Review by WishingTikal
"An artsy adventure through feudal Japan... Must experience."
A popular franchise in Japan, Mystical Ninja, featuring the blue-haired hero Goemon, has seen many games, from action-platformer hybrids, adventures with a touch of RPG, and even puzzle. Unfortunately, only a few selects of these have made it here, which is understandable considering game companies are reluctant to publishing anything deemed "too Japanese" for the American market (a shame). Ganbare Goemon: Toukai Douchuu Ooedo Tengurigaeshi no Maki (but let's just call it Mystical Ninja DS from now on), was one of the DS's first titles to see the light of the day with the system's release, back in 2005. Though it is nowhere as big in scope as other Goemon games, it was a great demonstration of the DS's appeal and a good indication of future games to come. It also happens to be one of the best games that I've had the chance to play on the system, despite a few shortcomings, making it a really worthy import. No, scrap that... a must-import, actually.
As with other Goemon games, this one features a very comical storyline, which mostly parodies stereotypes within the Japanese culture. Obviously, this is most likely one of the reasons the game was not localized, as it would have been hard for the average non-Japanese player to grasp some of the game's subtleties. Besides, the game looks so artsy with all the hand-drawn Japanese text, that I really wonder if it would have kept the same charm once translated. In a sense, the game is better left as is, and imported, as any sort of visual change to it might have ruined it. In his latest epic adventure, Goemon and his friend Ebisumaru have been mistaken for a group of impostors who used their names to perform a series of crimes around the land, leaving the real Goemon and Ebisumaru locked up in jail. After escaping, Goemon must travel around the land to prove he's not the bad guy, and to clean his name. Along the way, he meets many off the wall characters, and gets involved into the most unusual stuff.
The first thing that will strike you as you start playing is that the game's presentation is absolutely beautiful. This might not have been as apparent on the old DS back when it came out, but playing this game on the DSLite nowadays is candy for the eyes. The graphics are totally stunning, and even though it dates back from 2005, I can firmly say this is perhaps one of the prettiest looking games on DS, still to this day. Even Sonic Chronicles, which uses a similar art style, does not even come close to looking remotely as good. Mystical Ninja DS boasts a gorgeous hand-drawn isometric view (sometimes a still gorgeous side-scrolling view as well), which looks just like it has been painted by hand with a beautiful watercolor palette, in a fashion similar to Okami, but with 2D instead. This allows for very detailed environments, and lets you get a fancy feeling of Japan's Edo era. Playing this game is like continuously looking over a pretty painting and never ceasing to be in awe before its beauty. The rendering of nature is splendid, with the lush grassy roads, the illuminated night scenery, the cherry blossom leaves covering the rooftops. The characters look great as well, with cel-shaded 3D that fits the looks of the game. The only thing, as with all pre-rendered graphics, is that it's sometimes hard to tell where the path is, or where to jump, but that's only a minor problem.
Mystical Ninja DS is divided into eight chapters, which retell each of Goemon's various misadventures. However, the game is one large open-ended piece of land, connecting all numerous areas together by paths between every towns and villages. So even though you've completed a chapter, you can still travel back to all the previous locations, although it will take a while with all the enemies and obstacles in your way. This is the only thing I was sort of disappointed with the game, as I was expecting some sort of Zelda overworld, and be able to travel very easily, but instead the game is fairly linear and mostly consists of small areas, with little reason to ever backtrack to past locations once you've moved on. I was also hoping for a little more exploration, but even though the game has its fair share of it, the focus is more on solving puzzles around.
As you journey through Edo, you'll meet other characters who will join your party. You can switch to any character at any time, and each of these characters possesses different abilities which you will need to make use of to get past several obstacles through the course of the adventure. Goemon can move boulders with his gloves, while Sasuke can glide over pits with balloons, and Yae can swim in waters with her mermaid suit. This is only a small sample of the various abilities you'll find as the game advances. The puzzles to solve with these are never too hard or complicated, and most are pretty fun. You'll also occasionally need to use the stylus to touch objects in the environments in order to continue, like tapping on a door to knock, or on a character to wake him up. Most of these are fun little touches, but not really necessary beyond the whole "let's make use of the DS's touchscreen", but in this game it actually feels right as you're expecting all sort of quirkiness from it, like pulling a statue's nose with the stylus to open a secret path. There're a lot of fun little things like these, like if you attack villagers by accident the whole town will turn against you and chase you out.
Mystical Ninja DS is pretty hard to classify because it's basically a mishmash of a lot of things. First you have the whole adventure aspect with the huge world to explore, many villages with shops where to buy items, then you have the action aspect with all the enemies to defeat, two different weapons per character, several bosses, then there's the platforming aspect with all the puzzles to solve with characters' abilities, and also a few mini-games here and there. The game even features a few side-scrolling stages, which are short, but pretty challenging, making good use of the stylus to incorporate fun elements in the platforming, like pulling a rope underneath your character to make him jump higher, or spinning dishes to create platforms to jump onto. There are also some parts of the game where you'll be in control of a giant Goemon robot (Goemon Impact) and assign commands to it to fight off another giant robot, and a few mini-games where you'll need to draw Japanese letters and do some pottery. Sadly, some of these are extremely frustrating because they require you to be way too precise. Nothing's more infuriating than getting stuck on a simple mini-game, and this game does it.
Still, most of the game is well-balanced and fun, thanks to all the variety to keep it interesting. The only thing I'd have to complain about is the fighting, since a lot of the enemies wandering around the maps are hard to hit and you don't come across health and lives very often in the game, so a Game Over when you haven't saved for a while really hurts. Another unfortunate shortcoming is that the game is extremely short. The eight chapters are over quickly, after about five hours, with one little side quest (if you didn't already do it right on the go) left after beating the game, which is to revisit all past areas to find some objects in the environments that you can touch to unlock extra costumes for your characters. This is fine by me since I was itching to re-explore the game's beautiful locations, but it's also a pity that the game isn't any longer, since it's just so fun. Not only that, but coupled with the gorgeous Japanese instrumental soundtrack, and the amazing graphical art, it really saddens me to have to put back this masterpiece into its box once the adventure is over.
Mystical Ninja DS is one of these little gems that make you proud to own a DS, but unless you import it, you'll never know. It's not an easy import either, there is quite a fair share of text, and without an understanding of it, it's never clear where to go or what to do, but even playing the game while using a guide to get through is really worth it and satisfying. All the Japanese calligraphy makes the game even more visually stunning, and is a part of the art, so I'd even say it's better to enjoy it in its original format anyway, as it makes the experience even better and engrossing. Walking through the little lively towns with villagers running down the streets, crossing small wooden bridges over fields of rice, scaling up mountains leaning over astonishing views; every step you take in this game immerses you even more into the Japanese lands of wonders, and for that alone the game is spectacular. It has its few flaws here and there, and it could have been a little bigger, but it's still a thrilling game for Japanophiles and gamers alike.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 06/17/09
Game Release: Ganbare Goemon: Toukai Douchuu Ooedo Tengurigaeshi no Maki (JP, 06/23/05)
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