The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers game was alright as far as single-plane brawlers go, but I'm a man of such refinement and style that parading around in a skin-tight pink bodysuit was a profoundly unsettling experience. It was also easier than taking candy from a fat kid with no arms, but I've found another single plane beat-'em-up that'll hopefully fix both these problems - it's VAP's 1995 SNES fantastical-magical-punching-powers-'em-up Kouryuu no Mimi!
In case you couldn't guess from the title screen, what with its saucer-eyed protagonist flanked by two women with mouths so small they must be fed intravenously, Kouryuu no Mimi is based on an obscure manga of the same name. Kouryuu no Mimi translates as something like Ear of the Golden Dragon, a title which will make a little (but not much) more sense soon, and I'm lucky enough to be playing a fan translation by RPGOne so I get to enjoy the deep and heartfelt story that will no doubt move me to the very core of my soul. That's a lot of sarcasm right off the bat, and I'm sorry, but this game's plot is daft enough that I think it's warranted.
In ancient China, Emperor Xuan Zong had a magic ring called the Golden Dragon's Ear which gave him access to an assortment of ill-defined powers which probably included "granting emperorhood" but not "giving rings cool names." He used the power of the ring to forge a mighty empire, and all was well until he fell in love with a woman called Yang Guifei. Xuan Zong reached the conclusion that the best way to keep a woman happy is to give her all the money in the kingdom, and so his empire fall into ruin because all those unpaid utility bills add up fast. That's the last you hear about Xuan Zong, and the intro text informs you that you are now the owner of the Golden Dragon's Ear, skipping about four thousand years of history and still not really telling you what the magic ring actually does.
That's you on the right, in the less-than-heroic anorak. Your name is Natsume Kiroemon the 45th, newly installed as the latest guardian of the Golden Dragon's Earring now that your father has popped his clogs. Yes, you have a magic earring. Kiroemon has been training in the mountains but now he must leave and return to Japan to pay his respects and hopefully punch a few guys because otherwise we're in for a really dull beat-em-up experience.
He's accompanied back home by Miss Gordon, a mysterious woman who informs him of his vast inheritance and also explains the nature of the Golden Dragon's Ear's power. Well, sort of.
So the earring contains the raw essence of George Clooney? Okay, "the ability to control money and women at will" sounds good on paper but I'm not sure how it'd translate to the real world. The "controlling women" aspect sounds a little date-rapey however you look at it, and controlling money could go either way - Kiroemon can either win the lottery at every attempt, create some kind of unstoppable metal golem from loose change or is an accountant. Judging by the anorak, I'm going with accountant.
What all this blather about magic earrings boils down to is that Kiroemon finds himself at an orphanage formerly supported by his father, which is instantly attacked by motorcycle-riding thugs straight out of Mad Max.
Kiroemon is talking to the orphans in that screenshot, by the way: at least, I'm almost one-hundred percent certain that he's not ordering the motorcycle bandits to drive into the orphanage as fast as they can.
This is your first taste of Kouryuu no Mimi's gameplay, and it's all very simple. As I mentioned, this is a single-plane beat-'em-up - left and right are your only options for directional travel, you punch the things that come near you, your magic earring somehow helps out I guess, and that's all there is to it. Basically, it's the same as Power Rangers or Ninja Warriors Again, but hopefully it'll have enough of its own features to make it interesting.
The odd thing about this first section is that the bikes can't hurt you. They're not on the same plane as Kiroemon and so they just ride past him as fast as possible, completely ignoring him even when he starts separating riders from bikes with well-placed kicks to the face. These punks have a job to do, goddamnit, and they're not going to waste any time on a floppy-haired nobody in a cheap blue suit.
Okay, this is more like it: the real mano-a-mano combat begins here. I still have no idea why these guys are so desperate to get to the orphanage - perhaps it's Adopt One Get One Free Day - but Kiroemon is determined to stop them through sheer physical violence. Luckily he has quite a few moves at his disposal, further proof that living on a mountain with an old bearded man is the best way to achieve true power, and unlike the single punch combo of most beat-'em-ups he has a different move for each forward-facing direction you push on the control pad. Just pressing attack does produce a standard attack combo, but pressing down and attack unleashes a huge uppercut, down-forward produces a combo of leg sweeps, up-forward causes Kiroemon to prance forwards with a delicate-looking but surprisingly effective hop-kick, and there are even different types of jumping attack including a very useful diving kick that causes Kiroemon's foot to catch fire.
There are weapons, too - here I've collected a baseball bat, always an especially satisfying tool for dispensing justice. Kiroemon's multiple pain-inflicting options even extend to the use of weaponry, as there is a separate button for weapon attacks: using a normal combo will make him replace the final hit of the string with a wallop from the bat, but pressing the weapon button causes you to slide across the screen, swinging your bat like a lunatic and sweeping away enemies in a very effective manner at the cost of the weapon's durability. So far I'm impressed with the range of different attacks in Kiroemon's arsenal, and for a change it's nice to play as someone who we're told has trained in martial arts and who actually has more than two or three moves. But that's not all! Kiroemon can cause yet more carnage by using the power of the Golden Dragon's Ear in a familiar yet definitely not ripped-off manner.
Just to recap the powers contained within the Golden Dragon's Ear:
A) Control over money,
B) Control over women, and
If you look at his status portrait, even his hair turns all golden and spiky. Is there anything this magical earring can't do? As you can probably tell, activating the earring grants you more power and makes you move faster, (people who are on fire tend to move about quite quickly,) but you can only activate your power when the gauge at the top of the screen is filled. The gauge is filled by violence, of course. Well, you were never going to gain power through calm and rational diplomacy, were you?
A dominatrix turns up, because every beat-'em-up should have one, and orders a retreat. I like her; she's got enough common sense to not leap into battle against a man wreathed in flaming spiritual energies who has beaten up all her minions.
The Road Warriors retreat on their motorcycles. You can kick a few off them of their bikes for fun, if you like. Then the reason for the ill-fated Operation Orphanage Assault is revealed.
There's a huge treasure buried there! Buried underneath an orphanage. I see. Now, you may be thinking that an orphanage seems like a bad place to hide your buried treasure but think about it - who's going to be evil enough to attack an orphanage? Apart from these guys, I mean. Plus an orphanage means you've always got a plentiful supply of children to use as human shields and it's not like their parents are going to be upset.
The biker gang attack is particularly confusing for the staff of the orphanage, because they don’t know about the buried treasure. In fact, they have no idea why they were attacked at all, so Kiroemon comes up with a brilliant plan to uncover the truth - he heads to the seedy bar that the villains are using as a base and politely asks them what they're up to.
Surprisingly, this doesn't work. I'm not sure what the tone of this scene is supposed to be: is Kiroemon being depicted as the kind of stone-cold badass who'll just saunter into the bad guys' hideout and ask them what the hell is going on, or his he so painfully naive that he makes Bambi look like Richard Nixon? Whatever the case, the bad guys return to the orphanage for another fighting section that's the same as the first one only with a nighttime palette, and then the first boss arrives.
Naomi the dominatrix is back, and this time she's brought a whip. Well, that makes sense. Of course, the whip gives her a very long range and she turns out to be a fairly difficult fight, poking you from almost the full screen's length away and proving very adept at whipping you out of the air if you try an aerial assault. She does a lot of damage, too - so much so that in our first battle, she killed me. Killed by the first boss of a beat-'em-up: shameful, I know, but in my defence it was mostly because I accidentally triggered the Golden Dragon Power during the stage and so I didn't have access to it during the battle with Naomi. Kouryuu no Mimi doesn't exactly mollycoddle you when you die, either, and unlike most beat-'em-ups you only have one life - if you die, it's back to the start of that area to do it all again.
Second time around the fight went much more smoothly, partly because I saved my Dragon Power but mostly because I figured out a couple more moves that Kiroemon had tucked up his sleeve. Double-tapping down makes you roll forwards, excellent for avoiding attacks and closing distance, that you can turn into a rolling kick. Pressing up twice causes Kiroemon to hop backwards and unleash a couple of power kicks. These new moves, combined with having plenty of Dragon Power, meant that Naomi didn't survive our second encounter.
Kiroemon finds the treasure and donates it to the orphanage, solving the money troubles that all orphanages seem to have and instantly making them one of the wealthiest organisations in the country. Solid gold cots and caviar-flavoured gruel for all! For his part, Kiroemon meets a beautiful young lady who, in a scene that I hope was not designed as a metaphor, is playing a huge organ. Obviously, she is kidnapped instantly.
She says, moments before she allows herself to be quietly led away. Kiroemon just stands and watches. Then he beats up some guys.
In a church, no less. The post-apocalyptic bikers from stage one are replaced with a gang of sharp-suited Mafia types - I can tell they're a gang because the name given in all their profile pictures is "GANG" - but other than that it's the same as the first stage but with more sacrilege. Kiroemon doesn't learn any new tricks and the enemies fight pretty much identically to how they did in the first stage, although they do seem a little more ready to kick you when you're down. Oh, and some of them have guns, which means with the accurate application of your fists you can have a gun.
You can even do "cool" James Bond style poses when you're shooting, like this natty but essentially useless over-the-shoulder manoeuvre. Still, a gun's a gun and you might has well use it to keep the hordes at bay, and the fact that there's a separate button for weapon attacks means you can still punch enemies that are up close without having to use the ponderous and slow-firing pistol, which is nice.
After a little more chat and some more fisticuffs, stage two's boss enters the fray.
He's got a rifle, but as he's dressed like Colonel Sanders I'm finding it difficult to take him seriously. He wants to marry that woman Kiroemon just met, but our hero is firmly opposed to the patriarchal tyranny of matrimony and so he gives this boss a through kicking. It's much easier than the previous fight because he relies too much on his gun, and as Kouryuu no Mimi takes place in one of those videogame universes where bullets travel with all the urgency of a slug on a hot summer day you can avoid them easily enough.
Kiroemon rescues the girl - her name's Kanako, by the way - and instantly begins to regret it when Kanako is revealed to belong to the Mika clan, a family of women whose sexiness is so overwhelming that it borders on the supernatural. No, really - they're a clan of super-seductresses who use their feminine wiles to control men. I'm beginning to think that the creator of Kouryuu no Mimi has some deep-seated issues with women. Then Kanako gets kidnapped again, or at least I think she does: the story gets a little fuzzy here, but the end result is that Kiroemon is now punching soldiers on a train.
Look at those high kicks, these mercenaries stand no chance against the awesome power of the Golden Dragon's Ear.
Unless they throw a refreshment cart at me, that is. Dear god, these refreshment carts. For the first part of the stage they come flying at you at speeds hitherto unattained by a drinks trolly, constantly catching you off guard, knocking you to the ground and doing an alarming amount of damage, especially when compared to the not-that-bad level of pain inflicted when you're shot with a fucking rifle. Oh, and you also have to fight soldiers the whole time. Yeah, Kouryuu no Mimi has so far been an okay game, a little bland but competent enough, and for it to suddenly throw this bullshit gauntlet of killer catering equipment was almost enough to make me reach for the power switch. I didn't, though. I struggled on, through the frustration of the drinks trolley avalanche and the irritation that the only way to restore your lost health is to use your Dragon Power, and eventually the enemy ran out of carts.
I even brought a friend along! For the first half of this stage Miss Gordon accompanies you, shooting enemies and doing a remarkably good job of dealing with bad guys and not getting in your way, so much so that I stopped fighting the enemies and let her do all the work while I rolled around on the floor like an idiot. Hey, I'm just sticking to what I know.
So, Gordon's an A.I.-controlled character who isn't a liability, and we all know that's too good to last.
Yup, upon meeting some bald men Miss Gordon's pretty, tiny-mouthed face is brutally introduced to a sickle and she's incapacitated. She assures Kiroemon that she'll be fine and he must continue on without her, but I don't know - she really doesn't look fine.
She looks kinda, y'know, dead. I like that Kiroemon doesn't even prop her up in one of the many available chairs, he just leaves her sprawled in the aisle, completely at the mercy of the roving bands of beverage carts that roam these carriages.
Thankfully the carts stop appearing after this, and the rest of the stage is more of the same but minus Miss Gordon until you reach the boss.
It's the beautiful, deadly and uzi-toting Yoshiko, a femme fatale who suffers from an unfortunate medical condition - she was born without knees. Look at those meat-clubs she calls legs; she's built with all the lower-body posability of a Barbie doll. The fact she's carrying an uzi rather makes up for her lack of leg-joints, and it doesn't seem to affect her ability to kick me senseless anyway, but once you've figured out the correct timing for rolling through her bullets she's not too much of threat. Certainly a lot less difficult than the Legion of Death-Carts.
The train explodes, and Yoshiko is horribly scarred while Kiroemon escapes with nary a misplaced hair. Hopefully someone remembered that Miss Gordon was still on the train and extracted her to safety - I'd hate for this game's one competent character to meet such an unfortunate end. Yoshiko swears revenge on Kiroemon, and for reasons that aren't adequately explained but I which I think are still related to un-kidnapping Kanako (remember her?) our hero travels to Japan and stage four. And how can I describe stage four? Ninjas!
Hot-pink ninjas with katanas, green ninjas who haven't quite mastered the art of hiding behind trees, red-and-yellow ninjas who look like a McDonald's promotion that wandered to the wrong side of town - all the colours of the ninja rainbow, and all of them too stupid to get out of the way of my bullets. It has to be said that there is something particularly satisfying about shooting a ninja, and it's nice to remind these pricks that ninjitsu isn't really a match for a high-calibre handgun.
Remember folks, in any Japanese street scene at least one in four people is a ninja. There's a nice touch here where every now and then one of the pedestrians will cast off their disguise to reveal the ninja beneath, which is especially amusing when a little old lady does it.
As much as I mock these incompetent ninjas, it's a hollow sort of laughter because at this point Kouryuu no Mimi is starting to get difficult. There are lots of enemies about and they can do big damage, especially as most of them are now carrying weapons, but the biggest problem is that getting hit once means that you're going to get hit two or three times. Enemies can and frequently do juggle you about the place and you have no way of countering this - you just have to soak up the damage and hope you retain enough life for the boss fight because there's no way to get it back other than by using you Dragon Power. No health pick-ups of any kind, not even a roast chicken you found under a bin - and this game calls itself a beat-'em-up? Disgraceful.
Oh look, I found Kanako. Seems awfully neglectful of the bad guys to just leave her at the top of this moonlit temple, but I'm sure there's no way that this could be a trap.
Except, with a grinding sense of inevitability, it is a trap and you're faced with this stage's boss. He's a big dude with no skin, and he looks and even fights a little like Seth from Street Fighter IV - that is to say he fights like a prick. He's fast and his attacks hit hard: I'm honestly not sure how I beat him, but I'm going with the tried and true excuse of "luck". Just roll around a lot, it's a tactic that's got me through most battles so far. Once you've flattened the skinless wonder, Yoshiko reappears to threaten Kiroemon some more...
...so he uses his terrible psychic powers to set her on fire. I don't generally look too deeply into the mindset of the people who create videogames, or in this case the people who created the franchise the videogame was based on, but it's very difficult to play Kouryuu no Mimi without noticing a distinct misogynistic streak. The villains are a family of women who want to control men by being women but, like, really, really sexy, and our hero - who apparently has the power to control women - responds by immolating them alive. Oh, such wacky hijinks!
I prefer to think of her as "well done."
The Mina Clan plan one last assault on Kiroemon and his magic earring, but unluckily for them Kiroemon has just figured out how to unlock the true power of the Golden Dragon's Ear. Turns out all he had to do was think about it really hard!
I think what you're feeling is a violent hatred for all womankind, you sick fuck.
Here we are in the final stage, and it's a stage dedicated to battering women. Yup, every enemy in this stage is female - in any other game I'd think of it as an unusual quirk but given Kiroemon's previous actions it's downright unsettling.
As you can see, Kouryuu no Mimi isn't a very long game, and that's probably for the best - while the fighting mechanics are decent, and it's nice to control a character with a wider-than-usual variety of ways to harm people, it's not a game that's bursting at the seams with fresh new ideas and stage five is about when the game tips over from "bland" to "boring." The difficulty level doesn't help, especially when you spend large portions of the later stages being passed around between the enemies like a fleshy hackeysack and your only hope for survival is that you've got enough Dragon Power left when you reach the boss.
At least the music is nice, especially this stage's tremulous haunted-house affair that'll slot nicely into the Hallowe'en videogame music playlist.
At last, the final boss. I'll be honest, I'm glad to see her even if she does open the fight by hurling knives at my face. Given the challenge posed by some of the earlier bosses she's something of a letdown, and if you activate your Dragon Power and stay on top of her she won't have much of a chance to do anything other than die, although matters are complicated by her insistence on summoning an endless wave of Mika Clan troops who pose far more of a threat to your life bar than the boss does. It's a humdrum fight in an increasingly humdrum game, and the poorly-defined power of the Golden Dragon's Ear will eventually lead to victory for Kiroemon. I'm finding it hard to cheer for his success.
Even the ending is fairly low-key, as Kiroemon realises that the power within him is dangerous and he's not that great at controlling it, what with the setting women on fire and all. So, after spending 90% of the game trying to rescue her, he ditches Kanako and heads off to, I dunno, find himself or master his inner demons or whatever one does on a soul-searching quest for answers. I wouldn't know, my soul's pretty shallow and doesn't often require searching.
Kouryuu no Mimi is strange one to try to evaluate. On the one hand, for a cheap adaptation of a manga that doesn't seem to have been particularly popular even in Japan, it's better than you might expect and it even has a few nice ideas - Kiroemon's expanded repertoire of attacks and the separate button for weapons, for example. The graphics are decent, if a little dark, the music ranges from inoffensive to whistleably good and the story is almost charming in its own utterly bonkers way.
On the other hand, when you compare it to other single-plane SNES beat-'em-ups like Ninja Warriors Again or even Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Kouryuu no Mimi is tired, stale, needlessly difficult, short and has disturbingly misogynistic overtones. I assume Kiroemon is supposed to come across as a self-assured, super-cool tough guy, but in the end he leaves you with the impression that he's a bit of a dick. I don't care how many times you look pensive in a whirl of cherry blossoms, setting people on fire with your mind is not cool.
In the end, I suppose I'd recommend Kouryuu no Mimi if you're a big fan of beat-'em-ups, but if you've tried a flat-plane fighter before and you didn't enjoy it then this isn't going to be the game to change your mind. If you do choose to play it, here's a disclaimer - I won't be held responsible for your actions next time you're on a train and the drinks trolley comes around.