Musashi no Ken serves as the perfect contrast to last week’s Runbow. Both are minor games that represent dominant design trends of their respective eras. Runbow, like a lot of modern indie games, ostensibly sought to emulate classical games from the 80s and 90s, but its preoccupation with techniques and game enthusiast sensibilities about what makes a game good resulted in a mess of a game.
The irony of this is that those older games became classics in part because they were unconcerned with appealing to that specific demographic. They clung tightly to the same principles Runbow used, to be sure, but even today, their expressive power remains strong. They were able to communicate a lot with very little, and even if they stuck to the same set of moods in practice (heroism, campy fun, etc.), they would convey those moods in a subtle but effective fashion. should go without saying that Musashi no Ken isn’t all that different from its peers. If Runbow represents the worst case scenario for by-the-book game design, then Musashi no Ken at least demonstrates how to put that kind of game design to good use.
That said, Musashi no Ken is a deeply conservative game. Even a cursory glance suffices to demonstrate how intimately familiar the game is with Super Mario Bros.’s language. Like the seminal platformer, gameplay in Musashi no Ken consists of piloting your avatar (the titular Musashi) right, jumping over platforms, collecting various tokens (in this case, swords representing kendo strikes), and swatting down whatever enemies and obstacles stand between you and the finish line. There’s even a clear analogy to the end-of-level flagpole.
This is because the game doesn’t seek to overturn Mario’s language, but to affirm it, and to that end, any modifications the game makes to the formula are slight. Several of them even fade as the game progresses. Musashi is theoretically racing his dog to the end of the course, but each race quickly develops into an Achilles-and-the-tortoise scenario that makes the dog irrelevant in terms of adding extra challenge. Likewise, despite its release in 1986 (the Nintendo Entertainment System’s mid life), the visual style has a level of clarity that, at least at first, means it has more in common with anime and manga than with other 8-bit games. Shape, anatomy, and proportionality are very clearly conveyed. Squatness is only used in contexts where it would make sense (the dog, for example). Yet even these trends eventually give way to the popular styles of the time. The only exception to this trend would be the kendo matches, which I’ll address later on.
As conventional as the game’s structures are, the ambiance it accesses through those structures represents a small but significant break from other games that were available around that time. The bold heroism of Saiyuuki World doesn’t apply here; the tools at Musashi no Ken’s disposal aren’t suited for cultivating such a mood. So instead, the game aims for youthful innocent fun and the feeling of training for some impending challenge. These are goals the game’s tools are well suited for realizing, meaning Musashi no Ken’s talents are free to shine. The pace of the game reflects that well enough: it’s active enough that Musashi’s determination and resolve in his training are evident, but relaxed enough that his lighthearted attitude isn’t clouded out by those traits or by frustration on the player’s part to progress through the game.
The game’s belief in its hero is just as heartfelt and genuine as any other contemporary game’s belief in its hero, yet the way that belief manifests is much more down to earth than of Musashi no Ken’s peers dare to be. It’s as if the game is saying we can find meaning in relatively ordinary struggles like those Musashi endures, or that the stakes don’t have to be high for us to find value in the hero’s journey. The effects of that outlook are very clear in practice. The game’s design feels grounded, and otherwise mundane design decisions more meaningful, as though they have an added heft. The repeating levels (a la Ghosts ‘n Goblins) are now understood as the protagonist training himself for greater challenges he’s likely to face.
Likewise, the individual levels also benefit from this added context. On their own, their arrangements vary from anchored in an easy to discern reality to the sort of abstract layouts that are popular with many games. But with the extra information comes a sense of life outside the player’s interactions with the game. Musashi’s relationship to the world becomes that much clearer; purpose that was once teeming just beneath the surface bubbles a little closer to the top.
However, it’s Musashi no Ken’s kendo tournaments that stand to gain the most from this interplay of mood and technique. This isn’t to imply the kendo portions are lacking anything compared to the rest of the game. In fact, they’re tense moments in their own right. Demanding and hectic, each match can be over in just a second. You’re expected to have both a keen eye for spotting an opening (one that will almost certainly close in a moment’s notice) and the skill necessary to capitalize on that opportunity. Taken just on their own terms, the kendo tournaments are basic yet dramatic enough to stand on their own, separate from the rest of the game. I’ve even seen other writers do just that by situating Musashi no Ken in early fighting game history, as if the kendo sections were all there is to the game.
But we know that’s not the case. The kendo isn’t a diversion from the rest of the game, but something situated in a much wider narrative arc. More than that, even; it’s the climactic moment in that arc. That is to say that the rest of the game is designed with that climax in mind. Musashi no Ken both realizes this and is very eager to put that plan into action. This isn’t just a thin connection to the earlier training motif, either. All the skills you need to succeed in the kendo tournament – movement, placement (both of yourself and your sword), reaction time – appear much earlier throughout the non-kendo portions of the game. (It’s easier to see this during the second playthrough, for obvious reasons.) The game, then, functions both as a unified whole and as a reflection of its titular hero: focused on its goal, determined enough to make that goal a reality, and perceptive enough to know how to go about doing it.
Of course, there are times when that doesn’t hold true. As skilled as the game is at creating moods, it struggles to create emotional arcs, although much of that has to do with the dense enemy composition (IE crowding a given area with too many obstacles for Musashi to dodge) temporarily obscuring everything but the task at hand. But to return to the Runbow example from earlier, Musashi no Ken illuminates what made (some) retro games good in the first place, thus shattering misconceptions we still have to deal with today. Those classics are static things now. Their quality is assumed from the start and impervious to scrutiny, meaning it’s easy to assume copying what they did will produce something of similar quality. That fallacy leads games to ruin.
Fortunately, Musashi no Ken didn’t have the luxury of adhering to that fallacy. It emerged in the formative period of mainstream game design. Experimentation and deep engagement with a game’s workings were necessary to create order from the chaos. That was especially true of this game, which had the added challenge of figuring out how to translate a manga story into a completely different (somewhat new) medium. The result of their efforts is as I’ve described: a solid illustration of how to communicate thought and sentiment in video game form.