The Super Nintendo (even in Japan) was marketed as a family friendly system, something easily proven by taking a glance at its excellent game library. Despite that, you can find yourself a few horror gems targeted at a more mature audience that naturally never made it out of Japan. KSS produced one such game: Majyuuou (literally "King of Demons"). You might dismiss it as yet another Castlevania wannabe, but dig a little deeper and you will quickly realize that Majyuuou makes the Belmont saga seem like a kid friendly matinee.
The game puts you control of Abel, a reluctant '90s hero who wears jeans, a white tank top, white sneakers and a red bandanna. That's a lot of very impressive detail for such a tiny sprite, something that is common with all of the game's graphics, not just the hero. You'll find no holy whips here as Abel carries a gun, and holding the attack button down allows you to charge up and let go with a huge blast of energy instead of the regular tiny bullet.
But what good is a gun without a reason to use it, right? As it happens Abel has a pretty good one: His best friend Bayer sold his soul to demons which is borderline forgivable, but the cad also sacrificed his wife Maria, daughter Iria and (we assume from the intro) Elia the family cat in order to raise Lucifer the titular King of Demons from his eternal slumber. This is the kind of affront that Abel simply can't turn a blind eye to, but his initial attempt to get revenge fails. The game begins with Abel being badly beaten by Bayer, but the spirit of his slain wife Maria resuscitates him and the quest to rescue Iria from the depths of Hell begins in earnest.
Hell is a lively place, represented by seven stages (the seven levels of Hell - clever!) which are as varied as they are detailed. Even for a late generation Super Famicom game, the attention to background detail is simply breathtaking with fine examples of pixel art littered everywhere. Abel controls satisfyingly along platforms with his sliding and double jump abilities coming in handy on many occasions. It is possible to play the whole game in human form (if you're up for the challenge) but one of the game's unique mechanics comes into play after you defeat each stage boss.
They drop jewels that represent their souls, and these cycle between red, green and blue. Hopefully you're a fan of Sega's Altered Beast because this is as close as we ever got to it on the Super Nintendo: each colour will allow you to change into a different demon. Abel can chose to sacrifice his humanity to more efficiently fight his way to his daughter. Red will turn you into Hybrid, a mix of Abel's human form and a Harpy. Green will turn you into Centurion, a sort of hellish foot soldier. Lastly Blue will turn you into Azure Dragon which is exactly what the name implies. Each form has different base stats, all of them being stronger than Abel's frail human form and each comes with its own unique set of attacks and charge abilities. The choice of what to use on each level is left to the player and while not giving anything away, there are secret transformations to discover. As you can imagine, this gives the game immense replay value.
It's worth keeping in mind that this is a very dark game in tone. That little fairy familiar that tags along with you? It can attack enemies but is actually Maria's soul, and if you should die, she will sacrifice herself one final time to resurrect you and give your daughter one last chance at freedom. Despite not being family friendly in tone, the game certainly knows what family is all about, and deals with the topic in quite a mature manner. While we're not fond on giving out spoilers, you should know that there are some very clever plot twists tucked away in the narrative. In fact, the transformations you make along the way alter the end game, with two possible outcomes. For a platformer in a system that is well known for its vast and varied offerings, Majyuuou certainly shakes things up with its uniqueness.
The game falls a bit short in longevity. After your initial playthrough it is quite possible to see it from introduction to ending in about half an hour. Gameplay wise there are sometimes stiff jumps that will be more of a challenge than the enemies that populate the levels. This is somehow balanced by the amount of incredible boss fights that more often than not are as big as the whole screen. A special mention goes to the soundtrack that has a few memorable tunes and a lot of ambient minimalist pieces that you don't even remember are there - but in a good way. Composers Hiroshi Iizuka and Tomohiro Endo manage to make Hell an even more eerie place thanks to their music.
Majyuuou gathered a cult following after its 1995 release and it's easy to see why. Apart from Dark Half, very few Super Famicom games ever presented the player with such a grim and foreboding plot. Thanks to Aeon Genesis you can understand the whole drama in English after the 2005 release of the translation patch which you can use on your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak. Of course, that due to the game's plot and many religious allusions, there was little chance this would have been green-lit for Western audiences at the time, regardless of how much censorship the publisher was prepared to do. It is most certainly worth playing for the gorgeous graphics alone, but you won't get the full experience unless you know what is going on. It might not be the best platformer on the Super Famicom, but it offers so much uniqueness that it is hard to ignore, despite the relatively short time it will take you to complete it. Hell has no right to be this gorgeous, and Majyuuou is well worth a look if you're a fan of gothic action titles.