Certain games and series are just very “Japanese” in their presentation. You play these games, and just know “Yep, that’s from Japan.” In a similar vein, there are many popular, long-running series in Japan that the US only got a taste of (For a long time, only 3 of the first 6 Final Fantasy games were available in the US, and you still can’t get the original version of Final Fantasy 3 at all–the DS version is quite different in terms of balancing), or that were never available at all in the US.
Released in 1992 by Konami, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja fulfills both criteria mentioned above. The game starts with Kid Ying and Dr. Yang (In Japan, and in every other “Mystical Ninja” game released outside of Japan, their actual names are Goemon and Ebisumaru) hanging out in their house, discussing the mysterious “Ghost Woman” that has haunted their hometown. They decide to investigate, and the game takes off from there.
To solve the mystery and unravel the game’s larger plot, you’ll go through nine areas, called “Warlock Zones”. These zones are typically broken up into two parts. In the first part, you’ll play in an overhead perspective, visiting houses, talking to people, killing enemies, and sometimes getting distracted by minigames (Part of the reason I never beat the game as a kid was because I’d get distracted to the point of not wanting to move on in Level 3’s amusement park). After completing some objective, you’ll move on to the second part, which is side-scrolling platforming action, culminating in a boss fight.
In either section, beating enemies will get you money, powerups, or other things. Despite the game being Japan-centric, your currency is measured in Dollars, for whatever reason. Everything else, though, is distinctly Japanese. The guardian of the second section of each level is a tanuki, and the powerup that increases your weapon’s range is a beckoning cat, a symbol of good luck.
In my observation, the range increases drop after you kill a certain number of enemies. This is good, because every hit you take makes you lose a level of your weapon, until you end up back at the base level. If you picked up any sandals, which increase your mobility, you lose a pair of those upon getting hit too. Worse, pretty much every enemy does a minimum of two bars of damage, meaning your life is effectively half of its display. The bosses after the first couple are also quite challenging, sometimes requiring some luck in terms of the attack patterns. To counteract this, you can find ways to increase your maximum life for the Warlock Zone you’re in. Additionally, there are places where you can “make a travel diary”, this game’s slang for “Get a password”. When you Game Over, you can either opt to start at the beginning of the Warlock Zone you died on, or from your last travel diary entry. Selecting the latter amounts to loading your exact state at the time of your entry, which tends to be the more useful selection providing you get there.
The game’s presentation is very Japan-centric, as mentioned before. Besides the tanuki and beckoning cat, the entire game takes place in Japan, and ninja gangs figure into the plot. Some of the bosses are also samurai-inspired. You can also acquire armor like that a samurai would wear, to absorb a certain number of hits without losing any precious life.
The Legend of the Mystical Ninja allows you to grab a friend and play through the game with 2-player simultaneous co-op. In this mode, player one controls Kid Ying, and player two plays as Dr. Yang.
Going it alone, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is possible to beat in a single, albeit long, sitting. As a kid, I had gotten as far as Warlock Zone VI, which no doubt helped me a bit this time around. This playthrough took me a bit over 3 hours to beat, though that did include time spent playing minigames to build up money to buy things. Most times, when I game overed, I elected to continue from my last travel diary.
The Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a pretty neat game. It’s punishing of mistakes on a micro level, with the loss of powerups on each hit, and the overall low max life. But between the passwords and the unlimited continues, it’s more forgiving on a macro level than I realized when I was younger. I’m glad I picked it up and played through it. If you’d like to experience it, besides the SNES release, the game came out on both the Wii and WiiU Virtual Consoles.