Category Archives: Big in Japan

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.

 

Introducing Goemonth! A month of Goemon!

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This month we will be having a theme month dedicated to the Mystical Ninja himself, Goemon!

Both Big in Japan and Super Smash Step Brothers will be discussing Goemon of the Ganbare Goemon and Mystical Ninja games this month.  Also, Musou Missives will be featuring Goemon Ishikawa from Warriors Orochi 3 for analysis as well.

We’ll still be posting on other topics as they come (including a look at Dynasty Warriors 8 no doubt), but Geomon will be the ‘Word of the Day’ around here.  So, stay tuned as we kick off Goemonth with a bang!

Also, be sure to vote on our Musou Missives poll, winner will be picked in September!

Big in Japan: Sengoku Basara (continued)

Welcome to part 2 of Big in Japan: Sengoku Basara.  If you missed part one, you can find it here.

When we last left our talk on Sengoku Basara, we compared and contrasted it to Koei’s Sengoku Muso series.  We also spoke of what made it distinctive and enticing to a Japanese audience.  However, we have yet to cover why the series is so unknown over here when the Sengoku/ Sangoku Muso series, or Samurai/ Dyanasty Warriors games, are known fairly well in the United States.

Much of this is because of strange move on Capcom of America’s part.  The first game in the series, Sengoku Basara, did release State-side, as a heavily modified title known as Devil Kings.  The name wasn’t the only change though, as just about every reference to the Sengoku period in Japan was removed from the game.

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Among the changes made, a few characters were removed as playable characters, such as Matsu Maeda, and Yoshihiro Shimazu.  Characters that were not cut had their names changed from their traditional Japanese names, to a variety of generic ones.  Shingen Takeda became Red Minotaur.  Yukimura Sanada become Scorpio.  Ranmaru Mori became Hornet.  Nobunaga Oda became the titular Devil King.  The atmosphere of the game changed drastically as well, with the stages using more dark tones and themes to them.  The old combat system was changed to introduce ‘Priming” attacks, which would weaken enemies so that regular attacks would do more damage.  Lastly, the game’s difficulty was increased, making the North American Normal difficulty setting equivocal to the Japanese Hard Mode.

The reasons for the drastic changes are mostly unknown.  However, I can conjecture a few ideas based on the environment at the time of it’s release.  To start with, even though the Dynasty Warriors games were released in North America and known within the gaming community at large, they had little more than a cult following that actually sought out and purchased the games.  It was a smaller niche which a series like Dynasty Warriors filled fairly well — so well that even the Samurai Warriors series would struggle to gain attention.  This made the fairly small, saturated market of historically based beat ’em ups even more saturated.  Sengoku Basara would have an uphill climb to deter American gamers from their competitor’s games in such a limited field.  An idea might have been that changing the name and setting would aid in making it stand out.

Another possibility is that Dynasty Warriors series, while well received in Japan, was suffering some critical backlash from American reviewers.  Generally, critics complained about the Warriors games having easy, mindless gameplay, and critics showed little interest in the historical aspects of them whatsoever.  Capcom may have thought that increasing the difficulty, changing to a more fictitious theme, and changing the combat system to something more involved would improve Devil Kings’ critical reception overseas. Ironically, the differences had no effect in this regard, and in some cases actually hurt their scores overall.

However, the most likely culprit is one that seems a little insulting to the Western market — the idea that the Western audience simply wouldn’t get the Sengoku Basara series.  As I suggested in the previous installment, the series is something of a parody of the Sengoku Era in Japan.  Since Japanese teenagers and adults presumably would have passing knowledge of the time period, the parody is successful and humorous in Japan.  In contrast, the history of the Far East, and the Warring States period in particular, is not a topic very many average Americans would be familiar with; therefore, the joke would be effectively lost in the West.  For this reason, it does make some sense that Capcom wanted to try and release it without the historical references.  Unfortunately, much like the Warriors games, Sengoku Basara loses a great deal of it’s charm without the history behind it.

Nevertheless, Devil Kings did not do terribly well, and only garnered a cult following who eventually figured out all the historical references anyway.  As the series progressed in Japan, Capcom decided to not try releasing overseas again, until late 2010.

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Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes was apparently Capcom’s final attempt to bring the series State-side.  This time, however, they tried to correct some of the mistakes of the previous attempt.  The historical names and references remained intact this time, as did the difficulty and fighting engine.  The stages and characters were presented as they were in the Japanese version, and they released on the same platforms as their Eastern cousins — the Wii and PS3.  In addition, they hired relatively well-known and good voice actors for the characters in the game.  It seemed Capcom wanted to make this series work in the West this time.

Sadly, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes still struggled in the West, but for different reasons.  If you’ll recall from last installment, the Sengoku Basara series breaks up the Warring States period as it progressed.  As such, the setting of Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes —  the third installment in the series  — is near the end of the period when most of the fighting is actually over.  Since Devil Kings included none of the story of the original, and the sequel was never released in North America, Capcom was basically asking Americans to watch a movie after editing out the entirety of the first two acts. This meant that average gamers wouldn’t be paying attention to the characters or story, just the gameplay and action, giving them a rather shallow experience.

What’s more, Capcom still couldn’t leave well enough alone, and changed the opening theme of the game to a pop sounding song for no apparent reason.  Have a listen:

The final nail in the coffin for this one was simply the fact it was so unknown in the West as to be unknowable.  The game was similar enough to the Dynasty Warriors series that it was inevitably in it’s shadow.  It was also part of a genre that garnered mixed reviews at best in the West.  Also, the game was released with little fanfare or advertising, meaning those that may have been interested in it probably didn’t realize it even existed.

Shortly after it’s release, Capcom went on record saying they were not interested in releasing the Sengoku Basara games to the West again.  That doesn’t surprise me, since the two games they did try here didn’t do very well.  Capcom clearly isn’t blameless for this however.  The strange mutation they created in Devil Kings set the stage for the confusion that would follow with Samurai Heroes.  The games would have been hit or miss either way in a niche genre such as this, but the methods Capcom took with the series in their international releases effectively doomed them from the start.

This is why Sengoku Basara is and will only be “Big in Japan.”

Websites used for research on this article include: 

http://capcom.wikia.com/wiki/Devil_Kings#Differences_between_Sengoku_Basara_and_Devil_Kings

http://thesilentchief.com/2011/07/29/no-more-sengoku-basara-games-for-the-west/

MademoiselleIrma‘s TM Revolution: Naked Arms (ENG version) – Sengokue Basara Samurai Heroes opening

Big in Japan: Sengoku Basara

Welcome to a short series I like to call Big in Japan. Here I will be highlighting certain games and titles that are remarkably successful and well known in Japan, but tend not to get much of a following in the West. I’ll be discussing the work itself, as well as reasons why it failed to garner popularity here in the States and other parts of the world.

To start off, we’ll be revisiting the beat ’em up genre as we look at the Warriors series’ top competitor in the East — Sengoku Basara.

To start with, we need to go back in time to the middle-age of the Playstation 2, back in the early 2000’s. The Shin Sangoku Muso (a.k.a. Dynasty Warriors) series was on it’s 3rd installment, and doing rather well for itself. The Warriors franchise proved to be a promising and growing franchise. It was successful enough that Koei decided to make a new, similar series, called Sengoku Muso (and yes I confuse Sangoku and Sengoku quite often). Sengoku Muso would put players in control of Japan’s mightiest warriors and generals as they fought for power in the turbulent Warring States (or Sengoku) period. However, the Warring States period was already the primary setting for another Playstation juggernaut series at the time.

Onimusha was an action game based around the Warring States era in which the games’ heroes have to fight off the demonic powers of Nobunaga. Capcom had this series in it’s repertoire already, and had the claim to the Warring States era Japan setting. However, Onimusha’s popularity was beginning to wane. Capcom tried to branch it out with a tactical strategy game (Onimusha Tactics) and a one-on-one fighter (Onimusha Blade Warriors). Neither accumulating much in terms of sales or critical reception. The well for Onimusha was getting dry — so dry the next title would involve time travel. Capcom wasn’t so easily defeated however.

Sengoku Basara is Capcom’s long awaited answer to Koei’s Sengoku Muso (Samurai Warriors). The series takes the basic premise of the Muso games, and dials it up to 11. At the time, the Muso series was known for taking historical events and reinterpreting them, sometimes to unintentional hilarious effect. The Muso games were known for having characters remain a certain age throughout the game, even though the games usually spanned more than a single lifetime. They were also known for being obtuse in regards to stage goals and character leveling. Sengoku Basara would resolve most of these issues, while creating their own spin on the concept.

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While all the characters in Sengoku Muso and Sengoku Basara are based on historical characters, you may notice some of their interpretations are significantly different. Mitsuhide Akechii in Sengoku Muso is a brave, knightly warrior who turns on his Lord due to deep moral issues he had with Nobunaga’s practices. Sengoku Basara turns this interpretation on it’s ear, by interpreting Mitsuhide as a raving psychopath whose betrayal is not a moral quandary, just an inevitability. Hideyoshi Hattori, known for being ratlike in appearance and demeanor, appears in the Sengoku Basara series as a towering behemoth that prefers to beat his opponents to a pulp with his fists. Kenshin Uesugi is portrayed as a tall, bulky, intimidating warrior in the Muso series. Kenshin in Sengoku Basara is a small, soft spoken bishonen. Both Kenshins are still cold and calculating on the battlefield, but the physical differences are still vast.

Other interpretations are not as overt. Nobunaga is still so powerful and vile that nobody dares mess with him, but in Basara he seems to revel in it. Yukimura is still the great young hero of the age, but his dedication to his lord makes him practically a zealot in Basara. These are similar interpretations, but still rather extreme, making the men at their core almost indistinguishable to the outsider looking in.

The differences between the interpretations has much to do with the end goal of Sengoku Basara versus Sengoku Muso. Sengoku Muso is intended to represent the heroes in the story at least somewhat accurately in terms of how Japanese culture perceives them. This makes the Muso series more dramatic and takes itself very seriously. For instance, if this were the American Revolution Muso, George Washington would be a strong upstanding, yet reserved general. Sengoku Basara, at least to my understanding, is intended as a parody of the historic events. American Revolution Basara would interpret George Washington as a burly brute who carries an axe around so he can chop down every cherry tree he sees on the battlefield. The characters aren’t historical representations; they are caricatures. This is all in Capcom’s plan to tune in to the ridiculousness of the scenario and characters to the extreme, even if it seems a bit irreverent to do so.

In spite of the parody aspects of the game, Sengoku Basara approached the character’s aging and changing much more accurately than Sengoku Muso; this was done by choosing not to cover the entirety of the Warring States era in one go. The series breaks up the era into three major parts, resulting in each of it’s installments taking place after each other, resulting in changes to the cast and political landscape. For instance, you witness Ieyasu Tokugawa start as a young leader, and grow into a powerful warlord from the first installment to the last. Also, while you still see Yukimura Sanada being portrayed about the same age throughout, his attitude changes after the death of Shingen Takeda — showing the series’ character development.

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This also means, that instead of the roster becoming progressively larger by simply adding characters, it was also removing characters that died, such as the aforementioned Shigen Takeda, or have little significance during this time span, such as Kenshin Uesugi. It also allowed Capcom to build more balanced and varied playable cast, without having to rely on clone or mirror characters (though they still existed to some degree). The tight cast also contributed to the series’ arcade-like feel; something the gameplay reinforced.

The game was produced by Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who is also credited for the Devil May Cry series, and the gameplay shows that connection to a certain degree. In place of the complex battles and scripted events and morale systems that bog down the Sengoku Muso series, the focus of Sengoku Basara stayed solely on the player. Battles between armies were set up as a gauntlet to traverse. Each stage had a theme and an ultimate goal that needed to be achieved, which was usually told to you at the outset of the stage, or when the objective changed. Most stages ended with a fight to the death with the army’s leader, but what you had to do to get to that point was usually more than barreling through a load of enemies like in Sengoku Muso.

That’s not to say, defeating tons of enemies is not in the game, it’s actually a crucial aspect of it. Sengoku Basara encourages the player to not only kill tons of enemies, but find new and ingenious ways to do it via the combo system. Players are rewarded with gold for defeating enemies, officers, and finding hidden chests. The gold from enemies is multiplied depending on the length of the combo and how many enemies are in the combo. Keeping a long combo going is ideal to building up gold, which is exchanged for character experience at the end of a stage.

This is another aspect that is improved upon in Sengoku Basara. Character growth in the Muso series was misleading. Characters would increase in power through leveling up; once they were maxed out, however, they could only be improved by collecting permanent upgrades to various stats scattered across the levels. In addition to this, you had to find various levels of weapons and items — many of which were a chore to hunt down. Sengoku Basara simplifies this, as characters’ only method to improve is through gaining experience to level up, and through equipment upgrades. Basara also allows new special attacks called Super Arts to be learned as characters level, giving incentive to continue building characters. At later levels, characters know more Super Arts than they have reasonable button combinations, allowing you to choose what Super Arts to bring into battle. This takes away a little of the grinding from the series and replaces it with a little customization. A fair trade in my opinion.

The changes to the cast, adjustments to the storytelling, and stylized gameplay made the Sengoku Basara series far more frantic, energized, and engaging than it’s major competitor. For the rest of the PS2’s life span and into the following generation, Sengoku Basara would keep pace and even surpass Sengoku Muso in some areas. The series would spawn two anime seasons, though their quality is suspect, and even a one-on-one fighting game developed by Arc System Works. This was not just a spark that was forgotten in Japan, this was a full-fledged franchise there.

So, why haven’t more people heard of it in the West? We’ll get into that in Part 2. Stay tuned.

Onimusha information researched from www.pixilbit.com/feature/963/onimusha.

Sengoku Basara information taken from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sengoku_Basara and personal play.