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The Legend of the Mystical Ninja: A whimsical adventure in Japan

Growing up, I played The Legend of the Mystical Ninja at my best friend's house (though I was bad at it), and I had been looking forward to trying it again. It's an unusual, fun adventure game.

I recently learned that in Japan Legend of the Mystical Ninja was preceded by three Famicom games and followed by three more Super Famicom games, none of which were localized for the West! The Japanese name of the series is Go for It, Goemon! It's based on a 1980 Japanese arcade game called Mr. Goemon. The emulation community put out fan translations of the Famicom games between 2009 and 2017. Surprisingly, no translations of the Super Famicom games existed until 2020, all three created by the same people.

The series takes places in early-modern Japan. It has a light-hearted anime aesthetic. The titular character is a spiky-haired kid named Goemon. If a second player joins the simultaneous action (highly recommended), Goemon is assisted by an older, overweight ninja named Ebisumaru. Regrettably, the Japanese names were changed to Kid Ying and Dr. Yang. Yes, that's right, the characters in this very Japanese-themed game were renamed using the Chinese words Yin and Yang (though Yin is misspelled, maybe deliberately). And the word kid was egregiously added because it was the early 90's. The change to the game's title, at least, was justifiable. The thinking must have been that The Legend of Zelda games were best sellers, and the Ninja Gaiden games were best sellers, so maybe Legend of the Ninja? Dress it up a little extra with mystical. As far as early 90's video-game names go, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a winner.

Racist localizations aside, Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a great game. In some ways it resembles beat-'em-ups like River City Ransom. You can jump (B) or attack (A or Y). At first your weapon (Goemon uses a pipe and Ebisumaru a flute) can only hit enemies right next to you. If you pick up a lucky cat, your weapon's reach increases. Picking up a second cat gives you a new weapon with great reach: a spiked yo-yo for Goemon and a party horn for Ebisumaru. Unfortunately, whenever you get hit, your weapon goes back a step. The enemies are silly and colorful and make amusing facial expressions or otherwise react when you hit them. They usually drop a $10 coin. Occasionally, a beautiful young woman or old lady appears. If you touch her, you get $50. If you hit her, though, you lose $20!

The game has nine stages, called Warlock Zones. Each is divided into a town portion, which uses a high overhead perspective, and a side-scrolling platforming section. In town, the background (top of screen) has buildings with doors. Some are houses with citizens who dispense bits of plot-related monologue. You will also encounter restaurants, inns, saunas, stores, a dojo, a travel agency, a fortune teller, a diary keeper, and various mini-games.

Legend of the Mystical Ninja's mini-games are famous. Whenever I played as a kid, we spent more time playing the mini-games than the main game! The games are Memory (aka Concentration), Whac-a-Mole, a painting game in which you try to paint as much of the screen as you can while avoiding walls and squares you've already painted, and a difficult timing-based game called Goblin. In this you try to throw a ball into a cup on a goblin's head. The better you do at a game, the more money you win. There's also a horse racetrack, dice game (guess high or low), quiz show, maze, and lottery.

The most fun games, however, are at the arcade: Gradius and a Breakout clone! It's funny playing a video game inside another game. Unfortunately, the arcade costs $100 and (like in a real arcade) you don't win anything. To be honest, I no longer find these games as diverting as I did when I was young. I was determined to beat the main game, and the mini-games don't help with that—except for the quiz game, which you can abuse to rack up money since it has only a handful of different questions. Also useful is the maze, found in the first and sixth levels. The maze is first-person perspective (à la Swords and Serpents) and contains money, items, and an extra life. There are no traps or monsters, so you can keep replaying it until you have four extra lives. 

Restaurants sell food that heals you one bar of health for every $10 you spend. Inns work the same, whereas the sauna heals you completely for $100. This is usually a bad deal since you start each stage with only eight bars of health. Golden cats increase your health bar for that stage. These are found in the platforming areas and also secret areas hidden in town (try attacking random walls).

Stores sell various power-ups, such as take-out food, sandals, and armor. You carry hamburger and pizza with you until you run out of health, at which point you eat one to replenish some health. You want to stock up on sandals right away, because they increase your walking speed, up to three times. You can hold up to ten pairs at once, which is necessary because every time you get hit by an enemy in town, you lose a pair of sandals! This is one of the most frustrating things in the game, as it forces you to keep replenshing your sandal supply.

The store's prices go up as you buy multiples of the same item. I discovered, however, that whenever you restart the game via your password, the prices reset (as does the level timer, though this rarely matters). As a result, you can avoid price gouging by creating a new password and then resetting the game.

Which brings me to an important point of strategy. When you get a Game Over, the default option is to start the level over from scratch. This sucks if you spent a long time grinding for coin. But there is a second option, which is to go back to the last time you got a password from the diary-keeper. In other words, the diary-keeper functions as a save-point. Therefore, I recommend you visit her only when you are well stocked on items and/or money. This may occasionally require you to replay the previous level, if you die on the following level before you make it to the diary-keeper. But this is usually preferable to starting the new level with nothing and having to spend an hour grinding up again.

There are three tiers of armor and helmet. You gain access to the straw armor and helmet on the second level, chain mail on four, the iron helmet on five, and the golden armor and helmet on eight. The stronger the equipment, the more hits it can absorb before it's destroyed. It's helpful to stock up on them, if you have the coin. (You can check your inventory by pressing SELECT.) Due to the high prices and the fact that levels six and eight require a $980 item to enter the platforming area, I question whether the armor and helmets are worth the cost. It would take me several minutes of slaying enemies to get enough money to buy one helmet and armor, and then I would lose them immediately. If you do buy them, you should head straight to the diary-keeper to create a save point. I should mention here that the passwords are cumbersome to input, so it may not be worth your time. If I were to play this game over again, I would focus on money-gathering on the first couple stages, so that I could afford armor and helmets later. But if you're skilled enough at avoiding enemy attacks to make this work, you may not even need the armor anyway!

The Judo dojo, regrettably, is even more overpriced than the store! Each character has three different techniques ("jutsus") that can be learned at dojos, though each dojo offers training in only two of them. You take four bars of damage whenever you acquire a jutsu. The high prices would be worth it except for one horrible fact: you can only use the jutsus in the platforming area of the current stage: when you go to the next level, you lose them! This is terrible, to the point that you should not waste any money on Judo. Which is a shame, because they seem fun. Nevertheless, your ordinary attack is sufficient to defeat all enemies. If you do want to try a Judo attack (press X), you will need to expend ten scrolls per attack! While scrolls are dropped abundantly by enemies, it's another reason not to bother with Judo.

Don't waste your money training at the dojo.

Another weapon you can skip is the bombs that some stores sell. (Press R to change weapons.) You lob bombs at enemies, but they are pointless. Not only is your basic attack good enough, you can also throw coins at enemies! This works much better than the bombs because coins fly in a straight line with no range limit! You don't want to do this too much, since you need so much money, but in certain situations it is worth it. It costs $4 per shot, so as long as you don't miss often, the coins enemies drop will keep you from running out of money (though you won't be amassing it, either).

The town portions can get repetitive since each stage is largely the same in terms of gameplay, even though the look, theme, plot, and music change. The town portions can also be rather difficult. Beginning with the fourth level, some of the enemies have projectiles. You must learn to dodge them.

The platforming portions of the levels are more interesting. The platforming is challenging without being unfair. Unlike for the town portion, each platforming stage feels unique. For example, in level four you go through some kind of compound, where you encounter buttons that, when pressed, cause the entire room (screen) to rotate 90 degrees (a similar effect was used in Super Castlevania IV). The only platforming segment I disliked is the eighth, because it involves some tricky jumps from and onto moving platforms.

Each stage ends with a different boss, and they are all big, fun, memorable, and neither too difficult nor too easy. Each has a unique gimmick. There is, for a example, a ghost who spins plates, a man with many lanterns suspended over him, and an ever-expanding, gigantic sumo head! The final boss is the hardest. He rains arrows down upon you, and you have to jump up and swat them at his head, which takes precise timing. His second form is easier, as it mostly involves jumping over him, though again you have to time it right. Despite the difficulty, after a few attempts I was able to vanquish him and save the princess.

The plot of the game is nonsense, a very loose thread stringing the levels together. According to the opening cinematic, Goemon is merely looking to stop the Ghost Lady terrorizing the village. But when he defeats her, she turns out to be a shape-shifting cat (!?), who tells him to sail to another island where you will meet the "cat boss" Koban. The rest of the story is equally random, told through humorous cut scenes after each stage. There's a funny ending sequence when the final villain is unmasked Scooby Doo-style. Honestly, the absurdity of the story is a plus, because it matches the game's whimsical nature.

The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a great game, well remembered by many SNES fans. It's more fun with two players but still excellent solo. The game's only serious flaw is the high difficulty. Some of the items are far too expensive. It took me many hours of replaying levels before I beat it. I carefully used the password-save system to minimize how much of my grinding was wasted after a Game Over. Despite this, if you have the patience, I recommend checking this game out.

Grade: A-

Linked Reviews
"The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a fun, colourful, challenging adventure."
— Lee Meyer, Nintendo Life, 8/10

"A wacky take on feudal Japan where cartoonish demons are just as likely to goof around and crack a joke as they are to attack you."
IGN, #32 of Top 100

"An ambitious, entertaining adventure across Japan."
— Daniel Greenberg, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library, 4/5

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