What to do when a game holds a special place in your memory, but you feel, as a responsible reviewer, that it doesn't quite live up to your standards? Konami's The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (or Ganbare Goemon in Japan) does for ancient Japanese mythology and settings what their Parodius series did for Gradius. It is sure enough a fun and often funny romp, but there isn't enough balance between its sprawling town areas and its abrupt action stages.
In a rather vague opening sequence, the camera zooms through the rice paper door of Goemon's home just as Ebisumaru brings word that the ghost of the nearby Horo Temple is causing trouble. (Nevermind that they were renamed "Kid Ying" and "Dr. Yang" in the English translation.) This is the beginning of a journey across Japan that will involve ghosts, ninja cats, evil armies, counterfeiters, bizarre bosses, and yes, a kidnapped princess. This story reminded me of the nonsensical opening cinema of Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, although it's slightly more intelligible. Indeed, Goemon himself looks a lot like Kid Niki and both games use a cartoonish, "chibi" Japanese art style. Both games also contain sidescrolling action levels dominated by platform jumping and whacking enemies with your ninja weapons.
But Mystical Ninja departs from Kid Niki's design template with the inclusion of RPG-style towns. These towns are based loosely on locations in medieval Japan (Kyoto the old capitol, Iga the mountain home of the ninjas) and contain many buildings for buying items, restoring your hit points, or playing mini-games. And herein lies the problem: The towns seem to be the main point of the game. Because you can buy so much stuff that either protects you from losing HP or allows you to restore it, you get the feeling that you're being prepared for a grand adventure or really tough action stage.
Instead, what you get is a rather short and easy action stage that will often take less time to complete than it took to explore the town. Is part of this because the game is timed? Were the action stages made easier so that you could do whatever you want in town and still have enough time left over to beat them? My solution to that would've been to start the timer at the action stages. Obviously the timer was not meant to keep you from spending too much time in the towns since it stops when you're in a house and the simple use of a password gets around it completely.
I think a more apparent reason is that a lot of early Super NES games, like Mystical Ninja, Super Mario World, Super Castlevania IV and ActRaiser, were more or less graphics and sound demos. A part of me strongly believes these games were made easier on purpose so that people could play through them to see and hear all the pretty 16-bit sights and sounds without much trouble. And Mystical Ninja certainly has its share of excellent audio/visuals. If the colorful Asian settings, beautifully detailed backgrounds, and whimsical characters weren't enough, Konami made extensive and creative use of Mode 7 and color layering for some dazzling effects.
One of the most infamous of these is a giant face boss that bounces around the room, flattens itself when it hits the ground, and eventually grows bigger and bigger until it fills the entire screen. How neat it looks is only surpassed by how funny it is.
In a move that's consistent with my rule that no self-respecting comedic ninja game would misinclude the "ninjas flying around on towels" gag, Mystical Ninja gives us a boss fight in which six enemies appear on a kite hovering in the far background. The enemies leap forward to attack, and when all but the leader are gone, the kite swoops in via Mode 7. The battle resumes with you and the boss ninja (Sasuke in an early cameo) fighting on it as it goes airborne.
The music is also excellent. Punctuated with traditional Japanese instruments and stylings, it's most often playful, humorous, and goofy, but other times it takes on a tone of seriousness when the silliness needs to be mitigated, such as in the enemies' HQ and the final castle's underground.
The feeling I get from Mystical Ninja is that the designers had more pride in their towns than in the stage design. It's as though they wanted to rush you off to the next town as quickly as possible (Level 2's action stage, for example, is just the boss, and Level 3 doesn't even have an action stage). It's true that some of the mini-games are fun, particularly the whack-a-mole and the first level of Gradius, but more attention and effort should've been funneled to the action stages. I, for one, do not care to bet on horse races, play memory-matching games, or roll dice. And why does every town need three different ways to restore your HP?
But that's not to say Mystical Ninja doesn't have its moments of brilliance. One of the most memorable parts is a series of jumps across moving pendulums over a bottomless pit. "Tricky" is the best way to describe it, as it may take a few tries, but it's not on par with similar stages in Konami's earlier Castlevania III.
The best stage in the game is the penultimate, as it is the longest and most difficult. The first half has you leaping across precarious platforms while dealing with enemies that chuck bombs at you from below. The second half culminates in a sequence of jumps across fast-moving platforms over a giant bottomless pit.
The last level seems to have been designed as more of an homage to Konami's classic arcade game Shao-Lin's Road than to be the pinnacle of the game's difficulty. The final boss, though not terribly hard, actually took me awhile to figure out how to damage him. The first few times I saw him take damage, I wasn't even sure what I did. His second form, though, is much easier than his first. (This game has a concerning number of bosses whose attacks can be avoided by hanging out at the far left or right side of the screen.)
I'm giving Mystical Ninja 3.5 stars, but it's a cautious 3.5 stars. There are some really good moments, like the penultimate stage, and interesting, if not exceptionally difficult boss fights. It's the type of game that seems to want me to love it. It's legitimately cute and funny, unlike some games that try to be, but really aren't. But it's because the humor, graphics, and sound are so well done that I wish the overall game design could be more than what it is. But at least I learned a lot about Japanese mythological creatures and settings from the imagery.
Side Note: I have heard from friends who have played the game in 2-player mode that a possible reason for the large towns and brief action stages could be to allow the players more time and opportunities to interact with one another, and to prevent them from being unable to progress if they have different skill levels. I can certainly understand that, although my review did not take this into account as I have only ever played the game in 1-player mode.