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The Mysterious Murasame Castle: Non-stop ninja frenzy!

The Mysterious Murasame Castle is a bit of a lost treasure. It's a frenetic samurai-and-ninja game set in feudal Japan. The real mystery is why Nintendo didn't bring it to the West (until 2014), where I'm confident it would have been a hit remembered alongside Ninja Gaiden.
Look familiar?
This game is a sort of fraternal twin to The Legend of Zelda. Both were made from the same game engine, and it really shows. They both launched on the Famicom Disk System in early 1986, taking advantage of its save feature. However, whereas Zelda is an open-world game with nine dungeons, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is stage-based. You control Takamura through four pairs of two levels each: an above-ground section followed by a castle. The ninth and final stage is the titular Murasame Castle. Although there are branching pathways, stages are mostly linear, like the dungeons in The Legend of Zelda.

The Mysterious Murasame Castle Famicom disk
The main gimmick of the game is that, whenever you enter a screen, cute little ninjas jump out at you from the trees or walls, requiring immediate, almost frenzied action to stay alive. Pushing A swings Takamura's powerful sword if an enemy is next to him; otherwise he throws a projectile. He has unlimited throwing knives, but can also obtain fireball or shuriken attacks. These require ammunition in the form of scrolls dropped by enemies. His attack deflects the ninjas' throwing stars, so you pretty much want to attack continuously. Even if you kill them all, this is only a brief respite; if you linger on the screen, they soon launch a fresh assault! Most power-ups are uncovered by walking over the right space. However, the powerful Inazuma lightning attack is obtained from roving invisible Tanookis that only appear if you slash them!

In addition to the ever-present ninjas, many screens also contain more difficult enemies (which thankfully do not respawn). Two of the hardest are the Bomb Shinobu, who chucks bombs at you, and the Flame Ninja, who is protected by a spinning circle of flames, from which he shoots fireballs at you! This guy is particularly difficult to destroy (though some can be evaded).

This game is hard. In my experience, it's essential to find the hidden Tanookis with the lightning attack. It lets you press B to destroy every enemy on screen, but you only get three uses. Unfortunately, only two of the castles contain the lightning technique; for the rest, you need to obtain it near the end of the outdoors stage and save it. But when you lose all your lives and continue, you start at the beginning of the stage and cannot go back to the previous one to get it again.

Some pills will cure those burns and shuriken wounds!
Perhaps even more essential are pill boxes that refill your health. Since minor power-ups re-spawn whenever you enter a screen, you can return to these as often as you like. There is a time limit, but it's generous.

Each castle contains multiple princesses to rescue, although you don't have to and can instead take the most direct route to the castle's daimyo (lord). The story is that these daimyos have been possessed by aliens or something. Or is Takamura actually a rampaging, delusional maniac? Seems more likely! Anyway, rescuing a princess nets you an extra life, but about half the time the princess randomly turns into a Jealous Spirit that chases you across screens until you kill it (and you don't get a 1-up). Yeah, it's pretty sexist.

A Flame Ninja and Jealous Spirit
There are no RPG elements, meaning Takamura cannot be permanently upgraded. He begins and ends the game with three health, and whenever he dies he loses his power-ups (e.g., rapid movement, rapid shot, fireballs, shurikens, various multishots). As a result, the game is punishingly difficult. The first two stages are okay, but by the second castle (fourth stage), I considered quitting. Success requires repeated attempts to memorize optimal routes to get power-ups and become familiar with enemy patterns and techniques for defeating them. A few hours of grinding got me to the fourth castle (eighth stage), at which point my spirits began to drain. How many hours can you spend mowing down the same ninjas over and over again, slowly improving your performance, before you decide this isn't fun anymore? Since I know the final Murasame Castle is all that remains, I want to keep going!

I want to love this game because it's so damn cool and a great concept, but the honest reality is it's just too difficult. I wish that, after each castle, you got an extra bar of health (as in The Legend of Zelda). I also wish you didn't lose your power-ups every time you die (though you do get to keep any remaining charges of your Lightning or Invisibility technique). You should only lose them when you continue, since that's when you are sent back to the beginning of the level. Respawning de-buffed on the same screen is just cruel and feels like a holdover from arcade games designed to suck up quarters.

This game also has fantastic music with a strong Japanese vibe. All in all, it's a good game, and should have come to the U.S. in 1987. I recommend it for hardcore NES fans who enjoy very difficult games.

Grade: A-

Gameplay: Fun, but perhaps not for everyone (16/20)
Theme: Compelling, fun, well designed concept and characters (20/20)
Controls: Controls are smooth and let you do what you want (20/20)
Difficulty: Too hard; only for the hardcore (9/15)
Graphics: Beautiful, well designed sprites and levels (15/15)
Sound: Multiple beautiful music tracks (15/15)

Can you beat my high score? (Save states not allowed!)
Linked Reviews
"The Mysterious Murasame Castle is unlike any other Nintendo game of the time, with incredibly fast-paced gameplay and a high degree of difficulty which, thankfully, manages to feel completely fair."
— Marcel van Duyn, NintendoLife, 8/10

"It's a hectic, challenging game with an entertaining theme that probably would have done fairly well for itself [in the U.S.]."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works

Stats
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Action
Famicom Disk System release date: April 1986

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