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Japanese local customs and stereotypes in Legend of the Mystical Ninja

Legend of the Mystical Ninja Box

I was thinking about doing a typical Ron’s Retro Reviews for the fan-favorite Super Nintendo platformer, Legend of the Mystical Ninja. However, while pushing through it on this lazy, empty Golden Week afternoon, I noticed a whole wealth of subtle hints and jabs at local customs throughout the different regions of Japan our heroes travel to.

Having lived in Japan for over 7 years now, I know some of these stereotypes like the back of my hand, especially since much of the game takes place within an hour long trip of my city of Kobe. Konami once had a studio here back before the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and the city’s influence on the company is very apparent in this game.

It is these goofy, unapologetic, cultural references I would like to talk about, level by level. Possible spoilers.

Ganbare Goemon

For starters though, just a quick rundown. Legend of the Mystical Ninja was not the first game in Konami’s excellent Ganbare Goemon series, but it was the first of four to be released for the Super Nintendo, the system where the franchise hit its creative peak. It is also the only one of these four that made it to North America, with a fabulous cover art I might add.

The game’s nine chapters are broken up into two parts each, an exploration stage and an action stage. The exploration halves look like a classic beat ’em up title, and our playable characters run around collecting money, gaining stats, buying items, playing minigames, basically preparing for the blistering action stage ahead. The second part is a far more traditional platforming experience with enemies, pitfalls and boss fights.

Our heroes are Goemon and Ebisumaru, lazily localized as Kid Yang and Dr. Ying, two thieves based on actual Japanese legends. We will refer to them as Goemon and Ebisumaru because we are not scrubs.

The real Ishikawa Goemon is a popular character from Kabuki plays, and Japanese folklore often portrays him as Japan’s “Robin Hood.” I’m not 100 percent sure, but his choice of weapon in a pipe has some historical context as well as he loved to smoke them. Also, when our video game Goemon gets hurt, his pain pose is a famous Kabuki pose which is often associated with the real Goemon.

Ebisumaru is based on Nezumi Kozō, another thief who hails from Japanese folklore. In this video game series, he suffers from gender confusion, loves to eat, lazily wastes his time away, and is just an all around stand-up, likable dude.

Overall, Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a solid and very lovable game. I wouldn’t call it perfect, mainly because the levels are really long and the continue system is merciless, sometimes erasing up to 30 minutes of hard work. However, the controls are tight, and Konami’s high quality sprites and unapologetic “Japaneseness” are about as charming as the Super Nintendo gets.

Without further delay though, the levels.

Level 1 — Edo

Edo was the original name for Tokyo before it changed after the Meiji Revolution. Our story begins with Goemon and Ebisumaru realizing that everyone is acting strange, and they step outside to find out what’s up. Little do they know that the town has become haunted, and they’ll have to kill the Horo Temple Ghost to cure everyone.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this level. It isn’t very inspired and is just a classic Japanese setting filled with generic enemies who appear in every level. The checkpoint is funny in that it is a Tanuki Statue, yes, the same Tanuki from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Pom Poko. These Japanese raccoon dogs are symbols of fertility thanks to their enormous … tracks of land.

These statues appear in every level though and are not unique here. Nothing in this level screams Tokyo or is a dead giveaway to culture in the region other than the false idea that “Tokyo is Japan.” Anybody from Kansai or anywhere else in the country would proudly disagree, and my guess is that the Kobe crew at Konami wasn’t altogether interested in Tokyo. Like every good tourist, they wanted to high-tail it out of Tokyo and explore the rest of Japan with far more enthusiasm.

Far more effort is put into designing the next two levels, so let’s sail away there.

After beating the ghost, Goemon and Ebisumaru go to a very modern looking travel agency and jump on a boat to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. On the way, they sail past Mt. Fuji, the only telling sign that we were in Tokyo at all.

Level 2 — Shikoku

Goemon and Ebisumaru arrive on Shikoku in what is definitely the Tosa region. It’s modern day equivalent is the city of Kochi, a wonderful town full of delicious fish and summer dancing festivals, just like we see here.

For one thing, our enemies are far more unique and telling in this stage. The weird dancing guys with the masks are exactly what you will find in the streets of modern day Kochi during a summer dance festival. Bandana strapped around their heads, Happi Coats flapping in the wind, hands flailing through the air, and that stupid, red expression on their faces. Typical festival goer.

Another enemy is clearly drunk, walking around with a shiny red face, dangling a delicate bottle of sake from his fingers. As impolite as it might seem, people from Kochi have a stereotypical reputation for being very strong drinkers, hence this character is able to whoop up on Goemon while still walking off a hard night of fun.

The last of the enemies are also unique to Kochi, and those are the dogs. These are called Tosa-ken, or dogs from Tosa, and they are bred, raised, and trained for dog fights. Yup, Kochi is the only city in Japan where dog fighting is legal and practiced quite regularly in some spots. I walked by the stadium on one of my trips there, but didn’t have the heart, stomach, or desire to go in.

Another impressive nod to Kochi is the statue of Ryoma Sakamoto, Kochi’s favorite samurai. He was very influential in forging alliances between the largest samurai families of Western Japan, and his outlook for a Japan without a feudal class system paved the way for the Meiji Revolution. He was assassinated in Kyoto before his allies overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate. His statue appearing in this game actually stands at Katsurahama Beach, south of the city.

Goemon crashes a party of dancers and slaughters them mercilessly. Aren’t these people here just having a good time? Does anybody stop and wonder if Goemon is the real villain here? Our boss is Shishimai, a lion/dragon creature who appears frequently at New Years, and he wears a huge hat covered in lanterns. Killing him rescues a Manekineko, a lucky cat, who tells you that the Otafu Army is up to no good.

It must be pursued back to the mainland, but first …

Level 3 — Awaji Island

Needing to get back to mainland Japan, Goemon and Ebisumaru cross a place very near and dear to my heart, Awaji Island. This wonderful little getaway connects Shikoku to mainland Honshu, and is a mere half-hour bus ride from Kobe, just over the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge.

I’ve seen the island countless times from Kobe’s beaches, mountains, and buildings, and I’ve been on it quite a number of times for camping, onion farming, hot springing, and even working. Wonderful place.

Goemon must traverse the island south to north, so before he gets to the main attraction, the level starts on the southern Onaruto Bridge. This bridge connects the city of Naruto to Awaji Island, and you’ll find some of the world’s fastest currents in the water below. Whirlpools famously appear in this little strait, and that’s why Goemon can see them from this bridge.

For some reason though, Konami decided to turn Awaji Island into an amusement park. I’m not entirely sure why because there isn’t really a famous one on Awaji that I’ve been to. It does have many great parks to play in and plenty of traditional playground areas, but nothing with roller coasters.

My guess is that these developers saw the Awaji Service Area Ferris wheel everyday from Kobe and just assumed there was an amusement park on the island. Legend of the Mystical Ninja was created before the bridges were built, so maybe none of them or their younger audience had ever taken the ferry across.

Regardless, this is a fun level with a lot of minigames, including the one Legend of the Mystical Ninja is most famous for, a mini version of Gradius, which takes 100 ryo to play. The arcades all also have the classic Konami symbol on their doors.

It’s a shame, but I don’t see any onions anywhere. Awaji is very famous as the first place in Japan to cultivate onions, but that seems to have been left out. Unless, the amusement park staff’s white heads are supposed to be onions, but I think that’s a stretch. It just seems like something the Kobe studio should have known about and left in.

When the fun is over and Goemon and Ebisumaru leave Awaji Island, they cross Akashi Kaikyo Bridge and are attacked by a giant octopus! CONTEXT AHOY! Akashi, the city just west of Kobe, is famous for octopus farming, and it even has its own snack called Akashiyaki, a spin on the fried octopus balls found in Osaka, only dipped in dashi, traditional Japanese soup.

So delicious!

These two levels were by far the best, so Legend of the Mystical Ninja peaks a little bit early, but there is still plenty to see. Maybe it’s just my emotional attachment to these second and third settings.

Goemon and Ebisumaru enjoy some Akashiyaki at a yatai, a food stand, while an octopus attacks Konami’s Kobe studio in the background. Just outstanding! Then they follow the Osafu army north.

Level 4 — Yamato

The game’s text claims that Goemon and Ebisumaru must head to the “middle of Yamato,” but the level starts on a beach. If they are indeed heading to the middle of Yamato, the old name of the region holding modern day Nara and Osaka, they’ll have to travel up into the mountains.

I like to assume, hope against hope, that this beach is Kobe’s own Suma Beach, but it probably is not. Their destination is not within walking distance.

It takes a while to realize, but this setting is actually the city of Nara, Japan’s first capital city and another of my favorite weekend getaway places. Lovely sightseeing and just a sweet, relaxing city. How do I know that this is Nara though?

The deer! Goemon stumbles across deer in the middle of the city, just as if you were in the real city of Nara. Seriously, go walking down the town’s main street and the deer will flock to you, hoping and nipping for food. Be careful though, they are quite dangerous and will rip open your purses looking for something sweet.

Killing a deer will cost Goemon a 10 ryo fine. I’m not sure how much killing a deer in the real Nara would cost.

The chapter’s action stage takes place in a giant temple, supposedly to represent Todaiji, the world’s largest wooden building and home to the world’s largest indoor Buddha statue. In this extraordinary temple, you can crawl through a hole in a column that is the size of the Buddha nostril. Apparently, it will give you good luck for a year. I just did it earlier in April, so I’ll let you know if it works.

This level has plenty of Buddha statues in the background, and some of them are even slot machines! This is my least favorite action stage though because it requires Goemon to climb some Mode 7 rotating poles, and these require platforming skills that are a little too precise.

The boss fight is against two sumo wrestlers, and once they are defeated, a ghost appears. Every hit she takes, she grows bigger and bigger until she takes up the entire screen. Yae, the woman ninja, pops up after the ghost is defeated, and she tells Goemon and Ebisumaru that the Princess Yuki has been kidnapped by the Otafu Army and they need to seek out help from the ninja boss in Iga.

Yae will become one of Goemon’s closest allies in the later games, but her hair turns green. She is the smartest of franchise’s four main characters.

Level 5 — Iga

Goemon and Ebisumaru travel to the town of Iga, a real place in Japan’s Mie Prefecture which was once a training village for ninjas. It is home to several old ninja houses which are still standing, and much of the town’s economy relies on the tourism its museums bring in. Ever care to see what real ninja life was like back in the day? Go here.

Naturally, nothing in this level can be trusted. Everybody and everything has a secret ninja weapon or attack they will pull out on Goemon. Even the babies leap from their strollers and try to shoot him with machine guns!

Goemon also stumbles across some wild inoshishi, or Japanese wild boars, which lunge at him from within the safety of their caves. Wild boars can be found all over Japan, even in the streets of Kobe on garbage night, but they are especially prevalent in the rural areas of the Kansai region.

Before entering the castle, the real ninjas begin to appear in the trees, and they chuck bombs at Goemon from above. Inside is, you guessed it … ninjas, ninjas, ninjas and ninjas. I wish there was more to talk about with the town of Iga, but that’s all it really is. Ninjas!

It’s one of the most boring places on Earth, but you know … ninjas!

The final boss takes place on a kite flying through the sky, and Goemon does battle with a robot ninja. This could be a prototype of Sasuke, Goemon’s robot ninja ally who joins him in the sequel. The ninja master congratulates Goemon and Ebisumaru for finding him, and promises to help them uncover a magic mirror from a place called Izumo using his “Miracle Transport Machine.”

It turns out to be just a big cannon, and the ninja masters blasts the duo to a far away land, many hundreds of miles from Izumo.

Level 6 — Tengu Mountain

This stage is just the worst. Goemon and Ebisumaru are lost, and they have to climb down from the Tengu Mountain. In order to do that, they must whack enough enemies and beat enough minigames to save 980 ryo, buy a mountain pass, and then climb through a deadly mountain action stage, all within just a few lives.

Remember when I said the continue system could be mercilous? This stage, right here, is the biggest culprit. Good thing we are using Gameshark today.

I’m also not entirely sure where this level takes place. Tengus are a mythical Japanese warrior creature with long noses and wings, and we definitely see a few of them appear on this mountain, be it the large creepy statues or masked samurai on the wooden bridge.

Originally, I thought that this took place on Mt. Takao, a famous mountain with both Tengu shrines and a monkey park. Monkeys are the most common enemy in this stage, but the bump in my logic here is a geographical one. Mt. Takao is located in the suburbs of Tokyo, far away from Iga and close to where Goemon’s adventure started.

Then, there is an actual Mount Tengu in Nagano, which seems a legit distance. However, it is not developed at all and located far from any cities. Nagano’s hot springs are famous for the monkeys which take baths, so perhaps these monkeys are just angry that Goemon disturbed their relaxation.

The level gives no other hints. Enemies in the town are the same generic ones found in the first stage, and the scenery too is nothing special. It’s a brutal level that is bound to take a few continues worth of practice, and thus, a few grueling attempts to save 980 ryo and destroy this beast of a stage.

At the top of the mountain, Goemon does battle with another famous Kabuki character, Fuujin, the God of Wind. Beating him puts the friends back on the path to Izumo, which is in the opposite direction of where the cannon was fired.

Level 7 — Izumo

Izumo is located in Shimane Prefecture, the second smallest in terms of population. However, the small town actually has a lot of famous things it is known for. Izumo Taisha is one of the oldest and most import shrines in Shintoism, as it is a kind of meeting place where all the Japanese deities gather every October.

Japanese manga artist Shigeru Mizuki was also from this area, and he used these folklore tales to create his famous manga series, Gegege no Kitaro.

In between Izumo and Shimane’s capital, Matsue, exists a large lake called Lake Shinji, and this is presumably where the exploration half of the chapter takes place. For the first time in the game, this part loops upon itself infinitely, simulating Goemon running around the lake. He can run forever if he is not careful.

The magic mirror is located on an island in the middle of the lake, which really exists on Lake Shinji, and he’s going to have to cross hell and high water to get there. It’s a rough water stage full, and its Water Dragon boss is even tougher. Still, Goemon gets the mirror, which tells him the princess is located in the Ryukyu Kingdom, known nowadays as Okinawa.

Good, I needed a vacation.

Level 8 — Ryukyu

We’ve stumbled across a place I’ve never been to! I have no intimate knowledge of Okinawa, so I can’t say too much about this level. Men wear Hannya (demon) masks chuck axes at Goemon, but that’s about all that’s unique in this level.

Right?

Not even close. First of all, weird people with blonde hair reside in the houses in this stage, and they speak a language that Goemon can’t understand. The same goes for the king of Ryukyu, who doesn’t really look all that Japanese.

Turns out, this is another exploration stage in which Goemon must save 980 ryo to buy a textbook, which lets him understand the locals. You know what this means, right? It’s been a hot issue in Japan for quite some time, but these are the gaijin soldiers who live on the island of Okinawa, the same ones the locals want gone. Goemon can’t understand them because the blonde weirdos are speaking English …

Great, Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a propaganda voice for the Japanese far right.

Goemon does stumble across Shuri Castle, which I do know is one of the most famous places in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. It was the central building of the Ryukyu Kingdom back during its peak. Shisa statues, a Ryukyu lion myth, line up the front of the castle, and Goemon must knock one down to find a secret passage into the action stage.

I don’t know much about Okinawa, but I am very familiar with the enemies in this stage. Perhaps you are as well! At TechnoBuffalo, we often put a little round red guy in some of our photos. This was a gift from me, and it’s called a Daruma, my favorite Japanese figure and souvenir.

These little statues symbolize happiness, despite how they are always frowning, and real ones can’t be knocked over, a symbol of resilience. They are modeled after a Buddhist monk who prayed until his arms and legs fell off. These Daruma dolls are always bought with empty eyes, and buyers color in the left one when they have a goal in mind. Once the goal is achieved, the right one is colored in, and the Daruma is happy.

Wonderful little tradition, and I was waiting for them to pop up in this game. It’s a shame Goemon has to kill so many of them. The boss fight is especially fun as he jumps into a robot suit and grows back the arms and legs that the legend says the doll is not supposed to have!

All seems well with the princess rescued, but wait! This is not her father, but rather the dark Hannya Shogun! To the dungeon with Goemon!

Level 9 — Dungeon

Honestly, this level is just lazy. No cool Japanese setting. No familiar bits of culture. It’s just a dungeon … Still has shops and minigames, but it’s still, just a dungeon.

Yae busts Goemon out of his cell, and after a lot of searching, he finds the real shogun who tells him that the secret exit is back in the cell Goemon just broke out of. He has to walk all the way back, break open the wall, run through the city, climb the ladder and kill the final boss.

Turns out, our deadly foe and his ferocious steed were just an old man and a cute fox with serious Napoleon issues. Goemon beats the poor man’s skull in with his pipe and saves the princess. The end!

Nice and easy.

Legend of the Mystical Ninja Level 9 Dungeon (7)

So yes, Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a wonderful little game, but I’m so happy I can appreciate it more as an adult thanks to all I’ve learned from my seven years of experience in Japan. I never picked up on these subtleties as a kid.

I wholeheartedly suggest you give it a try on the Wii Virtual Console. Like I said, it peaks early, but there is enough to make the entire game satisfying. The three Super Famicom sequels are even better, but you’ll have to check out the fan-translation scene if you want to play them.

North America also got the two Nintendo 64 games in the States, but I’ve never played those, nor have I dabbled in the widely loathed Game Boy games. If you are interested, the Super Nintendo is definitely the way to go with this underrepresented franchise.


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Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...