RetroGrade Review #8: Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon (Nintendo 64 — 1998)

There are some games which I will always love, and Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon, released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64, sits right at the top of the list. It has everything that a nine-year-old geek-in-the-making could ever want in a video game: awesome animé characters, giant robots, Japanese culture, and a sensational soundtrack. The game does have one or two small setbacks, however, though I honestly never noticed them until I played the game through for the purpose of reviewing it.
First and foremost, Mystical Ninja is fun. It is an enjoyable experience and a happy adventure, largely because of its wonderful characters. While the game lacks any voice-acting outside of small sound-effects during gameplay and the occasional exclamation during dialogue, the characters each have their own distinct personalities that are impossible not to fall in love with. Mystical Ninja begins with title-character Goemon and his trusty friend Ebisumaru running from a diner, apparently because the rounder-than-a-circle Ebisu thought it would be a good idea to negotiate a discount by taking his clothes off. As you progress through the game, you encounter Yae, the Ninja Detective who takes her job especially seriously, and the comically innocent and tragically clumsy “clockwork ninja” Sasuke, a robot who runs on batteries. Paired with these unique characters are the antagonists, the Peach Mountain Shoguns – overly-dramatic thespians whose sole desire is to turn Japan into a giant stage, and whose dialogue scenes are complete with audience reaction.

Capping off the game’s cast of characters are the run-of-the-mill NPC’s you meet in towns and coffee shops throughout your adventures, who, while being repetitive in design, each have their own funny and often tongue-in-cheek thoughts about the game’s happenings – from women swooning over how attractive the leader of the Peach Mountain Shoguns is to dogs who offer intelligent input before remembering that they are, in fact, dogs and that they should not be able to do that.

The gameplay itself is great, as well. While reviews at the game’s release decried the lack of two-player action and the missing mini-games from previous series installments, none of that matters if this is your first venture into the world of Mystical Ninja. I had played through this game multiple times over the course of several years before finally learning that other Mystical Ninja games had come before it, and still I am not bothered by the missing modes and features.

The way the game handles combat is similar to a mix of Super Mario 64 and classic top-down installments of The Legend of Zelda series, with each character having assorted attacks based on assorted items, all done using the B button. While it is simple, it lends itself to some cool moments. Are floor panels rising up and flying at you? Spam your main weapon (a pipe for Goemon, mallet for Ebisumaru, sword for Yae, and kunai set for Sasuke) and spin in a circle to bash or slice them in dramatic fashion. Additionally, weapons are easily and instantly swapped with the left- and right-c buttons. Do you find yourself surrounded? Play as Goemon and chuck coins at faraway baddies, switch back to your pipe to simultaneously crush the close ones, then mop up the rest with the mid-range chain-pipe. Or play as Sasuke and be a whirlwind of kunai knives before finishing off remaining enemies with a firecracker bomb.

Cool combinations can also be pulled off during combat by switching between characters, which is done by pressing the down-C button, although these can be limited due to the static order in which the characters rotate (Goemon, Ebisumaru, Sasuke, Yae, repeat). Even so, such extravagant battle maneuvers are not required to finish the game. Most combat scenarios can easily be completed by only using the starting weapons. This might sound like poor game design, but it instead keeps Mysitcal Ninja both accessible and fun to younger, less-skilled gamers.

The only real shortcoming to the gameplay is the framerate issues, which are few, far-between, and random. The only time the game truly suffers from this is, oddly enough, in a hidden area consisting of nothing but ocean, two small islands, and a rowboat. This is an area you will only need to visit once. So let me rephrase this point – the only real shortcoming to the gameplay is the five minutes spent in a hidden area that frankly looks cooler with the slow-motion-y-ness of it all.

“Slow-motion-y-ness.” I’m a genius.

Graphically, the game looks great. There are somewhat-frequent issues with texture-pop-in and not-so-somewhat-frequent issues with screen-tearing if you are ever caught in a corner or up too close against a wall, but these do not come close to negatively impacting the overall experience within the game’s scenery, which is beautiful to look at.

Mystical Ninja’s icing-on-the-cake is its soundtrack, which is equal parts fun, intense, emotionally evocative, and catchy. The music perfectly complements every setting, seamlessly blending traditional Japanese melodies and instruments with 1990’s-era electronic sounds and beats. It is the kind of video game soundtrack that you can take anywhere – which I have. The slow, wintery melodies from Festival Village and Mutsu are perfect to listen to while relaxing with a cup of coffee on early mornings or late nights, the upbeat Oedo Town and Kai Highway tunes are excellent for walks on sunny days, and the intense beats from Kompira Mountain and the Submarine castle are tops as motivational exercise jams.

In terms of replayability, Mystical Ninja, like so many other classic games, operates on the simple knowledge that if you enjoy it, you will play it again. The game will be the same each time, there are no optional outcomes, no scoring systems, and the only real side goal of the game is to collect fortune dolls in order to increase your health. But none of that really mattered then, before games started forcing players to play through multiple times just to earn 100% completion, and none of it really matters now, because Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon is a fun game that never gets old.

Retail copies are, of course, becoming a bit scarce, but are still affordable (they will usually cost around as much as a new, modern game) so I highly recommend taking that route if you have or can procure a working Nintendo 64. Otherwise, definitely grab this for an emulator that has gamepad support. It will be some of the most fun you have ever had with a video game!

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