Today's game is Miracle Girls, where the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc team up to fight the forces of hell using an exhilarating mixture of Catholic doctrine and really big guns. Except it isn't, it's a Super Famicom platformer based on, you guessed it, a manga called Miracle Girls. I know, I thought the other thing sounded more interesting too. Oh well, we're stuck with it now, so on we go with Now Production and Takara's 1993 enforced-type-2-diabetes-em-up Miracle Girls!

There are the girls - twin sisters, to be precise - now, looking very excited at the prospect of starring in a SNES game, as well you might be. I'd be excited if I had my own SNES game, but knowing my luck it'd turn out to be Bubsy with a pixellated version of my grim visage slapped over the top of Bubsy's smart-arse face. We even get to find out what the girls are so excited about, thanks to a fan-translated version of the game by RPGOne, so no twist or turn of what I'm sure will be a deep, compelling story will pass us by.

Wow, these kids have quite the chins on them, don't they? The longer you stare at them, the more unsettling the proportions of their faces become, even by the usual saucer-eyed, no-nosed standard of the manga form. It's difficult to look at them and not imagine that they're hooting a low, monotone mooing sound right into each other's faces. Anyway, the girls and some of their friends are having a normal day at school when, without warning, they are transported to a strange and unfamiliar world. That means it's time to pick one of the girls and head out of a journey across this bizarre and, if the background is anything to go by, rather idyllic land. I'll let the girls introduce themselves.

This is Tomomi, and she's the dumb jock. Is it just me, or is "having great reflexes" a really weird thing to boast about? Maybe she's part-cat. This is based on a manga, after all.

And this is her sister Mikage, and she's a loser nerd. Oh ho ho, what a pair they make! They're like chalk and cheese, apples and oranges, erm, nerds and jocks, but they love each other despite their differences. They love everything, every tiny element of their existence, if their constant expressions of boggle-eyed delight are anything to go. So they're happy kids, but why are they miracle girls? Is it because they're forever enraptured by the sheer miracle of being?

Oh, I see. Wait, what? That's a very low-key way to announce that you possess phenomenal mental powers beyond the ken of ordinary man. Seems like that's just how Tomomi and Mikage the Psychic Mutant Twins roll. Hopefully I'll get to use their powers, I can see teleportation being a very useful ability to have in a platformer.

First I have to choose which sister to play as. I went with Mikage. You might think that Tomomi would be the better choice to play as in an action game because she's the sporty one, but I have my reasons. Those reasons are that I was flicking the cursor around and it stopped on Mikage, and also that it doesn't matter because they both play the same. Tomomi breaks down in tears when she is rejected, the big wuss. Didn't see that one coming with you mind-powers, huh?

Miracle Girls starts out of Flower Road, which is about as nice an alternate dimension as you could be hoped to be dragged in to against your will. It's a very gentle introduction to an overall very gentle game, the kind of light platforming that you've seen a thousand times before but sanded down a little further than usual, presumably to appeal to a younger target audience. Even the roaming enemies aren't particularly threatening. It's hard to fear a cartoon mole in a hard-hat, even if he is coming right at you on a pneumatic drill. You'd think that a mole of all creatures wouldn't need a tool to help it dig, but then the brightly coloured blocks that make up Flower Road's bedrock do look pretty solid.

To defend herself from the roving hordes of benign lil' cuties, Mikage has a secret weapon. No, it's not psychic powers. Why would you think that? Oh, right, because she's psychic. Maybe her powers only work on humans, with animal brains lacking the necessary complexity to be manipulated. Instead, she throws candy at them. If a creature it hit by the candy it is momentarily paralysed and can't hurt you while it munches away. As a secondary bonus, you can also stand on paralysed enemies and use them as platforms. Seems fair enough, I'd let someone stand on my face if they gave me enough sweets, too. There are a couple of points in the game where you can build a staircase to reach bonus items by stuffing woodland creatures with your poisoned candy, but most of the time you'll be feeding them and moving on as quickly as possible.

The only other non-standard element of the platforming comes from these red and white flowers. One of them is a solid platform, while the other will collapse as soon as you touch it. The only way to tell which is which is to consult the mental projection of your twin sister that appears when you reach the flowers. She actually says "red" or "white" out loud so you know which flower to stand on, and it's sort of a neat touch although as uses for telepathy go it is hardly the most thrilling imaginable.

There's a fortune teller in hidden in the stage, and by "fortune teller" I mean "slot machine" so it's almost certainly got a better success rate at predicting the future than your common-or-garden palm reader. The reels spin and you can get extra lives if matching symbols line up, but the machine also dispenses some advice before you leave. Come on then, oh wise and knowing one-armed bandit, what does the future have in store for me?

What do you mean, "a time like this"? The time I'm spending skipping through a mostly harmless pastoral dreamland filled with swaying flowers and hoppity bunnies? Are you threatening me, Fortune Teller? Is that it? Well, I'm on to you. I'll take my extra lives but then we're done, you hear me?!

So, uh, yeah. Platforming. Jump over holes, throw sweets at monsters, although "monsters" is a bit of a strong term. I suppose there is something a little monstrous about a sentient dandelion clock the size of a child's head, doubly so when they look more like the ghost of a sperm than anything else, but it's hardly zombies and dragons. What else would you expect from a place called Flower Road? It's all jolly enough, I suppose. I don't have anything to complain about in terms of the controls or the game mechanics, at least - the developers were obviously shooting for the most middle-of-the-road platformer they could muster and boy did they ever hit that target. They did mix things up a little with the boss battles, mind you, so let's meet the first end-of-stage guardian now.

It's Buzz Stingington, the sex offender bee! Ha ha, don't go near him girls! And if he comes near you, make sure to give his parole officer a call!

Then the game suddenly turns into a close of Bomberman. Unexpected, but a welcome change even if it's not as good as an actual Bomberman game. Rather than bombs you both have water pistols, and an umbrella that you can protect yourself with. The aim is to shoot the bee with your water pistol without getting shot yourself, and whoever has landed the most hits when the time runs out is the winner. There are two ways to go about this: you can either lay in wait for the bee and shoot him as he rounds a corner before quickly ducking back so he can't retaliate, or you can take the lazy man's route, which involves standing right next to him and repeatedly shooting. Once you've got a few points, just wait a while and some blue balls will drop into the arena and start rolling around, deducting one point from whoever they hit. The bee is far too stupid to avoid these balls, so as long as you make a token effort to avoid them yourself the bee will lose all the points he's accumulated and you'll win handily.

Yes I am here to help you and no, I am not exhausted after that bee guy because he was too thick to understand the rules of the game he challenged me to. Who are you, by the way? Oh, you're Mikage and Tomomi's teacher. I must say, given that you don't have psychic powers you're taking all this much more calmly than I would. Also, you might want to invest in some larger spectacles, unless those aren't your glasses and you're just holding on to them for a friend who is a scholarly cartoon owl.

Welcome to stage two: Clouds Island, home of the fucked-up ducks. Christ knows what's happened to the poor thing's spine, it's as though someone tried to wring its neck in preparation to cook it but got bored half-way through and let it go.
As you can see, this stage is a romp amongst the fluffiest clouds you ever did see, with a background of twinkling stars, a moon with a human face and, weirdly, lots of minarets. I usually like "cute" games, possibly as a reaction to most modern-day releases, but I think Miracle Girls might be a bit too cute. Playing Miracle Girls feels like a twenty-four hour marathon of Hello Kitty and internet kitten videos has been condensed into an hour or so of gameplay, an adorable cudgel that is being used to thump you over the head repeatedly.

I spent so long trying to bounce on this resolutely non-interactive ring, you wouldn't believe. I meant just look at it! It's clearly an embedded trampoline of some kind. Why yes, I have been playing Donkey Kong Country recently, why do you ask?

A platform above a fatal drop, a signpost and the opportunity to make a joke that is far too dark to appear in this article. Instead I'll explain that there are air currents here that you can ride on my jumping into them, hence the sign. You might be wondering why Mikage doesn't just teleport over the gap, and if you did wonder that then you'd be pleased to note that she teleports over a bloody gap right after this section. The difference is that Tomomi is there to help her, so... they can only teleport if they're both involved? That makes it a much less useful power, especially when you consider all the time you'd have to waste on convincing the other person that you should teleport into a bank vault.

Oh shit, it's Wade from US Acres! Oh, US Acres, or Orson's Farm as it's known outside the US. Second fiddle to Garfield, of all things. You poor bastard.

The duck wants to play a card-matching game. A card appears in the centre, and you have to move to the matching card and select it before the duck does. This is precisely as exhilarating as it sounds, especially when you factor in the odd quirk that the non-centre cards also change, sometimes leaving you without the correct card to match. Above, for instance, only the duck's side has the devil card. I guess I'll just sit this round out, then? No, no, that's cool, if you want to win by cheating then that's up to you.

I guess? Sure, let's go with that. I mean, I have no idea who you are but we'll get you home safe, nerdlinger.

The next stage is Sweet Hill, because this game wasn't sugary enough already. The difficulty level is slowly but steadily increasing, mostly because enemies are placed right where you're going to land when jumping between platforms and there's the occasional springboard semi-hidden in the floor that it's easy to run in to, but it's hardly Contra or anything. On the plus side, look at these little waddling tea cup guys! They're very cute for being abominations. Lemon with tea? That's just not right.

By the way, Mikage has one other move at her disposal: a limited-use, screen-clearing smart bomb attack wherein she spins around and flings candy everywhere. This doesn't just paralyse the enemies, it destroys them outright, so if you have a burning hatred for anthropomorphic tea cups then this is the attack to use. Also don't watch Disney's Beauty and the Beast. On the subject of those tea cups, do you think they constantly live with the crippling fear that someone is going to grab that Jammie Dodger over there and forcibly dunk it into their exposed... liquids? I know I would be.

Then the girls get tired of pretending they don't have god-like supernatural powers and simply fly over this massive hole to reach the end of the stage. Makes you wonder why they split up at the start of the game, really. Probably they just wanted some time apart, having to be right next to each other in order to use their powers is going to put a strain on the relationship.

Because you're creepy as hell, Rat-Clown?

Rat-Clown has a game for you to play, naturally. Surprisingly the stakes are not your eternal soul, but rather that he'll tell you where one of your missing friends is if you beat him at a game of spot-the-uncoordinated-flailer. The four characters above do a little dance, but one of them is ever so slightly out of sync with the rest, and you have to identify the one that's ruining the dance recital to score points. It's an interesting idea, and because the difference in the movements is so subtle it becomes a weirdly psychological challenge as you second-guess yourself repeatedly. Fortunately Rat-Clown doesn't seem that into it, and it's rare that he'll make a guess of his own so you can take your time in determining which of these twitchy, giant-headed weirdos is a quarter-beat behind the pace.

Thank you, Extremely Generic Anime Boy. Your enormous, SETI-satellite-dish eyes should help on that front.

Stage four is Toys Bridge. "Toys" is pushing it a bit, mind you, because it's mostly made up of dice and playing cards. If I'd asked for toys at Christmas and received a deck of cards and a couple of D6s I'd have been very disappointed. There are floating cat heads with angel wings and little red booties, too. Probably best not to ask where they came from, although the angel wings suggest that they were very good and pious cat-heads in life.

Oh no, this die heard me smack-talking his fellow random number generators and now he's out for revenge! Tiny, hopping, easily-thwarted-with-sweets revenge! I have no idea why anything in this game causes Mikage harm, you know. Ninety percent of the enemies are actively fuzzy, and the ones that aren't are hardly bristling with poison spines or rending talons. With this guy, you could scoop him up in a cup and shake him around. He'd probably love it, too.

The toy theme goes even further off track with the appearance of cannon that try to shoot you. When I first saw them I thought "I'm surprised they don't have grumpy faces that are spitting cannonballs out of their cartoony mouths," but then I noticed that the cannonballs have eyes, so there you go. As an appliance on The Flintstones might say, "it's a living," although a severely truncated living given that they're being launched over a bottomless pit.

The boss is quite possibly the least terrifying Jack-in-the-Box of all time, and he wants to play a game. Maybe something with playing cards, or the rolling of dice? It would make sense with both the theme of the level and the game's commitment to minigames as boss battles.

Nope, it's the water pistol thing again. Yay. The Jack-in-the-Box isn't any tougher than the bee, as you might expect from an opponent with a box instead of limbs, and the same tactics work just as well here. They didn't even bother to give him his own toy-themed background. Very disappointing.

The defeated spring-thing offers up the information that someone called Majo-Majo is behind the girls' interdimensional abduction, and so they set off to the final stage - the Magical Forest. The Magical Forest of the dead, if all these ghosts cluttering up the place are any indication. The ghosts - which are rather lovely and charmingly sleepy - make this the hardest part of the game by far, popping into existence without warning and often right in front of your face. I suppose I should have know. Ghost is super effective against Psychic, after all.

The developers wanted to get spooky but they just couldn't bring themselves to ditch the cutesiness, so we've ended up riding on skull-flowers. As everyone in this game has huge eyes and tiny mouths, I think we can safely assume those are human skulls. Mikage doesn't seem perturbed by this. Mikage never seems perturbed by anything, she's constantly smiling like an under-three's version of the Joker who fell into a vat of cuddles and chocolate milkshakes.

At last, the villain is revealed and it's the owl witch called Majo-Majo. Again, Majo-Majo is carrying a staff with a human skull attached to it but the girls don't give a shit. They must have seen far worse than this on their other, less cutesy adventures. If you have the power to delve into people's minds you're going to see some dark stuff, stuff that leaves a mark on your psyche. So, what fiendish game has Majo-Majo got in store for the girls?

Ah yes, the dread curse of repetition. Three more instances of the same games as before, only slightly more difficult (and I do mean slightly). You don't even face off against Majo-Majo, it's the same bosses as before, and the whole thing feels like a complete waste of time.

It turns out that Majo-Majo abducted these people because he / she / it was lonely, which almost feels worse than if it'd grabbed them for some nefarious purpose. The world does't revolve around your happiness, Majo-Majo, these are people with their own lives, you can't just transport them to the Cuteness Dimension so you can have a playmate. If you're lonely, join a book club or something. The girls are much more forgiving than me, though, and they tell Majo-Majo that they've had a fun time risking life and limb but they'd like to go home now, please. Majo-Majo agrees to send them back, leaving the owl-witch to rattle around in its big, empty castle. Maybe you'd have more friends if you didn't accessorize with the bones of the dead, Majo-Majo.

It wasn't very difficult, and the amount of fun I had was minimal at best. Don't lie to me, Miracle Girls.

And there we go, another generic platformer conquered through cheerfulness and smiles. On the girls' part, I mean. Miracle Girls did not make me especially cheery or smiley, although those ghosts were pretty great. It's a licensed platformer for kids, so the odds of it being amazing were fairly low, although I will give it huge credit for this: it's a game clearly aimed at a very young audience and yet, unlike so many other similar games, it manages to not be completely patronising and utterly devoid of challenge! It's an easy game, sure, but it has its moments and if you're in the target demographic then it's a good, gentle introduction to the genre. If you want to chill out with something so cute it makes a basket full of puppies look like a basket full of dead halibut, you can give it a try but it's never going to compete with the classics. I suspect you knew that already, though.



It's time for a very brief article about a very brief piece of Commodore 64 tat, because that's the kind of game I've been craving recently. I'm not sure why. I suspect it's because I've been playing too many genuinely good games in my non-VGJunk time, and as the human body might cry out for nutrients it is desperately lacking so does my mind yearn for computer games that probably shouldn't exist to provide grist for the mill that is writing about old games. Today's meagre kindling to be thrown on the VGJunk bonfire is the 1990 sports "game"Penalty Soccer, written by David Bradley and released by Clockwize Software!

Released on several home computer formats but presented to you here in glorious Commodore 64-o-Vision, Penalty Soccer is referred to just as Penalty Soccer on the title screen but Penalty Soccer Simulator on the cassette cover. Which is the correct title? I don't know, but plain old Penalty Soccer is definitely the more accurate. This is as much a football simulation as The Sims is an accurate depiction of home ownership.
"A game of skill and reactions," it claims. This is not true, because there is no skill involved unless you're willing to accept "moving a cursor" as a skill and if so I really hope you're the next potential employer to read my CV. Reactions? Well, just about, although they're far less important than you might expect.

Penalty Soccer then explains what'll be happening if, for some unfathomable reason, you decide to proceed with playing the game rather than doing something more interesting like breaking into a bank vault by licking through the steel door. You play as a goalkeeper, and you have to save the penalties that are being fired towards you. There is nothing else to the game. That's right, Clockwize Software took every football fan's least favourite part of the game - the penalty shoot-out - and turned it into a videogame. Except that wasn't quite dull enough for them, so they excised the shooting from the penalty shoot-out, leaving you with nothing but an extremely basic version of one-half of the worst part of football. That is a truly impressive feat of badness. Simply by existing, Penalty Soccer reduces the world's Joy Quotient by several points.

You can choose a difficulty level by selecting which of these (mostly British) football players you want to face off against, from genial, bearded crisp-peddler Gary Lineker to Peter "Quasimodo's Doppelganger" Beardsley and even everyone's favourite cocaine-snaffling, mercurial-talent-having recipient of multiple gastric bands, Diego Maradona. Personally, I'm pleased to see Chris Waddle on the list, because he was one of my heroes when I was a young boy, and one-half of the reason that I always played football with my shirt untucked (the other half being slovenliness). It's interesting that he's on the higher end of this difficulty chart, because probably Chris Waddle's most famous moment in an England shirt was when he missed a penalty in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. I guess we know that Penalty Soccer was made early in 1990, then. One last note on Chris Waddle, because it's such a great story even if you're not a football fan, is that he rode to his first job interview on a moped but couldn't get his crash helmet off and so had to conduct the interview looking like the Stig. He got the job. What a pro. I'll won't be starting with Chris, though. Saving penalties is a tough task for any goalkeeper, so I'm going to ease myself in by facing Kevin Keegan.

Here's the game's one solitary screen, so get used to seeing it. At first it seems like a perfectly normal footballing set-up, but the closer you look the more flaws you see. For starters, your keeper doesn't have a relaxed, ready-to-pounce stance, nor is he trying to make himself look big. Instead, he looks like his shorts are too baggy and he's having to hold them up. The lines on a football pitch are generally painted white, not blue. The goal is nowhere near large enough to meet the FA's size requirements. The keeper was so intent on showing off his biceps that he's gone for a non-regulation sleeveless kit, which makes him look like he's walked in from a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Most bizarre of all is the crowd. Take a look just to the right of the goal. That is a human arse. There's a human arse watching me take penalties. In fact, the whole crowd seems to be made up of buttocks, a fleshy pink sea of rumps who have come to cheer on their team, presumably by farting along to the tune of "Cwm Rhondda" or something. I'm sorry for the descent into crudeness, but it's difficult not to be crude when presented with more arseholes than a UKIP party conference.

I think this animated GIF adequately captures the essence of Penalty Soccer. The balls move towards the goal - with, credit where credit is due, some pretty good sprite scaling - and you have to get in their way. The joystick moves the keeper, pressing the fire button makes him jump. It is very rare that you will need to jump. Save ten shots before the striker scores ten goals and you'll win the round. That's the entire game, folks. Yes, Penalty Soccer was a budget title originally priced at £2.99, but even in 1990 that was about £2.89 too much. About the most positive box blurb you could write for it would be "works as intended," which admittedly puts it above a fair few other computer games of the time, but as I said it does boil down to nothing more than moving a cursor shaped sort-of like a goalkeeper.

Oh, and the game expects you to do this nine more times in order to become The Supreme Goalkeeper. Because each set of penalties only takes about a minute to get through, I thought sure, why not? It should be easy enough, because I've already figured out Penalty Soccer's most glaring flaw.

As depicted in the above image, the computer has the overwhelming tendency to take this shot to the left of the goal, even if the goalkeeper is standing right there. I even left the score counter in this GIF just so I couldn't be accused of showing a loop of the same shot. No, I really did just make the goalkeeper stand there while the computer pinged shots into his brawny upper arms, building up a commanding six-point lead without having to move. This doesn't just happen on the easier difficulties, either, it runs right through the list of strikers all the way to Maradona. Eventually the computer will put a shot somewhere else - I don't think you can win, not consistently anyway, by simply parking the keeper and going off to make a cup of tea - but Penalty Soccer seems to always get stuck in this pattern at least once per round. That's how I knew I'd be able to beat the game on the highest difficulty, so I think I'm definitely ready to make the step up and face Maradona.

Maradona tries to claim victory by constantly taking shot after shot, regardless of whether the keeper is ready or not. This, of course, is cheating, but then Diego has form on that front, doesn't he?
In the end it is of no consequence, because even Maradona can't break himself out of the kicking-it-slightly-to-his-left cycle that has trapped all the other strikers, to the extent that I'm beginning to wonder whether my keeper doesn't have some kind of mostly-useless telekinetic ability. With the five or six guaranteed saves that result from this flaw, I soon managed to claim ten victories and become The Supreme Goalkeeper. With no footballing worlds left to conquer, the keeper moves on to appearing in advertisements for bathroom sealant and condoms, before his ultimate adventure in 20XX when he defended the Earth from alien invaders that couldn't help flying their UFOs slightly to the left.

Penalty Soccer is an absolute nothing of an experience, as though someone digitised a sigh and slapped it on a C64 cassette, but the ending text redeems it somewhat through the sheer force of its sarcasm. I suspect the creators of this game knew full well that it was not exactly built to set the world on fire, and it should be obvious that this is not something that's worth playing. I didn't hate it, but only because there wasn't anything there to hate and hey, it was nice to see Chris Waddle mentioned. So, I'm going to do as suggested and go tell people that I play for England in my spare time. With the current crop of players, it's becoming more believable every minute.



Today I'm going to learn an ancient and honourable martial art by hitting pigs with a piece of bamboo and dodging surface-to-air missiles, because today's game is Taito's 1986 Famicom way-of-the-sword-em-up Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu!

This title screen has a cute puppy on it, which elevates it above the vast majority of NES title screens, although don't let the puppy fool you into thinking this is going to be an easy game. It is not an easy game, mostly because deadly objects rain from the sky in great numbers, as though God himself has tipped his kitchen junk drawer upside down to look for a lost Allen key or appliance warranty card. We'll get to that, but first the scene needs setting. Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu - which I think translates as something like Musashi's Sword: Training Right Now - is based on a manga, surprise surprise. Musashi no Ken is a manga about a kid called Musashi who learns kendo and does kendo things, like fighting in kendo tournaments and bouncing his way through several stages of platforming action. It was adapted into an anime series that was airing at the time of the game's release, and that's about all I have on Musashi no Ken that isn't specifically about the videogame. Oh, and according to the Wikipedia page Musashi's parents are both former kendo champs, so no pressure there, kid.

It's straight into the action, and Musashi no Ken offers a familiar blend of running to the right while jumping over the yawning chasms that litter the landscape. There's also swordplay to be had, and Musashi can swing his sword to defeat enemies. He's even got multiple different attacks at his disposal, although there's not much to choose between them - you can press attack for a standard horizontal swipe, or combine the attack button with up or down on the d-pad to slice (or clobber, I suppose, because this is a bamboo kendo sword) either diagonally upwards or downwards, but they all cover just about the same range in front of you. You can also crouch and attack, which is handy for dealing with the first enemies you come up against: these yellow blobs. A Super Mario goomba and a slime from Dragon Quest met in a bar, consoled each other over their shared misery at being cannon-fodder enemies who exist solely to be wiped out by the first hero that comes along, they went back to the goomba's place and nine months later they were proud parents to a litter of tiny piss-lumps. The gooey offspring fare no better than their parents, and they're easily brushed aside by Musashi's sword.

Musashi's other goal beside simple survival is to collect as many of these tiny swords as possible, although their use is, for now at least, unexplained. Maybe it's a safety thing, and they'll revoke your kendo license if you leave swords laying around everywhere. And I mean everywhere, because as well as the visible swords I'd say around seventy percent of the other objects on the screen - wooden training dummies, tree branches, cliff edges, graves - contain swords that only appear when you hit them with your sword. You on, desecrate that grave, there's a collectible inside! There are also other power-ups whose effects are more immediately obvious. Rice balls increase Musashi's health, which sort of works on a health bar system but getting hit twice always seems to kill you no matter what unless you've collected a rice ball. There's also a temporary invincibility item and shoes that make Musashi faster. They make him run faster and they make him die faster, because when he's moving at such speeds it's difficult to get any platforming down without falling down holes. For safety's sake, don't collect the shoes. Leave Musashi barefoot so his grasping, ape-like toes can help him gain traction on slippery surfaces.

You can also see the puppy from the title screen running along the bottom of the screen. Turns out it's nothing more than the most adorable stage timer I've ever seen in a videogame, and you simply have to reach the end of the stage before your dog does. Thankfully it's a very slow dog. When I first saw it down there I was worried I would have to protect the dog - worried because I'm terrible at protecting things in videogames and double-worried because I didn't want a puppy's death on my hands - but thankfully the dog is ethereal and can walk through any wall and float over any chasm. It's a g-g-g-ghost dog (not Forrest Whitaker)!

Look there, between the gravestones: it's the angry sun from Super Mario 3, except he's not angry any more! He's coked out of his fucking gourd instead!

Then come the missiles. Someone with access to more firepower than every eighties action movie combined has decreed that Musashi must die, and so our hero must contend with a barrage of deadly ordnance. I did not realise that people took kendo training this seriously. You can swat the rockets out of the air with your sword, something which says to me that Musashi does not need to be training.

Missiles too easy for you to avoid? Well how about a rain of sharpened bamboo that pours from the sky like, well, rain. Deadly, lacerating, fast-growing rain. There's a common theme in Musashi no Ken's gameplay design, and that's enemies and projectiles falling from the sky in an absolute torrent of death, an unending stream of pain that just keeps on coming no matter how many individual droplets you hit with your sword. In many cases, such as here, the best strategy is to move forwards as quickly as possible while constantly swinging your sword over your head like someone trying to use an umbrella to achieve man-powered flight. Most of the time this works surprisingly well, although in some sections you're funnelled towards the top of the screen where there's less space to avoid the incoming enemies. In these situations my advice to you is the same - just keep moving and swinging. You might get lucky and make it through. Hey, I'm not GamePro, if you want ProTips you'll have to look elsewhere.

First bamboo, now falling logs. Whoever is doing this, please stop trying to kill Musashi with lumber because it is not working and you're, like, harming Mother Earth, man. Use a gun! I know Musashi's an anime type and if there's one thing anime has taught me it's that swords are vastly more powerful than guns, but he's not wielding the finest Japanese steel so you might have a chance.
That floating letter G (which presumably stands for goal) marks the end of the stage, by the way. Simply grab it without being buried to death under an avalanche of firewood and stage one is complete!

The second stage starts in another forest, and forget for a moment the impracticalities of trying to defeat living fire by poking it with wood and take a look at the graphics. Musashi no Ken is the most NES-looking NES game I have played in quite some time. If you asked me to draw "an NES game" this is pretty close to what my hypothetical drawing would look like: blue skies, green vegetation, small but characterful sprites. It's a nice look, too. The graphics in this game are hardly a technical marvel, the settings lack some imagination and there's nothing approaching the quality of, say, Moon Crystal's fluid animation, but it's a good, solid example of the style. Musashi's got some fun expressions for when he takes damage, the enemies are cute and that dog is clearly the breakout star of the whole thing.

The gameplay reaches about the same level of success, too. The relentless deluge of enemies can sometimes feel like extremely lazy design, but the game's biggest problem is that Musashi's jumping physics feel just a little bit off. Not game-ruiningly so, but he's more floaty in the air than you might expect and that can sometimes lead to overshooting jumps you'd be certain of making in other, similar games. I guess those big flappy samurai trousers can really catch an updrauft. Other than that control flaw, which doesn't even take that much getting used to, Musashi no Ken is a fun and carefree romp through a world where the universe itself wants a young boy dead for having the audacity to enjoy kendo. Is this game a carefully masked critique on modern technology's corrosive effect on Japanese traditions? No, it is not. That would be super weird.

This is what I meant about getting funnelled to the top of the screen. The bottom route might look a little safer, mainly because Musashi's head is further away from where the enemies spawn, but in this game you can't jump upwards "through" platforms, and if you try to do so Musashi will bonk his head on whatever's above him and fall down. No, it's just about safer up here, as long as I keep moving, however tempting it is to try hitting the tyre swing on the way down to see if there's a tiny sword tucked inside it.

Then, at the end of the stage, a rain of boulders. Or possibly meatballs. No, no, I'm sure they're meant to be boulders. There are mountains in the background. Mountains produce boulders, not meatballs. I have a geography GCSE, I feel confident in this knowledge. Musashi can smash the boulders as easily as he could the logs and missiles and yet again I wonder why he's bothering with training. How much stronger do you need to get, kid? What is your terrifying vision for the future?

In stage three, everything becomes clear: Musashi is a rampaging twelve-foot tall giant, smashing everything he sees in a berzerker rage! I know this because some enemies in this stage are also kendo practitioners, but they're half Musashi's size and the idea that Musashi is a giant rather than that he's beating up martial arts pixies is way more appealing to me. It explains at the rockets and people throwing bamboo spears at him, they are desperate to stop this lumbering maniac before he can crown himself the undisputed, unassailable Champion of All Kendo, ruling over the sport unopposed for the rest of his unnaturally long lifespan.

See? That's the face of a demented lunatic. Someone's whacking him with a bamboo sword and he's loving it. Now we know why Musashi no Ken wasn't released outside of Japan, Nintendo of America would never allow such filth to pollute the minds of innocent young gamers.

In this stage Musashi is also attacked by walking buckets and what I originally thought were very small ice hockey players but are actually people with mops. Two theories: either this game is the result of Masashi taking one too many blows to the head during kendo practise, or this stage is supposed to represent the arduous task of cleaning up the dojo. You get those kind of cleaning scenes, especially floor-scrubbing scenes, in anime sometimes - I think there's some in My Neighbor Totoro - so really this stage is a projection of Musashi's desire to avoid responsibility / back-breaking manual labour.

Not to worry, the Killer Whale foetuses that guard this dojo will not allow such a transgression to go unpunished. Here's an actual tip for Musashi no Ken: if you're near the end of the stage and you can still take a hit or two before dying, you might as well make a mad dash for the goal because your health bar is reset at the start of the next stage anyway. It certainly made timing my jumps to avoid the whales' deadly bubbles - oh, it's always the bloody deadly bubbles in these things - much easier, because I didn't bother. Surely part of a young man's kendo training is learning how to take a hit, I thought to myself as I popped the lethal bubble using Musashi's face

Suddenly it's all change, and Musashi no Ken ditches the platforming for a series of one-on-one kendo battles! That was a surprise. I wasn't expecting there to be actual kendo in this kendo-themed platformer, which seems like a strange thing to say but how often do NES games ever completely replace their gameplay? This one does, though, which is interesting. I've done all the training, after all, and it's time to put it to good use.

The thrilling sound of bamboo clacking against bamboo! The graceful dance of men dressed like ye olde beekeepers! The embarrassment of walking right into your opponent's attack! Yes, Musashi no Ken's kendo section has it all. You have three main attacks - upper, middle and lower - and the combat is heavily focused on precision and managing the distance between you and your rival. Each bout works on a best-of-three system, so you need two clean hits on your opponent to win, and there are five challengers in total. So, I started the battle and realised hey, this is an awful lot like the kendo sections in Taito's very own 1984 arcade game Great Swordsman! That's fine by me, because for a one-on-one fighter from 1984 Great Swordsman is still fun to play thanks to its fluidity and precision. I might be wrong, but I have to assume someone responsible for Great Swordsman also worked on Musashi no Ken, or at least realised they had something they could work with when they acquired the license for a kendo anime.

Sadly, the kendo section is not quite as good as in Great Swordsman, lacking as it does a certain amount of finesse. It's still good, better than I would expect a NES swordfighting game to be, but it doesn't quite have the same amount of tension as Great Swordsman thanks to the hit detection being a little less consistent.
One thing this kendo game does have is special moves, and at last the secret of all those swords I've been collecting is revealed. Your special attacks are high, low and middle dashing attacks that are fast and have great range, and they're powered by the sword collectibles. You can see your totals in the status bar, and for every ten swords you collected in the platforming stages, you can perform one of the corresponding special moves. The upper special attack is the most satisfying, because landing it successfully makes your opponent fall on their arse and go skidding across the arena, but the low attack seems to be the most effective. To help achieve true mastery of the sword, here are some of my ken-dos and ken-don'ts: Don't walk too far backwards because if you step off the mat you forfeit a point, and don't keep using the same attack over and over again because you foe will soon figure it out. Do try to use the low special wherever possible and shatter the other guy's ankles. The judges love that kind of thing.

In a cruel twist of fate, the judges also love silk ties and travel pillows, but as they have no necks they can never experience the joy of that these things can bring.

Five fights down and I still had some special moves to spare. Looks like all that time I spent playing Great Swordsman paid off! Musashi jumps for joy, and now he can claim the trophy and maybe, finally, the respect of his parents.

"They told me I was going to win a big prize, but I didn't think it would be a trophy large enough for me to convert into a jacuzzi!" Yeah, good luck fitting that on the mantelpiece. On the plus side, if Musashi lives in Tokyo he can rent that trophy out as a one-person apartment for a considerable monthly rate when he gets home.

After writing about Prince Clumsy last time and being amazed that such a blatant rip-off of Ghosts 'n' Goblins didn't include a second loop, the universe saw fit to punish me by including that very mechanic in Musashi no Ken. That's right, once you've finished the game you have to do it all again, only it's more difficult and the palette has been changed to a more subdued, gloomy look. At first the faintly sepia tones made me wonder if this repetition was being played out as though it were Musashi reminiscing about his adventures, but there are a lot more enemies knocking about so I guess it is all new. Unless Musashi is telling the story of how he became kendo champ but he's embellishing it like that tedious bloke in the pub who insists on telling you how he stormed Bin Laden's compound with the SAS even though you know he was kicked out of the TA for laziness.

So many enemies. So many tiny kendo men falling from the skies that it's hard not to imagine them being sprinkled down upon you out of some enormous salt-shaker type arrangement by an embarrassed God who reached the ninth day and spent it all making tiny kendo men.

After going through the kendo tournament for a second time - and as far as I could tell it's identical to the first time - then Musashi really, truly becomes the kendo champion and earns the title "Tiger of Iwate." Were you ever named after a powerful big cat, mum and dad? No, I didn't think so. Looks like Musashi's the head of the household now, come back when people start calling you by the name of an animal known for its strength and graceful beauty! You can live in the trophy until you find a new place.
Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu! is one of those rare retro games that suddenly changes genre but manages to offer two equally enjoyable experiences, a world away from the usual "dismal shoot-em-up section artlessly crammed in for a stage or two" experience. Neither the platformer or kendo parts are at the very pinnacle of their respective genres, with the platforming especially feeling somewhat generic, but they're both decent enough and for a 1986 Famicom game based on an anime that's nothing short of a miracle. You could call it a hidden gem if the gem in question was quartz rather than diamond, I suppose. And it's got a puppy in it. What more do you want?

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