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5 Retro Video Games to Experience Medieval Japan With

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Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Ced's favorite shows and adventures 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 video games able to teleport you right into the heart of those fascinating times!

Japanese box art for the first Ganbare Goemon game for the SNES.

Japanese box art for the first Ganbare Goemon game for the SNES.

A matsuri! With quirky mask wearing villains!

A matsuri! With quirky mask wearing villains!

1. "Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki"

Renamed as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja in English-speaking markets, Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki was the first SNES title of Konami’s beloved series inspired by Ishikawa Goemon, a Japanese Robin Hood.

Like earlier NES episodes, Goemon’s quest sees him journeying through various fiefdoms of medieval Japan, in an adventure that is worthy of the description, a pan-Japanese odyssey. It is also a wondrous solo journey full of classical Japanese sceneries and mythical motifs, with plenty of uniquely Japanese social quirks as humor.

What’s more, within the game, you could even “sample” famous Japanese delicacies like dango and ekiben, these being items you purchase to replenish your health. How’s that for completing the sensation of a virtual vacation?

Lastly, I recommend playing Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki, instead of the earlier NES episodes, because of its superior graphics and action. If you enjoy it, do check out the wackier sequel too, which roughly follows the same format.

Few retro video games come close to the Ganbare Goemon series in reproducing the sense and flavor of medieval Japan. Few games celebrate Japanese tourism as much too.

One of the most macabre retro video games ever made, Genpei Tōma Den is based on one of the most politically significant military conflicts in Japanese history.

One of the most macabre retro video games ever made, Genpei Tōma Den is based on one of the most politically significant military conflicts in Japanese history.

Be warned. This game is as unforgiving as it is bizarre.

Be warned. This game is as unforgiving as it is bizarre.

2. "Genpei Tōma Den"

Genpei Tōma Den is a side-scrolling hack and slash released by Namco in 1986, with the story of the game based on the historical struggle between the Heike and Genji clans.

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 a grueling quest to defeat his archenemies. These being the leaders of the Genji (Minamoto) clan. To defeat Yoritomo, the supreme leader of the Minamotos, Kagekiyo also needs to assemble the Imperial Regalia of Japan. This includes the famous Kusanagi no Tsurugi i.e. the “Grass-Cutter” sword of Japanese mythology.

Coming to gameplay, this creepy side-scroller is notorious for being a challenge, mostly because of its rather stiff controls. That aside, its bizarre stages have been described as an immense Yamato-e scroll brought to life, with Japan’s most famous landscapes serving as backdrop.

Of note, Genpei Tōma Den is one of the rare retro video games in which the Minamoto leaders are portrayed as antagonists; they almost always feature as heroes. This twist strongly adds to the overall macabre feel of the adventure. Have I mentioned one of the stages is none other than the Japanese version of hell?

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Check out this promotional cover for Fudou Myouou Den. It doesn't get more Japanese than this!

Check out this promotional cover for Fudou Myouou Den. 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 when playing.

Being 8-bit, the game is a little bland when it comes to graphics. But you wouldn't mind this too much when playing.

3. "Fudou Myouou Den"

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

Game objective aside, this retro NES gem is superb for experiencing medieval Japan because the stages are such 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. There is even a climactic fight in the depths of hell (Yomi).

Furthermore, this retro gem shines with how it incorporates famous Buddhist, Shinto, and Noh archetypes into its boss designs. Many bosses are even directly based on famous Japanese statues, historical characters, or folkloric figure.

To put it in another way, playing Fudou Myouou Den is an 8-bit immersion course in Japanese culture. In my case, this immersion led to me loving Japan for life. Before each trip there, I honor this retro NES title by replaying it another time.

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.

4. "Musya"

To be honest, Musya is lacking as far as game mechanics are concerned. Combat is rigid. Stages are also repetitive and 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 video games for the SNES when it comes to that particular storytelling genre, because playing Musya is akin to watching a classic Japanese horror movie. Movies such as the classic horror showcase Kwaidan, or the Kurosawa masterpiece Rashamon.

Add to which is how the game incorporates many famous Japanese icons into its gameplay. The most obvious examples of these are the protagonist’s power-ups.

Lastly, the soundtrack of the game is worth a mention. It’s typical 16-bit era game music, but overall, the haunting and ponderous melodies greatly add to the ghostly ambiance.

Kiki Kaikai is among the best retro video games to experience the world of Japanese yokai with.

Kiki Kaikai is among the best retro video games to experience the world of Japanese yokai with.

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.

5. "Kiki KaiKai: Nazo no Kuro Manto"

If you’re fascinated by Shintoism and the Yokai culture of medieval Japan, this is the SNES 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 as in the West, throws you right into the heart of Japan’s native religion. You play as a Shinto shrine maiden out to save the world. Your weapons are also a sacred whisk and handy flying talismans.

If that’s not kawaii enough for you, you could alternative play as a tanuki. This anthropomorphic raccoon character is itself a popular Japanese yokai, and within Japanese folk culture, one of the most beloved ones too.

Finally, all stages of this game feature colorful Japanese religious and rustic sceneries. For good measure, there are also anime-like cutscenes. In summary, this classic SNES title presents the most exotic aspects of Japan’s home-grown faith in an addictively fascinating and humorous package. Play it for a few days and you might find yourself itching to fly over to Japan right away.

© 2017 Ced Yong

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