At first glance, Youkai Yashiki appears to be a game lacking in significance; a game that conforms so heavily to well understood trends and modifies them so little that one struggles to learn what makes this game in particular worthy of study. Examining the game further only risks reinforcing this impression. A minor release from a company with only a tangential interest in video games, the most notable fact one may find when reading about Youkai Yashiki is that it was originally an MSX game which later received a Famicom Disk System (courtesy of Irem) with a visual overhaul and an extra level. Such paltry information would seem to confirm the game’s status as a minor endeavor made to be forgotten after its brief time in a crowded spotlight.
Playing Youkai Yashiki, however, one comes away with a different understanding of the game. It may not contradict our previous understanding, but it does expand on that understanding significantly. Far from being bound to the era it emerged into, Youkai Yashiki is a game caught between both video games’ recent past and their immediate present – and all the philosophies associated with either. Its inability to properly reconcile the two eras proves more fruitful than one might expect, as the result points to all sorts of histories and developments we might otherwise ignore. Any influence these developments exert on the play experience is questionable, but they remain an interesting point of study nonetheless.
There’s probably a cognitive bias at work behind this sentiment, but a lot of the time when I look back on older video games, I’m reminded of how little the culture around them has changed. Take Lenar Co. and their 1986 release Bird Week. Judging by their body of work (a paltry six releases across ten years), it’s likely the team got their start as part of the hobbyist boom that hit Japan in the 70s and 80s. In other words, they share a lot in common with the indie boom video games went through around 2008. Their works never strayed too far from commercial video game genres, but they were never content to stay completely within those bounds, either. Lenar would introduce a new mechanic that changed the focus of play, or inflect existing ones differently, all in an effort to see just how far they could stretch these familiar concepts. Bird Week, as the team’s first project, best exemplifies this approach. It shows us how easily the concepts we take for granted in games can be inflected to mean something different, but also how liable such inflections are to lapse back into their original meanings.
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.