5 Retro Games to Experience Medieval Japan With

Updated on August 29, 2017
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Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Yong’s favourite movies and games are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.

Longing to experience medieval Japan, with its unique culture and gorgeous architecture? Here are five retro games able to teleport you right into the heart of those fascinating times!

1) Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki

Japanese cover for the first Ganbare Goemon game for the SNES.
Japanese cover for the first Ganbare Goemon game for the SNES.
A matsuri! With quirky mask wearing villains!
A matsuri! With quirky mask wearing villains!

Marketed as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja in English-speaking markets, Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki was the first SNES episode of Konami’s beloved series based on Ishikawa Goemon, a Japanese Robin Hood. Like its NES predecessors, Goemon’s quest sees him journeying through various fiefdoms of medieval Japan. It is an adventure that could be described as a pan-Japanese odyssey. It is also one full of classical Japanese sceneries and mythical motifs.

That’s not all. To complete the travel experience, you could also sample famous Japanese delicacies, these being items you purchase to replenish your health. I recommend playing Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki, instead of earlier NES episodes, for its superior graphics and action. If you enjoy it, do check out the wackier sequel, which roughly follows the same format. In short, few retro games come close to the Ganbare Goemon series in reproducing the sense and flavour of medieval Japan.

Goemon Music

Of all retro games on this list, Ganbare Goemon has the most "Japanese" sounding music. Most tracks were composed with a strong Enka flavour.

2) Genpei Tōma Den

This retro game has a decisively macabre feel, and is based on one of the most important military conflicts of Japanese history.
This retro game has a decisively macabre feel, and is based on one of the most important military conflicts of Japanese history.
Be warned. This game is as unforgiving as it is strange.
Be warned. This game is as unforgiving as it is strange.

Genpei Tōma Den, based on the historical struggle between the Heike and Genji clans, is a side-scrolling beat-‘em up released by Namco in 1986. Similar to Ganbare Goemon in how it divides its stages using the medieval fiefdoms of Japan, the game’s protagonist, Taira no Kagekiyo, journeys across Japan in his gruelling quest to defeat his archenemies, the leaders of the Genji (Minamoto) clan.

This game is a challenge, mostly because of its rather stiff controls. That aside, it is an immense Yamato-e scroll brought to life, with Japan’s most famous landscapes serving as backdrop. Of note, Genpei Tōma Den is also one of the few retro games in which the Minamoto leaders are portrayed as antagonists. This strongly adds to the overall macabre feel of the adventure. Have I also mentioned one of the stages is the Japanese version of hell?

3) Fudou Myouou Den

Look at this promotional cover. It doesn't get more Japanese than this!
Look at this promotional cover. It doesn't get more Japanese than this!
Being 8-bit, the game is a little bland when it comes to graphics. But you wouldn't mind this too much while playing.
Being 8-bit, the game is a little bland when it comes to graphics. But you wouldn't mind this too much while playing.

Revamped as Demon Sword in the West, Fudou Myouou Den is named after one of Japan’s most venerated Buddhist guardians. The game itself is an epic adventure to recover various sacred relics, with the overall quest of preventing the resurrection of an ancient destroyer.

This game is great for experiencing medieval Japan because the stages are splendid showcases of the diversity of the island nation. The adventure stretches from the bamboo forests of Kyoto to desolate mountain valleys, to the interior of a Japanese castle, and finally to hell (Yomi) itself. What’s utterly fascinating about this retro title is also its boss designs, which incorporate Buddhist, Shinto, and Noh mythologies. In fact, many of the bosses are directly based on famous Japanese statues or folkloric characters. Playing the game is thus similar to an immersion course in Japanese culture. In my case, this immersion led to me loving Japan for life. Before each trip there, I honour this game by replaying it another time.

Play the Japanese Version

Demon Sword, the English version, not only shortened the game, it also removed many Japanese motifs.

4) Musya

For its English release, Musya, which translates to warrior, was branded as "The Classic Japanese Horror."
For its English release, Musya, which translates to warrior, was branded as "The Classic Japanese Horror."
Don't worry. Not all bosses are this terrifying.
Don't worry. Not all bosses are this terrifying.

To be honest, this SNES title wasn’t a great play. Combat is rigid. Stages are also repetitive and somewhat too similar in feel.

That said, if you enjoy classic Japanese horror, you might find Musya to be an atmospheric experience. In fact, it’s probably one of the best retro games when it comes to that particular storytelling genre. To put it in another way, playing the game is akin to watching a classic Japanese horror movie, movies such as the classic horror showcase Kwaidan, or the Kurosawa masterpiece Rashamon. At the same time, like Fudou Myouou Den, Musya also incorporates many famous Japanese icons in its gameplay, the most obvious examples being the protagonist’s power-ups. Finally, a couple of Musya’s BGM are quite well composed in my opinion. It’s typical 16-bit era game music. But overall, they greatly add to the ghostly ambience.

5) Kiki KaiKai: Nazo no Kuro Manto

Kiki Kaikai. One of the best retro games to experience the world of Japanese yokai.
Kiki Kaikai. One of the best retro games to experience the world of Japanese yokai.
A talking tanuki and a torii shrine. Two classic icons of medieval Japan.
A talking tanuki and a torii shrine. Two classic icons of medieval Japan.

If you’re fascinated by Shintoism and Japanese Yokai culture, this is the game for you. Full of cutesy renditions of Japanese folkloric monsters and characters, Kiki KaiKai: Nazo no Kuro Manto, or Pocky and Rocky as it is known in the West, throws you right into the heart of Japan’s native religion. You play as a Shinto shrine maiden from medieval Japan. Your weapons are a sacred whisk and handy flying talismans.

If that’s not kawaii enough for you, you could also play as a tanuki. This anthropomorphic raccoon character itself a popular Japanese yokai, and to my knowledge, one of the most popular ones too. Finally, all stages of this game feature colourful Japanese religious and rustic sceneries. For good measure, Anime-like cut scenes are thrown in as well. In short, this retro game presents the most exotic aspects of Japan’s home-grown faith in a fascinating and humorous way. Play it for a few days, and you might find yourself itching to travel to Japan soon.

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    © 2017 Kuan Leong Yong

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