Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon stood out in 1998 as a result of its inherently Japanese theme and wacky premise.
The series has since long been forgotten in the West – even by Konami, the company that developed it. The last release we received was Goemon’s Great Adventure, also for the N64, in 1999.
The fact that Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon has become a relic of the past makes it appealing to return to if you’re an N64 enthusiast interested in exploring the system’s history for yourself. This game is endearingly quirky and downright bizarre, and stands out from other N64 titles as a result.
At the same time, it suffers from some pretty big flaws, some of which are a lot more noticeable today.
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon has the wackiest story of any N64 game, and quite possibly any game for that matter. Ancient Japan is under attack from a giant peach-shaped UFO that’s going around and transforming landmarks into Western musical theatre stages.
It’s up to Goemon the blue-haired ninja and his friends to travel across Japan in pursuit of the enemy and restore the land to some semblance of normality.
The world of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is a wonderfully creative place where Japanese folklore is reality and anachronisms, such as robots, cameras and bazookas, are commonplace. It’s made up of a series of interlinked areas, giving the illusion of open-world freedom, but you actually progress in a very linear and prescriptive manner.
There are four playable characters, each with their own unique abilities, whom you’ll need to switch between throughout your adventure. Your journey through the game is essentially a mixture of overworld exploration, visiting towns (to gather information and purchase supplies) and completing castles.
When it comes to the overworld, it feels as if Konami’s original intention in 1998 was to awe the player with large open environments. Of course, these areas now look comparatively small and primitive, and are often empty and devoid of anything interesting to do.
It’s a shame because you spend a lot of time traipsing through these areas. The game does task you with collecting fortune dolls (which boost your total life bar), and you find plenty of these within the overworld. But they’re almost always placed in uninspired locations, and so getting hold of them is rarely difficult or interesting.
You will find a challenge, however, in each of the game’s five castles. Navigating these successfully involves platforming, battling enemies and the occasional bit of puzzle solving.
This is where the game’s creativity really shines through, using all sorts of themes – sometimes in combination with one another – to deliver some truly memorable moments.
You wouldn’t think, for example, that sushi and submarines are a natural pairing. Yet, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon makes them work harmoniously, to the point where it almost seems logical.
The castles are also where you can truly appreciate the game’s masterful soundtrack. The music combines modern sounds and effects with that of old-fashioned Japanese instruments, perfectly fitting Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon’s anachronistic theme.
The soundtrack adapts as you progress through a castle, becoming more complex and intense in the lead-up to a boss showdown. There are even recorded song performances – unusual for an N64 game due to the limited storage afforded by cartridges – which add to the quirky humour.
One such song plays at the beginning of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon‘s epic robot battles to introduce Impact, Goemon‘s clockwork automaton friend.
These first-person encounters are a fun challenge, requiring you to learn the enemy’s combat patterns and react quickly to sudden attacks.
Mindlessly bashing buttons won’t get you far at all, and instead you need to utilise Impact’s various abilities to counter attacks and dish out damage. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more of these moments in the game.
The downside to featuring so many elements that are intrinsic to Japanese culture is that a lot of these things end up lost in translation.
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon‘s localisation is noticeably shoddy, resulting in odd dialogue and a lot of failed attempts at humour. The game’s cutscenes are punctuated with a canned laughter track, which does a hit-or-miss job of lining up with supposedly funny moments.
Despite this, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon manages to deliver a charming experience, which is no doubt helped by the game’s high visual quality. The combination of simple character models and vibrant cartoon aesthetics give the game a bright and clean presentation.
The frame rate does nevertheless suffer in some places, most notably large open areas. It thankfully doesn’t crop up so much in enclosed environments such as castles, and so rarely has a detrimental impact during platforming segments.
The same can’t be said for the game’s camera though. You can’t in any way control the camera, and so you have to stop moving and wait for it to auto centre behind your character. Sometimes, walls and other environmental objects prevent the camera from doing this, giving you no choice but to make an awkward or blind jump.
There’s a similar issue, albeit on a grander scale, in that Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon generally doesn’t do a very good job of explaining what you need to do next to progress through the game.
You can visit a fortune teller and pay a small fee to get a hint, but it feels like a lazy inclusion on the developers’ part. At one point, the game even prompts you to do this, as if someone had forgotten to insert an interlinking event.
In some instances, a message will appear or you’ll come across a sign that just tells you the solution, rather than giving you the chance to work it out yourself.
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is a charming, offbeat experience that is let down by bad localisation, a troublesome camera and some questionable design choices. In particular, travelling through the overworld is linear and pretty boring, even more so today as the environments are noticeably sparse and basic.
Thankfully, the castle areas offer a decent challenge, combining different themes, such as ghosts and toys, to throw some truly novel and fun gameplay ideas at you. It’s just a shame that you’re beholden to an unintelligent (and uncontrollable) camera for many of the game’s platforming segments. The robot battles are a real highlight, and are still highly entertaining.
If you’re a seasoned N64 player then you’ll probably find these problems aren’t enough of an issue to get in the way of the more enjoyable aspects. Nevertheless, no amount of charm can hide Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon’s flaws, which are sadly all the more apparent today.
- A novel, endearing game world that draws on Japan's unique history and culture
- Vibrant, colourful visuals
- Fun and challenging robot battles that require quick thinking and skill
- Superb soundtrack that adds to the game's theme and mood
- Uncooperative, automatic camera hinders platforming
- Travelling through the overworld is often dull, long-winded and unchallenging
- Lazy hint system results in inconsistent flow of gameplay
- Poor localisation
To learn more about how review N64 games see our review scoring system page. Because we focus on whether a game is still enjoyable to play today, we try to avoid discussing a game’s development history, impact or legacy in our reviews.