20 Years Later, ‘Ganbare Goemon’ Is Still One of Japan’s Weirdest Gaming Series

Jack Yarwood
Games Nintendo
Games Nintendo

When people talk about their favourite N64 games, there are usually a big few names that reappear. Super Mario 64. Banjo Kazooie. Ocarina of Time. And Lylat Wars (Star Fox 64 for those Americans reading). But there’s another game that we think also deserves to be mentioned alongside these classics — and that game is Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, or Ganbare Goemon: Neo Momoyama Bakufu no Odori as it is known in Japan, is part of the Ganbare Goemon series, a collection of bizarre genre-hopping titles from Konami which are loosely based on the travels of the famous thief Ishikawa Goemon from Japanese folklore.  While these games are incredibly popular in their native country, only five entries ever made it to the west, with Konami deeming the series too weird and specific to Japan to ever see success overseas.

Yet, in spite of the odds stacked against him, this oddball little character has actually gained somewhat of a cult following outside of Japan, with many fans -myself included – enjoying the games for their surreal sense of humour and the jolt of its refreshingly un-Western culture shock.

Goemon Overworld
Goemon hitting an enemy with his kiseru

Initially, Konami made a few tenuous attempts to make the games more palatable for a western audience, but for Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon the published opted to keep most of its very Eastern cultural references and jokes intact. There’s yokai, giant mech battles, and obscure references to folk legends and contemporary Japanese pop culture, like a submarine made out of sushi.

And that’s not before we even get to the bizarre fourth wall breaks and equally puzzling game over screens. While it all feels very alien, it’s these baffling quirks that MAKES this oddiso endearingring. Sitting alongside well localised fare like Ocarina Of Time, playing Mystical Ninja often feels batsh**t insane, offering an eyebrow-raisingly incomprehensible experience, but somehow, it’s also a game that manages to genuine interest in another culture.

After all, it’s because of series Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon that I learned about Kappas, the water yokai from Japanese folklore; obscure historical figures like Goemon, Benkei, and Ebisumaru; and artefacts and decorations like Shisa and Daruma Dolls . The game constantly drip-feeds these references to you in the form of NPCs, boss fights, and throwaway gags. But it is up to you wheether you want to find out their wider significance and contextualize them within the plot.

This is likely one of the reasons why critical reception to the game at the time was so mixed, with many western reviewers either not understanding the game’s attempts at humour or recognizing the (many) gamelay problems that come with so many alienating cultural differences. From players being unable to tell the walls in the houses from sliding Shōji and not being able to correctly identify food items.

In many ways, it does seem like the game was fighting a losing battle from the start. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is all about Goemon and his friends resisting the Peach Mountain Shoguns, a group of invading theatre performers who want to turn the whole of Japan into a European-style dance stage. So, to have the game toned down or heavily localized for a Western audience would have been massively ironic.

Sushi Submarine
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon features a dungeon made almost entirely out of sushi

The game was therefore released as is, and found only a small amount of success in the West. It was just enough to convince Konami to publish the next game in the series, Mystical Ninja 2 Starring Goemon in both Europe and North America, but not enough of a hit to turn the character into say, a Mario, Crash Bandicoot, or Sonic the Hedgehog.

Still, despite its age, it’s worth revisiting Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon today. Unlike many games from the era, it is still great fun to play. Sure, it has some camera issues here and there, usually inside of the dungeons, and the frame rate can sometimes take a hit because of the amount of textures on screen. But if you can get past those issues, there’s a lot to love about its throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to game design.

The game is endlessly inventive, squeezing everything from RPG elements (there are towns and localization areas to explore) to arcade minigames, and even chucking in the odd Punch-Out esque robot fight into its lean running time.

On top of this, you can also switch between one of four playable characters on the spot, with each avatar having multiple unlockable power-ups and weapons. It’s one of those games where you are constantly being introduced to new mechanics and other ways of interacting with your environment, which still helps to keep this aging game feeling fresh — even in its later stages.

And that’s before we get started on the soundtrack. On popping in the cartridge for the first time, you’ll be greeted with an incredibly optimistic theme song, which will no doubt have you fist-pumping and singing to yourself in no time. This song, in particular, features the vocal talents of Hironobu Kageyama (an artist who is best known for his work on the original Dragon Ball Z soundtrack). It is also a perfect introduction to the game for western players, perfectly communicating to them that they are in for an entirely different kind of experience than what they’re usually used to.

Another highlight is this banger of a track, I Am Impact . Performed by Ichirou Mizuki, another singer who has worked extensively in anime, it’s a song that you better get used to hearing — because it’s triggered after almost every boss fight. Much like the main theme, it’s a not so subtle reminder that Goemon is a series very much aiumed at a Japanese audience, but it has such an infectious playfulness that you will find yourself grining goofily as you nod along regardless.

So what’s next or Goemon? Well, not a lot by the looks of it. In recent years, the Ganbare Goemon series has seen somewhat of a hiatus, with the blue-haired hero’s last couple of outings  being found in pachislot machines and a cameo appearance in Super Bomberman R. Still, we’re not giving up the Ganbare yet, because between Konami recently securing the domain Goemon.com and the persistent rumours of an N64 mini, the fanbase is positive that he’ll get another chance in the spotlight sometime soon.

In the meantime, if you want to play Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, you’ll just have to go about it the old-fashioned way, tracking down a N64 cartridge and enjoying it on original hardware. The game is undeniably a real oddity,  but given the surge in popularity of other distinctly Japanese games like We Love Katamari and Okami, Goemon could well be your next go-to Japanese classic.

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