. Making this even more annoying is the fact that most of the game's five levels have more than one area, such as an above ground area and an underground area in the first stage, meaning two different maps to explore.
At the start of the game, you're allowed to pick between the usual suspects, Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Sasuke, each with their own slightly different stats. Goemon is the all-rounder, while Sasuke sacrifices power for speed and Ebisumaru does the reverse. Regardless of character choice, however, you might find it tougher than normal to actually stay alive in this one, as many of the helpful tools at your disposal in other Goemon games cannot be found here.
Traditionally, in Goemon games, you have a main weapon (such as Goemon's famous pipe), as well as a near infinite supply of weapons to throw, which cost you some coins every time you use them. There's shuriken in this one, but they don't rely on your coin supply, and instead you have to actually find them separately, which is not something you should expect to happen very often. Much like in the Zelda series, at full health, swinging your main weapon will also fire off a shuriken (which is stronger than the others), but the moment you take one hit you can expect to rely on close combat very often; this is quite finicky, as you have to hit the enemies dead on for the hit to count.
Fighting enemies usually isn't even a good idea unless they're intent on blocking your path. Unlike other games in the series, enemies drop absolutely nothing here: no coins, no weapon upgrades, and no scrolls for special attack. This means it's almost always just a waste of time and health trying to kill them. Of course, there are mini-bosses and bosses that you do have to take out to advance, but all the little guys can be avoided. Amusingly enough, the bosses are usually easier than the regular enemies — most of them can be cornered and just whacked repeatedly for a quick defeat.
There are also no items to take with you in this one. The only stores in the game sell food that you will instantly eat and some shuriken, meaning that the only way to heal is by tracking down one of these shops or finding an inn, which does nothing other than heal you. As stated before, enemies don't drop coins, so you're going to have to track down the limited number of chests in each stage to get currency from those instead. Since there's a limited amount, this means that you had better use them wisely; heal too much and you'll be out of cash before you know it.
Yet another frustrating part about the game is its lack of lives. You've only got one chance — there are no checkpoints in stages, so should you die right before the end of a level, you can't just clear the final hurdle with a second life, no, you'll be sent right back to the start and have to do it all over again. Thankfully, the 3DS Virtual Console's save system eradicates this problem.
One slightly redeeming feature about the game is its music, which consists entirely of the whimsical, catchy Japanese songs the series is known for. Unfortunately the graphics don't fare quite as well, as many screens have almost identical features, making the finding of a specific location even more frustrating than it already is.
Not many people knew about this Game Boy Goemon game when it originally came out, but perhaps it's better that way. It's missing all of the addictive gameplay from other instalments and instead is nothing more than a big, frustrating set of mazes which you may grow bored of very quickly. Now, how about that other game with the same title, Konami?