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5 Retro Games to Experience Medieval Japan With

Updated on March 29, 2017
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Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Cedric’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 that can 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 the 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 medieval Japanese fiefdoms. It is an adventure that could be described as a pan-Japanese odyssey. One full of classical Japanese sceneries and mythical motifs.

That’s not all. To complete the travel experience, you could even sample famous Japanese delicacies, these being items you purchase to replenish your health. I recommend playing Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki instead of earlier NES episodes because of its superior graphics and action. If you like it, do check out the wackier sequel, which roughly follows the same format. The NES episodes are worthy of a look too.

Goemon Music

Of all the games in this list, Ganbare Goemon has the most "Japanese" sounding music. Most of the 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 famous important military conflicts of Japan.
This retro game has a decisively macabre feel, and is based on one of the famous important military conflicts of Japan.
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 the Genji (Minamoto) leaders.

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 acting as backdrop. Of note, Genpei Tōma Den is also one of the rare games in which the Minamoto leaders are portrayed as antagonists. This adds to the overall macabre feel of the game. 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 simple when it comes to graphics. But you wouldn't mind this too much while playing.
Being 8-bit, the game is a little simple 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, and to prevent the resurrection of an ancient destroyer.

This game is great for experiencing Japan, because the stages showcase the incredible diversity of the island nation. The adventure takes you 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 is utterly fascinating about this retro game is also its boss designs, which incorporated Buddhist, Shinto and Noh mythologies. Many of the bosses are based directly on famous Japanese statues or folkloric characters, if not lifted wholesale. 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, many Japanese motifs were also removed.

4) Musya

For its English release, Musya, which translates to warrior, is also branded as "The Classic Japanese Horror."
For its English release, Musya, which translates to warrior, is also 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 too similar in feel.

However, if you like classic Japanese horror, you might just find Musya to be an atmospheric experience. The whole game is akin to watching a classic Japanese horror movie. While replaying this recently, two famous Japanese movies immediately came to mind. Kwaidan, and the Kurosawa classic, Rashamon.

Like Fudou Myouou Den, Musya also uses 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 do add to the ghoulish ambience.

5) Kiki KaiKai: Nazo no Kuro Manto

Kiki Kaikai, for those fascinated by the weird world of Japanese Yokai.
Kiki Kaikai, for those fascinated by the weird world of Japanese Yokai.
A talking tanuki, and a torii shrine. Two classic icons of Japan.
A talking tanuki, and a torii shrine. Two classic icons of 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. Your weapons are a sacred whisk, and 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. Lastly, all stages of this game feature colourful Japanese medieval religious and rustic sceneries. For good measure, there are also Anime-like cut scenes. In every way, this is a light-hearted adventure, presenting the most exotic aspects of Japan’s home-grown faith.

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