Hidden Levels: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon

In All, Video Games by Matt Morris

In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.

Game: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (1997 JP / 1998 NA)

Genre: Action / Adventure

Platform: Nintendo 64

Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka

Publisher: Konami

These days, it’s a little tough to find love for the N64’s library around the internet. Compared to the beautiful 2D masterpieces of the late 16-bit era, the early titles of the 3D era have aged pretty poorly. In so many cases, the march of technological progress has relegated all but the most popular N64 games to obscurity or disfavor with non-enthusiasts. I think that’s a shame.

While I admit that a lot of N64 games might look (or even play) terrible by today’s standards, there are more than a few gems in the system’s library that stand out among their peers. One such game, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, remains one of the most bizarre and entertaining adventures I’ve played in my years as a gamer, and that’s saying a lot.

What is this game?

You may be familiar with the Goemon series of video games from Konami. The long-running series began in 1986 with the arcade game Mr. Goemon, and its many entries in the years since have typically followed the adventures and exploits of a man named… well… Goemon. (You’re shocked, I can tell.) At any rate, Goemon and his merry band of friends typically traverse a fictionalized–and highly cartoonified–Japan in pursuit of justice and/or mischief, depending on what the circumstances dictate. Regardless of plot details, most Goemon games tend to be comedic affairs, often breaking the fourth wall and cracking jokes at their own expense.

Konami has rarely bothered with localizing the games, probably because they are (for lack of a better phrase) extremely Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese myself, but I can only imagine that the original scripts for these games are absolutely riddled with Japanese pop-culture references and puns that have no English-language counterpart.

Needless to say, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon exists very much within the irreverent mold of the rest of the series. The story takes place in feudal Japan as always, and involves Goemon and co.’s fight against an invading force of aliens named the Peach Mountain Shoguns, whose goal is to turn Japan into a giant stage. They intend to use said stage to put on an elaborate, Broadway-style musical revue for their fans. Yes, I am one hundred percent serious. Along the way, Goemon must contend with brainwashed dragons, killer robots, ancient magic, and a journey to a portion of Japan that has been ripped out of the ground and flung into outer space. It’s all intentionally far-fetched, of course, as is the norm with this series.

Structurally, the game plays a whole lot like the three-dimensional Zelda games. (This is especially impressive when you consider the fact that there had not yet been a three-dimensional Zelda game at the time Mystical Ninja was released.) You travel from dungeon to dungeon, working your way through rooms filled with puzzles and enemies and picking up keys to progress. There are boss fights at the end of each dungeon, and you pick up heart containers after each to increase your health. In the world outside these dungeons, your newly obtained abilities and items allow you access the next area of the story, and you can pick up more money and heart containers to keep your resources and supplies fully stocked. It’s certainly a very familiar routine for the genre these days, but it works remarkably well in this game when you consider how early in the N64’s life cycle it released, and how uncharted the territory had been in terms of 3D technology and presentation.

But don’t get me wrong–as much as Mystical Ninja co-opts the Zelda formula, it also brings ingredients of its own to the gaming gumbo. There are several giant robot fights throughout the game which ditch the third-person camera entirely in favor of a cockpit view. Piloting the giant robot Impact, you get to face off against evil robots by punching, kicking, and laser-blasting them to oblivion. It’s a unique setup, but it lends the game plenty of unique flavor.

So what makes it so special?

Well, let me ask you this: have you ever played a game with a sitcom-style laugh track before? This game has one.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is, in my experience, the perfect distillation of silly fun. The script is so incredibly Japanese, so riddled with foreign mythology and pop culture references and nonsensical jokes, that it almost feels intentionally difficult to parse. A localization that struggles to communicate nuance and humor across cultural boundaries will often bring down a gaming experience, but in the case of Mystical Ninja, the experience is actually richer for it. Hearing a sitcom audience laugh and applaud at dumb one-liners and wacky characters, you can’t help but laugh along. Even if you don’t know why you’re laughing in the first place.

On top of that, the game’s visual design is a wonder to behold.

Imagine a theoretical Japan in which every piece of historical mythology is one hundred percent real. Now imagine that for a year or two, dim-witted aliens observed this mythological Japan, and were tasked afterwards with making designs for robots and dungeons imitating the various things they saw. That is what the game’s enemy and dungeon design feels like. It is absolutely baffling, and yet perfectly attuned to the game’s sensibilities and even its storyline. (The antagonists are, after all, a collective of alien robot vaudevillians.)

As an example, at one point in your quest, you travel through an underwater submarine which is filled with giant replicas of Japanese food items. You ride giant ramen bowls on rails to get from one room to another, and walk across pathways made of shrimp tempura. In another dungeon, there’s a room with a giant-sized billiard table, with balls larger than the average human, and at one point you have to play a giant crane game to obtain a toy camera that reveals ghost robots. These are just a sampling of the bizarre environments you find yourself exploring, but they represent the kind of oddity that makes the game so special.

At the time the game was released, it was rare to see such an immersive and open 3D world in a console game. Early in the game, after rescuing a dragon from an alien mind-control device, Goemon receives a flute which he can use to call the dragon and fly back to any previously visited town or coffee shop. This method of fast travel is convenient for moving the game’s pace along, but the option still remains to travel back to previously visited areas on foot as well. The world has a sense of oneness to it, in much the same way that later N64 games like Ocarina of Time do, and the ability to revisit old locations through a variety of means does a fantastic job of masking the game’s linear progression behind a sensation of freedom.

But there’s one other element of this game that stands out more than any other: the soundtrack. The game’s team of composers (Shigeru Araki, Yusuke Kato, Saiko Miki, and Yasumasa Kitagawa) put together arguably the best soundtrack in the entire N64 library for this game, with incredibly memorable and catchy melodies and even a few Japanese vocal tracks. To my mind, they remain some of the most memorable songs of the 32-and-64-bit era, even among heavy hitters like Final Fantasy VII / VIII / IX and Chrono Cross on the PlayStation.

God, I could go on for pages posting examples. I’ll never grow tired of these tunes.

Any criticisms?

This is the part where I circle back around to the whole “early 3D era” thing.

Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with the Nintendo 64’s oddball controller as well as a development cycle predating all modern advancements in 3D control schemes, you have a recipe for frustrating camera controls. There are some limited options for adjusting the camera angle in Mystical Ninja, but they are awkward to manage and at times they can transform a few already-tricky jumps into downright infuriating ones.

There’s also the question of combat itself. While the game is usually fairly forgiving in terms of making contact with an enemy, it can be a little wonky at times trying to make your attacks connect. There is no Ocarina of Time-style “z targeting” system to be found here. As anyone who has played Ocarina of Time will likely admit, that innovation was a huge blessing to 3D action games in this vein–and it would have been very welcome in Mystical Ninja if it had come out a year or two later. But I guess you can’t win ’em all.

It feels a little dumb to call out the primitive polygons of Mystical Ninja under this section, since they were strictly a limitation of the time and couldn’t have been helped, but I suppose it’s worth reiterating that folks who have a low tolerance for poorly-aged N64 graphics may have a tough time grappling with this one. Caveat ludius, I suppose.

Why was it overlooked?

Well, look at it. Can you honestly say, looking at the game, that it would have made sense to an American audience?

As much as I hate to admit it, I completely understand how this game flew under a lot of people’s radars here in the West. I really believe that one of the game’s greatest strengths is how odd its sense of humor is, and how weird the whole experience looks and feels. But weird humor and bizarre characters do not a marketing success make.

It bears mentioning that the game does have a fairly dedicated following among hardcore gamers in the West these days. You’ll often see phrases like “hidden gem” and “underrated classic” attached to write-ups of the game around the internet.

How can I get a hold of it?

This one is a little hard to get your hands on these days. Unfortunately, the only legit way to play this game is on original N64 hardware with an original cartridge–the game goes for around $30 or 40 on eBay these days. The spotty nature of Nintendo 64 emulation makes this game unusually hard to emulate without graphical bugs, in my experience, so I can’t even recommend that option for those of you who would rather break out your yo-ho-ho’s and your bottles of rum to sail the high seas.

But the bottom line is this: Mystical Ninja is well worth playing, even if the barriers to entry are many.

Final Thoughts

I’ve noticed there’s a certain camaraderie among people who played and enjoyed this game back in the day. It’s like we all shared in some experience that broke past the boundaries of comfortable N64 classics like Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye and ventured into a niche filled with color, creativity, and strangely charming nonsense.

I got into an elevator once with a guy roughly my age and just as the elevator started to move, his cellphone started ringing with the Kai Highway theme from Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. (It’s the first example track earlier in this article.)

We both kind of looked at each other for a second. I was trying to figure out if I was really hearing the soundtrack from Mystical Ninja on a random dude’s phone, and I imagine he was trying to figure out if I thought he was a fucking crazy person for choosing a Nintendo 64 game’s soundtrack as his ringtone. After a beat I asked him, “You played Mystical Ninja too?”

Soon enough we were both gushing about how incredible the game is.

If there had been anyone else in the elevator, they would’ve had no idea what to say, but we both knew… and that was all that mattered. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is one of the best overlooked masterpieces of its time.

I’ll leave you with this. Because I can.