It still amazes me how often some ultra-niche Japanese games find their way to the Western hemisphere. Plenty popular games come from Japan (everyone and their mother knows who Mario is), but some games are so steeped in Japanese mythology and culture they border on nationalistic pretension.
We're not talking about cutesy anime stuff, either. "Muramasa: The Demon Blade" is pure Japanese mythology and legend. It depicts a fictional version of the country's earliest years, when inhabitants still lived in bamboo houses, powerful gods and demons walked among the living, everyone had a hankering for rice balls and tofu, ninjas and samurai composed more than half of the population and swords were really, really important.
This fantastical rendition of feudal Japan plays host to the tales of two characters. The princess Momohime becomes the unwilling victim of a mighty swordsman Jinkuro, whose soul had been forcibly removed from his body and must seek refuge in Momohime's body instead. Jinkuro forces Momohime's disembodied soul to tag along while he seeks a powerful demon blade and new host body.
The young ninja protégé Kisuke has a decidedly less interesting story, mainly because a mysterious amnesia serves as the crux of his plight. He, too, seeks a demon blade for reasons he initially cannot remember and pieces his memory back together. And of course, this journey involves plenty of love, loss and vengeance. Yawn.
If you aren't already accustomed to all of these ancient Japanese concepts, you might not have enough energy left to concentrate on the stories themselves. The U.S. publisher Ignition has kept localization to a minimum. Voice acting remains Japanese with English subtitles, and the amount of Japanese locations and characters to remember can get pretty overwhelming.
Just forget the fiction. "Muramasa's" greatest strengths come through when the immediate goal is just to make all the bad guys disappear. The precision and depth of the controls rival that of modern 3-D action titles, such as "Ninja Gaiden."
It skillfully avoids the trap of button-mashing with the multiple blades system. You can carry three swords into battle and blocking attacks will eventually cause them to shatter, forcing you to constantly swap out for new ones and keep a close watch on their durability. The challenge and thrill of "Muramasa's" combat far exceeded what I have come to expect from side-scrolling 2-D games.
Oh, didn't I mention? It's 2-D in every way, shape and form. Vanillaware maintains an uncompromising approach to 2-D game design, from the gameplay to the visuals. Every character and object on the screen has mountains of detail and color. I can't even begin to imagine how much money and man-hours were required just for art assets and animation.
The design also feels like it fell out of a time warp from the early '90s. One huge map, sectioned off by cities, which are further sectioned off by a series of connected rooms. "Muramasa" couldn't get any more old-school had it been rendered in 8-bit graphics. Yet, I don't feel nostalgia from playing it. That's a disservice. "Muramasa" just reinforces these games never go out of style.
Under normal circumstances, the barrier of entry for enjoying "Muramasa" should be prohibitively high for all but the most zealous Japanophiles. If a game is truly great, its greatness will come through in spite of cultural barriers. Ignition seemingly took a big risk by bringing "Muramasa" to a Western audience, but you don't have to know what a ganmodoki is to appreciate beautiful graphics and deep, gratifying combat.