Today I'm going to learn an ancient and honourable martial art by hitting pigs with a piece of bamboo and dodging surface-to-air missiles, because today's game is Taito's 1986 Famicom way-of-the-sword-em-up Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu!
This title screen has a cute puppy on it, which elevates it above the vast majority of NES title screens, although don't let the puppy fool you into thinking this is going to be an easy game. It is not an easy game, mostly because deadly objects rain from the sky in great numbers, as though God himself has tipped his kitchen junk drawer upside down to look for a lost Allen key or appliance warranty card. We'll get to that, but first the scene needs setting. Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu - which I think translates as something like Musashi's Sword: Training Right Now - is based on a manga, surprise surprise. Musashi no Ken is a manga about a kid called Musashi who learns kendo and does kendo things, like fighting in kendo tournaments and bouncing his way through several stages of platforming action. It was adapted into an anime series that was airing at the time of the game's release, and that's about all I have on Musashi no Ken that isn't specifically about the videogame. Oh, and according to the Wikipedia page Musashi's parents are both former kendo champs, so no pressure there, kid.
It's straight into the action, and Musashi no Ken offers a familiar blend of running to the right while jumping over the yawning chasms that litter the landscape. There's also swordplay to be had, and Musashi can swing his sword to defeat enemies. He's even got multiple different attacks at his disposal, although there's not much to choose between them - you can press attack for a standard horizontal swipe, or combine the attack button with up or down on the d-pad to slice (or clobber, I suppose, because this is a bamboo kendo sword) either diagonally upwards or downwards, but they all cover just about the same range in front of you. You can also crouch and attack, which is handy for dealing with the first enemies you come up against: these yellow blobs. A Super Mario goomba and a slime from Dragon Quest met in a bar, consoled each other over their shared misery at being cannon-fodder enemies who exist solely to be wiped out by the first hero that comes along, they went back to the goomba's place and nine months later they were proud parents to a litter of tiny piss-lumps. The gooey offspring fare no better than their parents, and they're easily brushed aside by Musashi's sword.
Musashi's other goal beside simple survival is to collect as many of these tiny swords as possible, although their use is, for now at least, unexplained. Maybe it's a safety thing, and they'll revoke your kendo license if you leave swords laying around everywhere. And I mean everywhere, because as well as the visible swords I'd say around seventy percent of the other objects on the screen - wooden training dummies, tree branches, cliff edges, graves - contain swords that only appear when you hit them with your sword. You on, desecrate that grave, there's a collectible inside! There are also other power-ups whose effects are more immediately obvious. Rice balls increase Musashi's health, which sort of works on a health bar system but getting hit twice always seems to kill you no matter what unless you've collected a rice ball. There's also a temporary invincibility item and shoes that make Musashi faster. They make him run faster and they make him die faster, because when he's moving at such speeds it's difficult to get any platforming down without falling down holes. For safety's sake, don't collect the shoes. Leave Musashi barefoot so his grasping, ape-like toes can help him gain traction on slippery surfaces.
You can also see the puppy from the title screen running along the bottom of the screen. Turns out it's nothing more than the most adorable stage timer I've ever seen in a videogame, and you simply have to reach the end of the stage before your dog does. Thankfully it's a very slow dog. When I first saw it down there I was worried I would have to protect the dog - worried because I'm terrible at protecting things in videogames and double-worried because I didn't want a puppy's death on my hands - but thankfully the dog is ethereal and can walk through any wall and float over any chasm. It's a g-g-g-ghost dog (not Forrest Whitaker)!
Look there, between the gravestones: it's the angry sun from Super Mario 3, except he's not angry any more! He's coked out of his fucking gourd instead!
Then come the missiles. Someone with access to more firepower than every eighties action movie combined has decreed that Musashi must die, and so our hero must contend with a barrage of deadly ordnance. I did not realise that people took kendo training this seriously. You can swat the rockets out of the air with your sword, something which says to me that Musashi does not need to be training.
Missiles too easy for you to avoid? Well how about a rain of sharpened bamboo that pours from the sky like, well, rain. Deadly, lacerating, fast-growing rain. There's a common theme in Musashi no Ken's gameplay design, and that's enemies and projectiles falling from the sky in an absolute torrent of death, an unending stream of pain that just keeps on coming no matter how many individual droplets you hit with your sword. In many cases, such as here, the best strategy is to move forwards as quickly as possible while constantly swinging your sword over your head like someone trying to use an umbrella to achieve man-powered flight. Most of the time this works surprisingly well, although in some sections you're funnelled towards the top of the screen where there's less space to avoid the incoming enemies. In these situations my advice to you is the same - just keep moving and swinging. You might get lucky and make it through. Hey, I'm not GamePro, if you want ProTips you'll have to look elsewhere.
First bamboo, now falling logs. Whoever is doing this, please stop trying to kill Musashi with lumber because it is not working and you're, like, harming Mother Earth, man. Use a gun! I know Musashi's an anime type and if there's one thing anime has taught me it's that swords are vastly more powerful than guns, but he's not wielding the finest Japanese steel so you might have a chance.
That floating letter G (which presumably stands for goal) marks the end of the stage, by the way. Simply grab it without being buried to death under an avalanche of firewood and stage one is complete!
The second stage starts in another forest, and forget for a moment the impracticalities of trying to defeat living fire by poking it with wood and take a look at the graphics. Musashi no Ken is the most NES-looking NES game I have played in quite some time. If you asked me to draw "an NES game" this is pretty close to what my hypothetical drawing would look like: blue skies, green vegetation, small but characterful sprites. It's a nice look, too. The graphics in this game are hardly a technical marvel, the settings lack some imagination and there's nothing approaching the quality of, say, Moon Crystal's fluid animation, but it's a good, solid example of the style. Musashi's got some fun expressions for when he takes damage, the enemies are cute and that dog is clearly the breakout star of the whole thing.
The gameplay reaches about the same level of success, too. The relentless deluge of enemies can sometimes feel like extremely lazy design, but the game's biggest problem is that Musashi's jumping physics feel just a little bit off. Not game-ruiningly so, but he's more floaty in the air than you might expect and that can sometimes lead to overshooting jumps you'd be certain of making in other, similar games. I guess those big flappy samurai trousers can really catch an updrauft. Other than that control flaw, which doesn't even take that much getting used to, Musashi no Ken is a fun and carefree romp through a world where the universe itself wants a young boy dead for having the audacity to enjoy kendo. Is this game a carefully masked critique on modern technology's corrosive effect on Japanese traditions? No, it is not. That would be super weird.
This is what I meant about getting funnelled to the top of the screen. The bottom route might look a little safer, mainly because Musashi's head is further away from where the enemies spawn, but in this game you can't jump upwards "through" platforms, and if you try to do so Musashi will bonk his head on whatever's above him and fall down. No, it's just about safer up here, as long as I keep moving, however tempting it is to try hitting the tyre swing on the way down to see if there's a tiny sword tucked inside it.
Then, at the end of the stage, a rain of boulders. Or possibly meatballs. No, no, I'm sure they're meant to be boulders. There are mountains in the background. Mountains produce boulders, not meatballs. I have a geography GCSE, I feel confident in this knowledge. Musashi can smash the boulders as easily as he could the logs and missiles and yet again I wonder why he's bothering with training. How much stronger do you need to get, kid? What is your terrifying vision for the future?
In stage three, everything becomes clear: Musashi is a rampaging twelve-foot tall giant, smashing everything he sees in a berzerker rage! I know this because some enemies in this stage are also kendo practitioners, but they're half Musashi's size and the idea that Musashi is a giant rather than that he's beating up martial arts pixies is way more appealing to me. It explains at the rockets and people throwing bamboo spears at him, they are desperate to stop this lumbering maniac before he can crown himself the undisputed, unassailable Champion of All Kendo, ruling over the sport unopposed for the rest of his unnaturally long lifespan.
See? That's the face of a demented lunatic. Someone's whacking him with a bamboo sword and he's loving it. Now we know why Musashi no Ken wasn't released outside of Japan, Nintendo of America would never allow such filth to pollute the minds of innocent young gamers.
In this stage Musashi is also attacked by walking buckets and what I originally thought were very small ice hockey players but are actually people with mops. Two theories: either this game is the result of Masashi taking one too many blows to the head during kendo practise, or this stage is supposed to represent the arduous task of cleaning up the dojo. You get those kind of cleaning scenes, especially floor-scrubbing scenes, in anime sometimes - I think there's some in My Neighbor Totoro - so really this stage is a projection of Musashi's desire to avoid responsibility / back-breaking manual labour.
Not to worry, the Killer Whale foetuses that guard this dojo will not allow such a transgression to go unpunished. Here's an actual tip for Musashi no Ken: if you're near the end of the stage and you can still take a hit or two before dying, you might as well make a mad dash for the goal because your health bar is reset at the start of the next stage anyway. It certainly made timing my jumps to avoid the whales' deadly bubbles - oh, it's always the bloody deadly bubbles in these things - much easier, because I didn't bother. Surely part of a young man's kendo training is learning how to take a hit, I thought to myself as I popped the lethal bubble using Musashi's face
Suddenly it's all change, and Musashi no Ken ditches the platforming for a series of one-on-one kendo battles! That was a surprise. I wasn't expecting there to be actual kendo in this kendo-themed platformer, which seems like a strange thing to say but how often do NES games ever completely replace their gameplay? This one does, though, which is interesting. I've done all the training, after all, and it's time to put it to good use.
The thrilling sound of bamboo clacking against bamboo! The graceful dance of men dressed like ye olde beekeepers! The embarrassment of walking right into your opponent's attack! Yes, Musashi no Ken's kendo section has it all. You have three main attacks - upper, middle and lower - and the combat is heavily focused on precision and managing the distance between you and your rival. Each bout works on a best-of-three system, so you need two clean hits on your opponent to win, and there are five challengers in total. So, I started the battle and realised hey, this is an awful lot like the kendo sections in Taito's very own 1984 arcade game Great Swordsman! That's fine by me, because for a one-on-one fighter from 1984 Great Swordsman is still fun to play thanks to its fluidity and precision. I might be wrong, but I have to assume someone responsible for Great Swordsman also worked on Musashi no Ken, or at least realised they had something they could work with when they acquired the license for a kendo anime.
Sadly, the kendo section is not quite as good as in Great Swordsman, lacking as it does a certain amount of finesse. It's still good, better than I would expect a NES swordfighting game to be, but it doesn't quite have the same amount of tension as Great Swordsman thanks to the hit detection being a little less consistent.
One thing this kendo game does have is special moves, and at last the secret of all those swords I've been collecting is revealed. Your special attacks are high, low and middle dashing attacks that are fast and have great range, and they're powered by the sword collectibles. You can see your totals in the status bar, and for every ten swords you collected in the platforming stages, you can perform one of the corresponding special moves. The upper special attack is the most satisfying, because landing it successfully makes your opponent fall on their arse and go skidding across the arena, but the low attack seems to be the most effective. To help achieve true mastery of the sword, here are some of my ken-dos and ken-don'ts: Don't walk too far backwards because if you step off the mat you forfeit a point, and don't keep using the same attack over and over again because you foe will soon figure it out. Do try to use the low special wherever possible and shatter the other guy's ankles. The judges love that kind of thing.
In a cruel twist of fate, the judges also love silk ties and travel pillows, but as they have no necks they can never experience the joy of that these things can bring.
Five fights down and I still had some special moves to spare. Looks like all that time I spent playing Great Swordsman paid off! Musashi jumps for joy, and now he can claim the trophy and maybe, finally, the respect of his parents.
"They told me I was going to win a big prize, but I didn't think it would be a trophy large enough for me to convert into a jacuzzi!" Yeah, good luck fitting that on the mantelpiece. On the plus side, if Musashi lives in Tokyo he can rent that trophy out as a one-person apartment for a considerable monthly rate when he gets home.
After writing about Prince Clumsy last time and being amazed that such a blatant rip-off of Ghosts 'n' Goblins didn't include a second loop, the universe saw fit to punish me by including that very mechanic in Musashi no Ken. That's right, once you've finished the game you have to do it all again, only it's more difficult and the palette has been changed to a more subdued, gloomy look. At first the faintly sepia tones made me wonder if this repetition was being played out as though it were Musashi reminiscing about his adventures, but there are a lot more enemies knocking about so I guess it is all new. Unless Musashi is telling the story of how he became kendo champ but he's embellishing it like that tedious bloke in the pub who insists on telling you how he stormed Bin Laden's compound with the SAS even though you know he was kicked out of the TA for laziness.
So many enemies. So many tiny kendo men falling from the skies that it's hard not to imagine them being sprinkled down upon you out of some enormous salt-shaker type arrangement by an embarrassed God who reached the ninth day and spent it all making tiny kendo men.
After going through the kendo tournament for a second time - and as far as I could tell it's identical to the first time - then Musashi really, truly becomes the kendo champion and earns the title "Tiger of Iwate." Were you ever named after a powerful big cat, mum and dad? No, I didn't think so. Looks like Musashi's the head of the household now, come back when people start calling you by the name of an animal known for its strength and graceful beauty! You can live in the trophy until you find a new place.
Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu! is one of those rare retro games that suddenly changes genre but manages to offer two equally enjoyable experiences, a world away from the usual "dismal shoot-em-up section artlessly crammed in for a stage or two" experience. Neither the platformer or kendo parts are at the very pinnacle of their respective genres, with the platforming especially feeling somewhat generic, but they're both decent enough and for a 1986 Famicom game based on an anime that's nothing short of a miracle. You could call it a hidden gem if the gem in question was quartz rather than diamond, I suppose. And it's got a puppy in it. What more do you want?