Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. The Geek'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!
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 based on Ishikawa Goemon, a Japanese Robin Hood. Like the NES predecessors, Goemon’s quest sees him journeying through various fiefdoms of medieval Japan. It is an adventure that is worthy of the description, a pan-Japanese odyssey. It is also a wondrous solo journey full of classical Japanese sceneries, mythical motifs, and uniquely Japanese social quirks.
That’s not all. Within the game, you could also “sample” famous Japanese delicacies like dango and ekiben, these being items you can purchase to replenish your health. I recommend playing Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki, instead of the 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 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.
2. "Genpei Tōma Den"
Genpei Tōma Den is a side-scrolling beat-‘em up released by Namco in 1986. It's 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 gruelling quest to defeat his archenemies. These being the leaders of the Genji (Minamoto) clan.
The 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 rare retro video games in which the Minamoto leaders are portrayed as antagonists; they almost always feature as heroes. This 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?
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, 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 an ancient destroyer.
Fudou Myouou Den 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 famous Buddhist, Shinto, and Noh archetypes, with many of the bosses directly based on famous Japanese statues, historical characters, 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 honor this retro NES title by replaying it another time.
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.
To put it in another way, playing Musya 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, and like Fudou Myouou Den, Musya incorporates many famous Japanese icons in its gameplay, the most obvious examples being the protagonist’s power-ups. Last but not least, the soundtrack is worth a mention. It’s still typical 16-bit era game music, but overall, the haunting melodies greatly add to the ghostly ambience.
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 a sacred whisk and handy flying talismans.
If that’s not kawaii enough for you, you could alternatively play as a tanuki. This anthropomorphic raccoon character is itself a popular Japanese yokai within Japanese folk culture; it's one of the most popular 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 short, this classic SNES title presents the most exotic aspects of Japan’s home-grown faith in an addictively fascinating and humorous way. Play it for a few days and you might find yourself itching to fly over to Japan right away.
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