Goe-Goe Gadget Touch Screen!
Goemon is one of those characters I've seen more frequently on the internet or in spin-offs than in his own games. While I own Konami Krazy Racers and have briefly tried the bizarre DreamMix TV fighting game, I had never seen any of the Goemon/Mystical Ninja games in action, let alone played one of them. Since the first N64 game's "I am Impact" is one of Radio Trivia's unofficial theme songs, I figured it was about time I actually played a Goemon game, so I volunteered to review Ganbare Goemon for the DS.
At its core, Goemon's DS outing is a lighthearted adventure game. Presented primarily in an overhead isometric view, the world has puzzles to solve, characters to meet, upgrades to find and baddies to whack. Players can rotate through the four members of the team (quick Goemon, fat Ebisumaru, shrimpy Sasuke, and swordswoman Yae) with the select button at will. Each has a melee attack, a long-range attack, and a special ability. The differences among melee attacks are slight but noticeable, but the long-range weapons such as the cannon and bomb really help differentiate the team's members. The special abilities, such as female ninja Yae's fish suit, leave the player vulnerable but are vital to progressing through the game. Players can equip an accessory by holding R and selecting with the D-pad, and can similarly select a weapon or special ability with L. The gameplay has its ups and downs, but it provides enough to be satisfying. Most small enemies can be finished with a few whacks of a melee attack, possibly after tapping the touch screen. The basic combat is familiar but fun, with responsive controls.
Variety is a huge part of the game. For example, while Goemon DS is primarily an adventure game, a two-dimensional perspective crashes the party for the game's fantastic platforming sections. These areas pay tribute to the series' roots while retaining all of the adventure game's combat mechanics, including the touch screen interaction. This approach provides some surprisingly clever level designs and gameplay that, while slightly uncomfortable, are thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, these old-school sections are usually short and far too infrequent, and in a huge oversight, they may not be revisited without starting a new game.
The adventure also forces the player to explore. Players will always be talking to villagers and exploring new roads, looking for the next stepping-stone to success. Oddly enough, though, except for the optional mini-games and shops to revisit, the game is quite linear. This design works well for the game, but with a game of few (if any) side-quests, it does little to improve its brevity. Players can revisit towns to find missed power-ups, but unless you can read Japanese, doing so is not terribly exciting.
Indeed, text seems to be one of the primary draws of the game—I likely missed out on some very humorous dialogue. Importers will at least get a taste of the game's humor through the character designs, such as the game's primary villain, an odd-looking daitengu pirate captain with a large, white mustache. Imagine him as being a King K. Rool knock-off from Feudal Japan. Other memorable characters include the shady team of doppelgangers, lead by a "Mr. Goemon," who actually look almost nothing like the heroes of the game, and the pig-bridge. Unfortunately, the game's heavy reliance on text also creates some import barriers—at times I had to resort to a GameFAQ message board. Perhaps the most demanding section is the Japanese calligraphy mini-game which, in all honesty, could have been much more difficult, but still provides unneeded frustration.
Goemon DS also provides an excellent case study of how adventure and platforming games should approach the touch screen. The majority of the game is played with the face buttons and D-pad, but the player will occasionally have to use the touch pad to knock an enemy over, rub an object, or flick a lever. Occasionally, having to touch the screen will pose a logistical problem, but the level designers kept this in mind to minimize awkwardness. For example, if the player must pull a rope taught to fling his character upward, the level will not force the player to both move and attack while in mid-air. Touch screen precision is only an issue for one of the title's earlier mini-games. More problematic is the inconsistent denotation of interactive environments. Most touchable objects have a glowing outline, and players will quickly learn to rely on this telltale sign for guidance. Unfortunately this outline is occasionally omitted, which can result in unacceptable confusion. Hopefully Konami and others will learn from such mistakes in the future for a more consistent interface.
Fortunately, for every shaky aspect, Goemon DS has a great one with which to counter. Konami has included a colorful arsenal of bosses in both the platforming and adventure perspectives that are somewhat easy but almost always engaging. The game also boasts battles with Goemon's inexplicable giant fighting robot, Impact, for some over-the-top Godzilla-esque action. Since Impact and his enemies are of skyscraper proportions, the action takes place in the distance. Impact is controlled via wireless Nintendo DS connectivity and touch screen controls (yes, there is a DS in feudal Japan). There are buttons to punch, power-punch, walk, guard, shoot laser eyes, and (for some reason) self-destruct. Goemon is maneuvered in the foreground with the D-pad to collect power-ups. The controls may sound odd, but rest assured that they work well and make for interesting boss fights.
This DS game also has above-average presentation. Since the game takes place in feudal Japan, the game makes heavy use of Eastern instruments such as the skakuhachi , koto and shanai. Some of the slower-paced village songs blend into the background, but the Japanese-sounding themes always fit, and the familiar percussive decorations provide a genuine cultural atmosphere that starkly contrasts the contrived melodies so often found in RPGs' token Japanese towns. Harder-driving tunes (both new and old) accompany most of the game's action sequences. Goemon aficionados will be disappointed in the lack of a sung theme song, but in its place are vocalized plot-summaries similar to the segments found at the end of anime episodes. Importers will not get much out of still shots and Japanese voice actors, though they will probably appreciate the scenery, depicted in a brush-stroke style not unlike Japanese watercolor paintings.
Ganbare Goemon on the DS has a few implementation issues and is regrettably short, but it is still an above-average title with a lot to offer—just not enough for an import price. I wish I could recommend a domestic version for $20 or $30, but it seems Konami is uninterested in localizing the game. Unless you really love Goemon or can read Japanese fluently, I recommend DS owners pass on this import unless they can find an incredibly good deal.
If you don't mind the moderate language barrier and want to experience Ganbare Goemon for the Nintendo DS, you can purchase a copy from our import partner, Lik-Sang.