Big in Japan: Ganbare Goemon

Welcome to Goemonth, a whole month dedicated to the Japanese phenomenon, Goemon. But to start off, we need to get everyone properly introduced to the blue-haired thief, so let’s begin with our series Big in Japan.

Similar to our last topic, Sengoku Basara, Goemon takes it’s inspiration from Japanese history and folklore. Goemon Ishikawa was the name of a legendary thief in Japan, most notable for trying to steal from the emperor, and being boiled alive as punishment. Over time, his story became that of a good-natured thief, likened often to the English tale of Robin Hood. Truth or the legend aside, the story as well as the paintings depicting it served as the foundation of Konami’s standard for the next several decades.

Much like his peer Mario, Goemon started out as an arcade game. Using an art style that resembled traditional Japanese paintings, Mr. Goemon was a simple game where the legendary thief Goemon, was trying to escape the emperor’s guards. It was a pretty simple, yet challenging game, that inspired Konami to take their creation to the Famicom. Ganbare Goemon was released on the Famicom (the Japanese equivalent to the Nintendo Entertainment System), though it was more of a side-scrolling action game than it’s precursor. JewWario does a great job of describing the second game for the Famicom, so I recommend checking that out for a better idea of how the Famicom games worked.

Goemon would also release two Japanese-style role-playing games on the Famicom before his move to the Super Famicom. Due to the game’s success in the East, and Konami’s move to the new Nintendo platform, Konami thought to try their hand at releasing Ganbare Goemon internationally, with a retitled game Legend of the Mystical Ninja.

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Anyone who read my thesis on Sengoku Basara, however, will already spot a major flaw. Yes, the Goemon series was not known by it’s Japanese name when it first came over to the States, but rather was retitled Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Unfortunately, that was not the only translation issue. Goemon and his comrade Ebisumaru, were renamed Kid Yang and Doctor Ying for the American release, as were a number of enemies that appeared in the game. While this didn’t hurt the Goemon series as badly, since the story was silly anyway, it still would present similar issues that Sengoku Basara faced later on.

While the American release faded to obscurity, Goemon continued to thrive in Japan. The Goemon series grew and added to it’s stable of colorful characters. Ebisumaru, who had been introduced as the token player two on the Famicom, was the self-proclaimed ninja of Justice who tended to act strangely effeminate despite being short and fat. Sasuke, introduced in the second Super Famicom game, was a mechanical ninja developed by Goemon’s mentor Old Man. Rounding out the player characters was Yae, a ninja who was typically working for the empire. This stable of characters would team up in two action adventure games, Ganbare Goemon 3 and Ganbare Goemon 4, that were presented similar to the successful Legend of Zelda games — with exploration and puzzle-solving becoming more prominent.

The series would move to the Playstation, where it was met with varied success. However, it would also travel to the Nintendo 64, where Goemon and crew would have another attempt at world fame.

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Konami released an American version of the Nintendo 64 title Ganbare Goemon: Neo Momoyama Bakufu no Odori as “Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon”. This transition was far better handled than Capcom’s attempts with Sengoku Basara. Rather than trying to pretend the renaming didn’t happen, Konami acknowledged it by naming it the same, but putting the proper name, Goemon, still in the title. While they still didn’t explain the Kid Yang and Doctor Ying issue, they still presented the game in a way an American audience could accept it. The game featured the same Legend of Zelda-esque style that the successful Japanese Famicom’s games were, though adopting a full three-dimensional feel. Combined with platforming elements, this made the game more like a cross between Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, but took place in the strange and wacky setting of the series’ version of Edo.

This leads me to why the series stands out at all to me, as well as others who followed the series in it’s American releases — its sense of humor. While the early games may have lacked this to some degree, the Goemon games never took themselves or anything in them terribly seriously. The characters were over the top, loud, strange, and sometimes a little disturbing. The English translation threw in several movie and pop-culture references, and broke the fourth-wall just often enough to be hilarious. While some games draw you in with their environments, story, or challenge, the Goemon games, and Mystical Ninja starring Goemon in particular, kept you going to see the next crazy event or character appear.

The game was not a smash hit internationally, but garnered enough attention to warrant releasing a subsequent Nintendo 64 title called Goemon’s Great Adventure. This one, however, changed the style to a more standard platforming style, having three-dimensional characters move on a two-dimensional plane. While still enjoyable, I can see how the sudden change from one format to the other might be grating to some.

Aside from the Game Boy titles that released around this time, Goemon’s Great Adventure would stand as the last hurrah here in the US. As I said, the transition from Legend of Mystical Ninja to Goemon franchise was handled far better than Sengoku Basara in the titling alone. But there were at least three things working against the Goeomon games hindering their appeal overseas.

First, the Goemon series was a Japanese series for Japanese people really. Goemon is based on a Japanese historical figure, and little will change that. Considering how many oblivious Americans in the early 90’s could barely find Japan on a map, it was no surprise that the first game did horribly. To add to that, the environments, architecture, items, weapons, and even the supporting characters all carry an air about them that is strictly Japanese. In addition, the main characters act as typical Japanese tropes that were just not as well known in other parts of the world, even in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when the 64 titles released. I suspect this was the reason Konami held this series back from international release for some time. Which leads to the second issue.

Secondly, the Goemon series was too deep in it’s own series to relate to newcomers well. Now, there is little in the way of significant plot points in the series, but since most of the characters are already familiar with each other in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, it is a little off-putting to the American audience who may be familiar with Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Kurobei at most from the previous US release. The villain in Goemon’s Great Adventure, Bismaru, is actually a returning enemy in the series, even though Bismaru was brand new to the American audience. This is alleviated, however, by the fact that the games never take even their own plots very seriously, so even an estranged player may be able to overlook it. However, the third issue somewhat seals the deal.

Unfortunately, the games are inconsistent in scope and playstyle. Legend of the Mystical Ninja was an arcade-like beat ’em up and platformer. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon was an adventure game a la Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, with some platforming elements of Super Mario 64.  Goemon’s Great Adventure was a platformer with a few rpg elements mixed in. This was not uncommon for the series in the Japan. Goemon would often hop from one style to the next.  The original Famicom games played nothing like the Super Famicom games, and even the Super Famicom games changed styles from Ganbare Goemon 2 to Ganbare Goemon 3.  As the series continued in Japan, there would another side-scroller, 3-D platformer, and a top-down adventure title released as well.  Goemon in Japan is a jack-of-all-trades kind of series, which means it’s not particularly spectacular at any one of them.  The lack of consistency also means that someone who enjoyed the exploration in one might hate the platforming in the other.

Perhaps for the best, America wasn’t ready for the cultural assimilation needed to appreciate the Goemon series, and the series was simply too long in the tooth to change itself into something it wasn’t. It’s age, however, would eventually spell disaster for the series as a whole however.

While the Goemon series continued in Japan, it started to flounder. Oddly enough the series made some attempts to adapt to modern audiences. Shin Sedai Shuumei and New Age Sutsudou were an original Playstation title and a Game Boy Advance release respectively in which the setting was moved to the future; this allowed the characters to be redesigned to be more “edgy.”  The Playstation 2 title, Ganbare Goemon: Bouken Jidai Kasugeki, also tried to reimagine the formula, making our hero a young lad and modifying his typical comrades accordingly as well.  None of these did terribly well in keeping interest in the series afloat.  By this time, Konami had a new cash cow in the Metal Gear franchise; therefore, Goemon became less of a priority.

Goemon’s last installment was in 2005 with the DS title Ganbare Goemon: Toukai Douchuu Daiedo Tenguri Kaeshi no Maki.  There is no sign that this title will be seeing any kind of overseas release.  Goemon still lives on in Japanese ‘pachisuro’ slot games, which also have no indication of coming to other countries anytime soon either.  It seems Goemon was only truly Big in Japan.

Research was taken from Hardcore Gaming 101’s Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon page, and JewWarrio’s video review of Ganbare Goemon 2; Video from Dizzy4U’s Goemon Shin Sedai Shuumei (Opening) – PSX Game. I do not own Goemon, Konami or any other product listed here.


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One thought on “Big in Japan: Ganbare Goemon

  1. video poker July 15, 2013 at 2:02 am Reply

    Excelllent post I am a big video poker fan from Germany

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