There are many among us who got hooked on video games during the Nintendo 64 era, a period that is considered by many to be the golden age of gaming. How many started playing Zelda with Ocarina of Time? How many consider Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie to be some of the finest platformers of all gaming history? How many still hold Perfect Dark as the best shooter ever created? And how many hours have we spent discovering even the littlest of secrets of the charming worlds of Super Mario 64? Those are games that will always remain as classics, that we will always find ourselves coming back to even as we ignore the latest entries in the Final Fantasy or Call of Duty sagas—even as we ignore more modern Mario games. This article is not about those giants that everyone knows and loves. This article is about the unsung heroes that haven`t gotten quite as much attention as they deserve: the Goemon games.
This franchise, originally known as Ganbare Goemon!, was created by Konami in 1986 with the release of Mr. Goemon, an arcade machine game (which you can now play on Xbox Live). The main character was based on Japan's famous thief of the same name, and was set in a feudal Japan where every piece of Japanese folklore and myth roams free upon the land, from kappas to tengus and kabuki fighters. The first installments were mainly beat 'em up sidescrollers, and the NES and SNES saw a fair bit of them—although these games have spawned throughout almost every console, from the PlayStation to the Nintendo DS. However, the games I'm going to talk about today are what I consider to be the finest of the franchise: those of the Nintendo 64 era.
The first of these games, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, broke completely with the sidescroller view and turned into a mixture of RPG and platformer whose gameplay seemed to linger between Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda, whereas the second one decided to go back to the sidescrolling view, giving it a twist by making the stages be semi-3D. However, although immensely enjoyable, it doesn't take itself very seriously: the main premise of the game is that a race of extraterrestrial singers—who for some reason are obsessed with peaches, to the point were they fly a giant peach-shaped spaceship—are invading Japan so they can turn it into a giant stage for their musical and dancing performance (to see the hilarious results, click here). Goemon and his friends, the perverted Ebisumaru, the robot ninja Sasuke, and the woman who can turn into a mermaid Yae, must prevent this by walking through an anachronic Japan were you can find cameras, bazookas, submarines, and, of course, giant mechas that provide some of the game's most humorous yet epic battles.
But the humor of the game just doesn't stop there. There are multiple popular culture references, such as the fact that Goemon, with his superpower, can turn into a super saiyajin, or the "Goetanic" poster we find on a house on the second installment, in a fashion similar to Titanic's cover. The fourth wall could not remain intact in such a game, either, as one of the guards you find along the game tells you that "We'll just keep standing here until you clear the game... kinda painful... kinda depressing..." And the thematic of the game is pretty ludicrous in itself: most of the enemies and locations are inspired on food, such as the sushi or dumpling monsters or the awesome Gourmet Submarine Castle—which is exactly that, a submarine full of soup through which you have to dive, and bowls that serve as platforms. To add insult to injury, the main enemies don't even take you seriously, as they will often tease you by calling the main characters Hernandez and Antonio. To push the limits of ridiculous epicness, the last line Goemon tells Dancin' and Lily, the villains, before he delivers the final blow to their spaceship, is "MY NAME IS NOT FERNANDEZ!" However, if I have to choose, my favorite bit is the one about Festival Town. That is a place that is in a continuous party from day to dawn all year, except for just one day—New Year. Guess what day you arrive there.
But don't be fooled: the fact that the whole game is humorous from start to end doesn't mean it´s not actually good. Not only is it one of the best platformers I have ever played, in league with Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, but it also has some elements that really make it stand on its own. In an age where most RPGs are based in western settings depicted in the most realistic of ways and where you can expect most of the dungeons to revolve around the theme of elements and temples, it is refreshing to see a game based in a mystical feudal and quite colorful Japan where the dungeons are the Festival Castle, the Submarine Gourmet Castle, or even Mt. Fuji itself. Don't think the main characters use traditional weapons: what you can expect are pipes, hammers, and bazookas. Some of the enemies can only be hit after taking a picture of them with a camera, and you can throw away money at them to kill them. Such unusual tools make for very exciting and unexpected gameplay, and are bound to surprise you at every turning point.
The music is another highlight. While it is based on traditional Japanese music, it has enough pop/rock/techno turns to make it enjoyable and even suitable for the strange lands you visit. This is particularly true of the second installment, which has one of the most enjoyable soundtracks I have listened to in my gaming life. However, the first game has something I really liked, something I'd love to see in more games: the music in the dungeons is progressive. That means that you start with a very basic, kind of bland tune, and as you progress through the dungeon more and more instruments start playing, until the point where you have an epic melody just before you face the boss of the castle. That makes advancing through the maze more enjoyable, and certainly more exciting.
Another good thing is that the saga is a collect-a-thon, meaning that you have to explore every single corner of the world to find some of the best hidden items. The most usual of these are the lucky cats (which can be silver or golden), which increase your maximum health when you find them. And of course there are the giant mecha battles: there are only three of them in the first game, while there are five in the second installment, and they are delirious. For some reason, these mechas are called by using some kind of horn, and after that, an epic and utterly absurd cutscene occurs, full with its own song and all. But don't let me spoil you: please enjoy it by yourself. These segments, apart from providing laughs, serve to refresh gameplay by making it as varied as it gets.
This saga, however, has not been very popular in the West, with only a few of its games being released outside Japan. Given how much it relies on Japanese culture and humor, it is really difficult to translate every pun and joke that appear, especially since many of them make reference to aspects of their modern life that most of us wouldn't understand. It is, however, extremely popular in their homeland, and it has featured a number of anime and manga, and they are so popular that they have appeared in Yu-Gi-Oh! and Wai Wai World, among others—and that's not to talk about the fact that the franchise already counts over thirty titles. The last game was released in 2005 for the Nintendo DS, and the saga has been on hiatus since then, only releasing for the Pachislot (Japanese slot machines). Whether we'll see new games being released, or whether these will be localized for Western audiences, is uncertain.
Did you know about this saga before? What do you think about it? Feel free to leave your impressions in the comments section!