Like my previous feature on retro Famicom games to play before and during a Japanese holiday, none of the following classics are comprehensive travel guides or write-ups. Instead, they are mood-makers. A celebration of the ancient culture that is China. Naturally, all are also perfect for playing during an actual China trip, if you could find a way to bring them with you. There’s nothing quite like trekking majestic Taishan in the day, and flying through the mythical version of it at night.
All screenshots belong to their respective developers or publishers.
Chuka Taisen (中華大仙, known as Cloud Master on other consoles)
Taito’s Chuka Taisen deserves first mention on this list because its very name invokes China. In both the Chinese and Japanese language, the prefix中華is a synonym for, well, Chinese. Paired with “Taisen,” the title literally means Chinese Great Deity. FYI, this is a very common way to refer to Chinese Deities respectfully.
Chuka Taisen is wonderful to look at, even by today’s standards. A side-scrolling shooter similar to Gradius, you fly through stages resembling Chinese water colour paintings, powering up through enemy drops or items available in a shop that opens after mini-bosses are defeated. At the end of stages are, of course, bosses. All huge, nasty, and wonderfully oriental. One thing to note. If you’re playing the US version, the first two stages are named as Japan and Egypt. This is despite them looking completely Chinese. On the other hand, Stage 1 is 五行山 in the Japanese original, this being the mountain of five elements, the very one China’s famed Monkey King was imprisoned within for five hundred years. As for the rest of the stages in the Japanese version, all are also named after famous Chinese locations. The Yellow River, Taishan, the Great Wall, all make appearances.
Reigen Doushi (霊幻道士, renamed as Phantom Fighter during US release)
Released in the late 80s, Reigen Doushi was an open homage to the Hong Kong box office hit, Mr. Vampire. If you’re not familiar with this movie, this was the one that started the 80s jiangshi craze in East Asia. Largely thanks to it, what was once dreaded by the Chinese began appearing as cutesy toys and collectables in shops. The movie was so popular it even ensconced certain tropes for the Chinese horror genre. For example, if you were to hold your breath, a jiangshi wouldn’t be able to detect you.
Reigen Doushi was the name of Mr. Vampire in Japan. As a game, it’s largely fateful to the theme and feel of the movie, down to the sprite rather resembling lead actor Lam Ching Ying. Armed with classic jiangshi hunting equipment like Peach Wood Swords, you journey through turn-of-the-century Chinese villages, downing one hopping menace after another before taking on stage bosses. One word of warning about Reigen Doushi though, before you start playing it. Although it successfully conjures the ambience of the jiangshi myth, this game could get frustrating. You are near as stiff as the reanimated menaces you’re battling. Patience is necessary to get the hang of this classic.
Many Famicom games were heavily altered for their US releases. In the case of Reigen Doushi and Matendouji, the original oriental feel of the games was near completely lost.
Matendouji (魔天童子, renamed as Conquest of the Crystal Palace during US release)
To side track a little, very few Famicom games feature distinctively Chinese stories or themes. Even when they do, it tends to revolve around stereotypical impressions of the zhonghua people. For example, pigtails, Bruce-Lee like kung fu fighting, cheongsams, etc.
Matendouji, renamed as Conquest of the Crystal Palace for the US market, is one exception. While gameplay mechanics the story are JRPG platformer in feel, the game has a distinctively Chinese flavour, especially the water colour “world map” in between stages. Made relatively late in the Famicom’s run, the game also plays smoothly, with interesting mechanics you will need some practice to get used to. If you’re looking for a platformer with a strong Chinese ambience and reasonable difficulty, Matendouji is a good choice. I should mention too that the music is well-composed and memorable. My personal favourite is the breezy tune for the Sky Palace stage.
The Super Chinese Series (スーパーチャイニーズ, renamed as Little Ninja Brothers and Ninja Boy during US releases)
Earlier, I’ve highlighted how retro Famicom games could be utterly oblivious when it comes to cultural differences.
I also mentioned how Famicom games often resort to certain racial stereotypes.
Culture Brain’s Super Chinese Series is guilty of both of these, beginning with how, ridiculously, the series was renamed as Little Ninja Brothers for the US market. (There are NO ninjas in China). In addition, you have the character designs, which in the first game, look right out of a yellow peril movie. Disregarding these, though, the Super Chinese series could still be an enjoyable experience, particularly Super Chinese 2 and 3 which incorporated RPG elements. Overall, the series also has a heavy comedic feel, as well as a cheerful, vibrant palette. If you’re a fan of RPGs like The Secret of Mana or Lunar, you’d likely enjoy Super Chinese. You’d probably be intrigued by the curious blend of kung fu action and RPG adventuring.