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Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon Review

Publisher - Konami
Developer - KCE Osaka
Platform - N64
Type - RPG
Score - 8/10

Since the launch of the Nintendo 64, there's been one genre that has been completely undeveloped: RPGs. Sure, there's the promise of Zelda, but Nintendo is now saying that they plan to release it this November, a full two years after the launch of the system. For those of us who don't want to wait that long, alternatives are finally starting to appear. Although several games were in the running to be the first RPG on the Nintendo 64, including Quest 64 from THQ, Konami's Mystical Ninja is the first game with RPG elements to hit the shelves.

Mystical Ninja, which is the sequel to Legend of the Mystical Ninja on the Super Nintendo, and actually the fifth game in the series in Japan, lands somewhere between 3D platformer and action RPG. While the game has plenty of action RPG elements, including a huge world with dozens of characters to talk to and plot elements that must be deciphered as you go, it has more platform elements than most RPGs. While this does change the gameplay, it should not distract players from that fact that at its heart, this is an action RPG.

At the start of the game, Goeman and Ebisumaru are goofing off and getting into trouble when a giant "peach-shaped" UFO flies overhead and attacks the castle. Naturally, they go to investigate (after Ebisumaru goes home to get dressed). This leads to the plot of the game slowly being unveiled as Goeman and his friends are sent all over Japan, trying to find out who the real villains are and what their goals may be. Along the way, they will run into other characters who join their party, acquire new items and powers, solve puzzles, and face bosses.

Each of the characters has different abilities, so you have to choose which one to use in a given situation. You only control one character at a time, but you can change which one at the touch of a button, so it's not as big a liability as it might seem. The game's controls are very similar to Super Mario 64, with the joystick controlling movement, A to jump, B to attack, and Z to duck. The controls are so similar in fact that you find yourself wanting to pull off wall jumps and triple jumps, and naturally Mystical Ninja won't give you any of that. But that's only in the basic play mode. There are occasional elements of the game that work on a completely different control scheme. Early on the quest, Goeman takes control of a giant robot for battling another robot. This plays more like Punch-Out or other first person fighting games than anything else. In any event, Mystical Ninja certainly keeps things varied.

Everything I've described so far makes Mystical Ninja sound like a run of the mill RPG, but that's just because I haven't mentioned the game's wacky, wacky sense of humor. Not only are the bad guys highly distinctive, but they're also seriously odd. The music defies description, and the Game Over screen must be seen to be believed. Goeman and Ebisumaru are continually cracking jokes of varying quality, and the game has a laugh track. The wackiness even reaches to some of the subgoals that Goeman must complete. What other RPG has the characters running around in a river trying to catch fish so someone else will give them information they need?

The wackiness is only the first reason to play the game. The second is the cutscenes. Mystical Ninja frequently goes to long, well-developed cutscenes to advance the plot or just to look cool. The cutscenes look great, and this is the first N64 game to feature songs, complete with lyrics. The songs are sung in Japanese with English subtitles, and they combine with the wackiness of the game to make the overall feel that of anime (Japanese cartoons). Of course, this is somewhat a mixed blessing, as not everyone will appreciate Japanese humor and some cultural values may be a little startling. In particular, some people may be disturbed by the fact that the basic robots that the characters encounter and destroy throughout the game look like little girls. The implied gender messages may not be ones that parents want their children to absorb.

There are some other problems with the game that limit its greatness. First is the plot, which frequently leaves the player without a good sense of direction. I found myself frequently doing things only because it seemed like the next thing to do, and not because it felt like it would address a problem raised by the other characters. When you get lost, you can always stop in at the fortune teller for a suggestion about what to do next, (and the fortune teller scene is cool enough to justify dropping in from time to time just to check it out) but compared to Zelda, where you always know why you're going to do something, the plot seems unfocused. Some people may not consider this much of a problem, but everyone will be annoyed by the camera angles. They start out well, with your character large and centered on the screen and providing a view of what's in front of you, but combat creates problems. The bad guys frequently drop out of camera view, and while it's possible to take control of the camera and swing it around you so you can see what's going on, combat is the one time when you really don't want to have to worry about it. Unfortunately, this means that you will find yourself attacking creatures you can't see. You'll know that they're there somewhere, but lashing out randomly until you hit them really isn't a fun way to fight.

If Mystical Ninja were just a Mario clone, it wouldn't fare very well. The control just doesn't measure up because of its lack of complexity, and it doesn't have anything like the graphical "wow" factor of Super Mario 64. Fortunately, Mystical Ninja doesn't stop there. While it may be missing out on some graphical splendor, the character design is quite excellent and the music may be the most developed of any Nintendo 64 game. The cutscenes and songs go a long way towards deflating arguments about the superiority of CDs to cartridges as a video game format, and people will get a kick out of the game's general wackiness. And furthermore, Mystical Ninja is an RPG. Anyone waiting for a game with a plot on the Nintendo 64 can stop waiting. While Zelda isn't really threatened by Mystical Ninja, people who are tired of waiting can get a lot of satisfaction out of this until Nintendo finally comes through.