Version Reviewed: Super NES
Year Published: 1992
Publisher: Seta Corporation
Musya is a sidecrolling action game that reminds me why I became so addicted to RPGs in the 90's. It's not that good platformers didn't exist, but there was such a glut of games with bad controls and poor design that if you picked up a random one that didn't have Mario in it, there's a good chance you'd end up with something like this. The concept seems to be, "Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts, but with traditional Japanese monsters and settings instead of medieval stuff". Unfortunately, Musya does not achieve the bar set by that game, or any other decent platformer before or since.
Musya begins with sepia-toned anime cutscenes featuring characters that look like they came from other things. Imoto, our spear-wielding hero, is sent on a quest to save Shizuka, a shrine maiden, from demons in a nearby cave. This cavern is like a portal to all manner of bizarre, hellish landscapes. Some, like the rundown ghost village, look distinctly Japanese, while others are more alien and abstract, such as a desert landscape covered in massive eggs that culminates in a boss fight against a Dogu doll.
Imoto travels these worlds via some of the stiffest controls you're ever likely to experience. He moves and attacks very slowly, and most enemies require multiple hits to destroy. He must be about 3/4 of the way to the end of the screen before it begins scrolling, which makes it easy to run into enemies that are waiting offscreen (for most sidescrollers, the scroll point is halfway).
All of this makes playing Musya such a chore that you'll begin to think there's gotta be another way around, and wouldn't you know it? There is. By holding Up on the D-pad while jumping, Imoto will leap much higher than usual, so much so that he can simply float over most obstacles. Combined with Imoto's spinning spear attack that (somewhat) protects him from enemies, suddenly whatever level design exists becomes irrelevent, as though even the developers had given up on it. Particularly confounding is that there's no obvious reason Imoto can break the laws of gravity and there's no accompanying animation.
My guess is that, before it all took a backseat to the high-jump, the original idea was to fully explore each level for optional areas that contain power-ups to make Imoto's weapon stronger and scrolls for casting spells. The fully-charged spear does make destroying enemies easier, but if Imoto dies, he loses it. The only spell I found to be useful is the healing spell, since the attack spells don't affect bosses and aren't worth wasting on minor enemies. Probably for these reasons, this effort is half-hearted, and the only stage where exploring is necessary is a repeating screen maze - a cave lined with Terra Cotta statues, some that attack, and some that act as warps. Imagine the tedium of redoing this stage every time you pick the wrong statue.
Any spark of creativity in the remaining levels is extinguished by the game's lack of innovative controls. There is an underwater stage with a high-speed current that pretty much throws all exploration to the wind since it constantly forces you forward. There's a stage where the ground is lined with stakes, and the only safe platforms for Imoto are skulls that are impaled on them. You cannot see what is below you nor what is offscreen. So, you have to take blind leaps of faith and hope there will be a skull under you when you land. I suppose we should just be grateful that the spikes don't cause instant death. And then there's the final level - a gauntlet of platforms and corridors congested with large enemies that take so many hits to kill, they are likely to wipe you out first. They can also cause so much slowdown that Imoto stops responding to controller input. I hope you can get this far with a full set of healing scrolls.
Perhaps most representative of Musya's lack of innovation is that it begins reusing levels after the third stage. Levels 4, 5, and 6 are duplicates of Levels 1, 2, 3, with only minor differences (some have a new boss, the screen maze has a different exit warp). If a complaint about platformers in the mid-90's is that they were becoming redundant, Musya took it a step further by being self-redundant. At least if you got through the levels once, you know how to get through them again: float, float, and float some more.
The boss fights are the best part of Musya, since the high-jump won't help much with them, but figuring out and exploiting their patterns will. A fully-powered spear can make things go faster, but they can all be beaten without it. In fact, it's irrelevant to the first form of the final boss which must be defeated by an unconventional method. They are also the most impressive part of the game visually. Everyone who loves platformers loves big colorful bosses, and because they are based on various Japanese mythological monsters (Yokai), they have an extra sense of novelty.
The rest of the graphics range from serviceable to mediocre. While some areas (particularly the dilapidated ghost town) do evoke a sense of creepiness, others are dull (too many caves) or have a strange grainy appearance that some sources claim is meant to look like fog. To me, it just looks like my TV is out-of-focus. The music reminded me of Inindo: Way of the Ninja with the use of traditional Japanese instruments alongside subpar SNES sound samples, but it was so irritating I ended up listening to other music for most of my run.
Curiously, Musya's box art (and many online sources) provide a subtitle of "The Classic Japanese Tale of Horror", as though it is based on a particular myth, but it does not seem to be. The game's title screen says "Imoto's Saga" is the subtitle, which makes a little more sense, yet both suggest more story than what is present. Perhaps the game's creator(s) did care about it, and something just didn't go right in development. If anything at all about Musya had worked, it could've been a hidden gem, appealing to fans of anime and/or traditional Japanese folklore, as these were rare sights in video games of the 90's. But the way it is, it's a novelty at best and an exercise in everything that could go wrong with a sidescroller at worst.
Unusual theme and setting focusing on Japanese mythology.
Good boss fights.
Some good graphics and spooky settings.
Bad controls. Along with the stiffness, Imoto has several completely useless moves.
The high-jump seems less a feature and more like a cop-out: Imoto can float over everything because his control is ill-suited to handling enemies in any normal sense.
Very bad slowdown on the last stage, the game becomes unplayable if you're on the lower path.
Graphics are good in some places, but dull and fuzzy in others. Poor soundtrack.