When I hark down memory lane to consider the next BFTP addition, there are a few things that run through my mind. There are a plethora of little titbits of games gone by that flood me with waves of nostalgia. These could be a particular section of a game that was unique, the characters or comedy within the game, or indeed the recalling of memories of when I was younger and playing said games – either alone or with friends and family. It is unusual for a game’s music to play so heavily on a fondness for a game, but for me that is one of the things that separates out Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon from other games. And with it celebrating 15 years since its EU release this week, it felt like the right time to highlight to the masses a game that not only had very good, unique music, but was a game that was as mad as a box of frogs as well.
Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon was a 3D platformer / adventure game that was an N64 exclusive way back in 1998. The central protagonist was the titular Goemon, a lad from Zazen Town, who with his friend Ebisumaru set out on an adventure to stop the Peach Mountain Shoguns from travelling across Japan and turning it into some gaudy array of theatres and stages on which they can perform. Throughout the game, they will meet fellow companions Yae – a female ninja – and Sasuke – a mechanical ninja robot – who will join them on their quest. They can even summon the giant robot Impact (who comes complete with his own camp theme tune) to battle against giant bosses. Think of a cross over between 1990s TV series Power Rangers and the Rig fight scenes in the Lost Planet series and you won’t be far from the mark. So yes, completely bonkers.
The source of the craziness is born from the fact that this game is so overtly Japanese, and that’s not just because the story itself is set in the Land of the Rising Sun. The quirky fun that is so often represented in Japanese gaming culture is here in spades, and you just can’t help but fall in love with it. And the quirkiness extends not just in the random and fun nature of the story and characters but in the humour of the game as well. For example the entire point of the game is to prevent Japan from becoming a giant stage, but the game counters this by putting in canned audience laughter after character punch-lines, and cheers at the end of particular series of dialogues between key characters – as though the game itself is one big theatrical performance.
The game itself plays like an open-world Mario 64, with you controlling a single character in your party at any one time. Switching between characters is just a button press away, and the difference in characters is not just for personal preference. Each character has four unique items that only they use throughout the game, and whilst the first of these is used purely for combat, the others are predominantly items used to solve puzzles or further yourself in dungeons etc akin to the Legend of Zelda games. Your characters will traverse various sections and landmarks across feudal Japan from Mount Fuji, to Yamato to Bizen, and as such the landscapes and environments you find yourself in always feel unique and with a purpose.
But now to that music I referenced at the start. Each different section that Goemon and his friends visit has a different music score to accompany it. The same was true for each individual dungeon, and even boss fights too. Whilst that in itself wasn’t completely unheard of – especially in the era that this game was released – it is the diverse nature of these tracks, and how appropriately they captured the mood of that particular moment that makes me remember them so fondly. That and them being intrinsically Japanese meant that the tunes were always “in your face” or emotive depending on the need. I challenge anyone for example to step out onto the Kai Highway (the game’s first open area after Zazen Town) and the music not fill them with a sense of purpose for the adventure ahead.
And in addition to this, the music in Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon did something I don’t think I have experienced in a game since (happy to be corrected in the comments section). During the game’s dungeons (referred to as “castles”), the music would be layered in three distinct tiers. The music would start off fairly low key, until you progressed far enough into the dungeon, where the second tier of music would kick in. The second tier would build on the first, and add additional instruments and riffs to the first to give it either an additional sense of atmosphere or urgency. By the time you had added the final tier, the score was in full swing and the dungeon was giving you everything it had got. It’s a very nice touch, and not only let you know you were progressing through each dungeon, but normally provided you with added impetus to carry on to the end through its upbeat melodies. For an example check out Festival Temple Castle Music to see how it builds.
So Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon is completely barmy. But it is barmy in a way that is so charming and endearing that you will have a blast playing it. Couple this with a musical score that I enjoyed so much I have been guilty of venturing onto Youtube (other video / music channels are available) to enjoy the soundtrack all over again, and it’s no wonder this game has a place in my heart. Due to its very unique (and essentially Japanese) style it didn’t sell as many copies globally as it probably deserved, so there’s probably a few of you who haven’t heard of / experienced this before. But now you have no excuse, seek it out, and give it a whirl, it’ll definitely make you smile, and you’ll probably start tapping your feet too.