First of all, none of these retro Famicom games are travel guides. No top 5, top 10 you-must-see-or-do, etc. The 8-bit creations they are, they are also vastly limited in the information they provide. Even those with in-game dialogues go no further than simplistic, do-you-want-to-buy, are-you-staying-the-night, and so on.
That said, these classic games are still great at churning up anticipation or ambiance for your Japanese holiday. Like coffee table books, they point you toward what’s unique in Japan. Give you an idea of what to keep an eye out for. With the Internet, you can then research in depth for specific information to enhance or broaden your itinerary. One other thing. These being 30-year-old retro titles, they are extremely easy to bring with you on your trip. I’m not going to tell you how. I’d just say time breezes by on trains and planes when you’re engrossed with one of these retro gems.
As usual, all screenshots belong to their respective developers or publishers.
1. Ganbare Goemon 2 (がんばれゴエモン2)
Simply put, this is the game that made me return again and again to Japan. The game itself is literally a Japanese trip, a long adventure stretching from Kyushu to Ezo (Hokkaido). In it, you play as legendary picaresque thief Goemon Ishikawa. Your objective is to journey across various Japanese provinces in the attempt to locate the mysterious Karakuri (Mechanical) Castle. Supposedly, a vast treasure is held here.
Every part of Ganbare Goemon 2 just screams Japanese holiday. From the whimsical music to the inclusion of famous Japanese landmarks, to Japanese local delicacies being sold in shops for HP replenishment. Within the game, you can also visit hot springs, choose different suites to rest in, even watch sexy yūkaku shows. (You have to watch one when playing this. It’s a heady experience.) To share, this game left such an impression on me I still hum its soundtrack when holidaying in Japan. Lastly, I chose part 2 instead of 1, for its superior mechanics and design. If you like this pan-Japanese trip, you could try the SNES versions next. The first two episodes for the SNES follow the same traveling format.
2. Fudō Myōō Den (不動明王伝)
Of all five retro Famicom games on this list, Fudō Myōō Den was the only one given a western localisation. Renamed as Demon Sword, the end-result was one word. Horrific. Stages and items were slashed, the box art was also revised to reflect some sort of barbarian, Conan-like adventure. In short, the entire Japanese feel of the game was lost.
This is such a great pity because the original Fudō Myōō Den is a wonderful showcase of Japanese Noh and mysticism culture. All 17 bosses are based on classic Noh or yokai monsters, with corresponding stages inspired by folkloric horror stories. Heard of the murderous Yuki-Onna, or the conniving Tengu? Ever felt the creeps while staring at one of those smiley Noh masks? These are all in the game for you to meet and battle. The experience is further enhanced by you having a plethora of ninja weapons and skills at your disposal. Shurikens, image-splitters, dragon transfiguration, the likes of. I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that among retro Famicom games, Fudō Myōō Den is one of the best when it comes to encapsulating the mythical Japanese experience. On another note, this title really deserves to be remade for the modern consoles.
3. Getsu Fūma Den (月風魔伝)
Getsu Fūma Den is many things. It’s one of the most expansive retro Famicom games ever made, with a gaming area spanning four islands and tens of hellish zones. It has also never been remade for newer consoles, despites its legendary status and badass music. This makes it somewhat of an exotic gem, one that is filled to the brim with all sorts of macabre, oh-so-Japanese monsters. If you’re curious about Japanese yokai (妖怪) culture, Getsu Fūma Den is a great and fascinating visual introduction.
A note about yokai. While the kanji means aberration, not all yokai are wicked. In modern times, some are even beloved and branded as tourist mascots. The yokai enemies in Getsu Fūma Den, on the other hand, are decisively evil and nothing you should not immediately cut down with your katana. To assist your survival, you are equipped with a slew of utterly Japanese armaments. How about a taiko drum that shoots the kanji for strength? Or a phalanx of classic ninja shurikens? This Famicom title is one that would definitely enhance your Japanese travel experience. Try playing it before visiting deep mountains and forests, or forlorn, ancient temples.
Despite the medieval setting, Getsu Fūma Den is actually set in the future. It tells the story of Fūma, whose brothers were killed by the evil Ryūkotsuki from Hell. The only way for Fūma to defeat Ryūkotsuki is to recover all three Hadōken swords, family heirlooms that were stolen by the demon. With 2D and 3D gameplay, and all sorts of outlandish stage design, Getsu Fūma Den is one of the most exotic Famicom games ever made.
4. Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (火の鳥 鳳凰編 我王の冒険)
Hi no Tori was my tenth NES / Famicom game, and when I bought it in 1988, I didn’t know it was based on one of the most philosophical and acclaimed manga ever created. Drawing inspiration from the Hō-ō (鳳凰, phoenix) chapter of Osamu Tezuka’s magnum opus, the game tells the story of Gaou, a one-eye, one-arm misanthropic outcast who turned to crime because of discrimination he suffered throughout his life. After encountering a monk who enlightened him, Gaou renounced his violent ways and became a Buddhist sculptor. The game itself involves Gaou’s quest to reassemble a phoenix sculpture that was stolen from him. The mythical sculpture had been broken into 16 parts, with fragments scattered all across time.
Sounds grim and heavy, doesn’t it? Trust me, Hi no Tori is anything but those. With upbeat music, colourful graphics and an overall ease of play, the game takes you on a giddying journey from prehistoric Japan to futuristic outer space. Making the journey even more unique is Gaou’s ability to create onigawara on the spot, these being temple roof corner pieces that allow him to reach inaccessible platforms. Why is this game wonderful before or during a Japanese holiday? Why is it also perfect for a video game tourist? Because it’s a complete homage to classic manga and anime. You’d be immersing yourself in the fantasies and adventures millions of Japanese grew up with. Plus, Tezuka remains widely honoured throughout Japan as the godfather of manga. You will see merchandises and exhibitions related to him all over the country. Centrepiece among many of these would be that phoenix you strive to reassemble in the game.
The stage design for Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken could best be described as esoteric. While this might feel haphazard, it’s really because the game incorporates elements from other Hi no Tori chapters. For example, the Mirai (未来, future) chapter.
5. Yokai Dochuki (妖怪道中記)
Like other ancient nations, Japan has an abundance of myths and legends. What makes these stories doubly interesting is how many are often a mix of Shinto, Buddhist and local folkloric beliefs. It is not uncommon to find both Buddhist and Shinto elements within the same story.
Namco’s Yokai Dochuki doesn’t focus on any one story. Rather, it’s a mishmash of various traditions, presented in adorable, super kawaii style. As Tarosuke, you journey through hell to meet the Buddha, during the way battling tons of yokai and taking on various eccentric quests. Depending on your actions in the five long stages, you are thrown into one of five endings. All these are based on realms of rebirth identified in Buddhist teachings. To achieve the best ending, you must put the Buddhist precept of non-violence into action, which means …
I’m not going to give it away. I’d just say Yokai Dochuki adds meaning to every Buddhist site you visit in Japan. The various quests, items, and yokai in it would also familiarise you with the best of Japanese folklore.
FAQ for players who do not read Japanese. You’d need it!
Do you have any favourite retro Famicom games which are perfect for playing during holidays in Japan, or before?
Comment and share with me!