Konami has had a severe fall from grace in recent years. In actuality, they’ve been in steady decline for a long time, but only recently have they demonstrated an actual derision of the video game market. It’s hard to believe that back in their Famicom heyday they were a machine, churning out great games at an unbelievable pace. A lot of them we wouldn’t even see over here in the west, even some of their biggest franchises.
Ganbare Goemon is a weird exception. In total, we saw three or four games in the series translated to English, but in Japan, there was well over a dozen. Originating in Arcades with Mr. Goemon, the series followed an increasingly more bizarre depiction of folklore hero, Ishikawa Goemon. The series has mutated severely over its years, but the main formula was first established with the 1986 Famicom titles, Ganbare Goemon: Karakuri Douchuu, which roughly translates to “You can do it Goemon: The Tricky Journey.”
Ganbare Goemon was allegedly supposed to be a straight port of the Mr. Goemon arcade game, but it quickly mutated into its own style of gameplay. How do you describe Ganbare Goemon? That’s a tough one. It’s sort of a beat-’em-up, but with some exploration and a tonne of random jumping thrown in.
The goal for each level is to gather three checkpoint passes, and you can get them from three different sources. The first and most obvious source is from the various stores that litter the environments, but these are pretty expensive and only get moreso as you advance. The second most obvious is from mazes. Each level has one, which takes the form of a first-person dungeon. Your goal is to just loot the hell out of the place, and each one has a single pass. Finally, each stage has two in underground passages that you uncover by jumping in random places until you uncover one. Like, get used to bunny-hopping all over the place, because that’s sometimes the only way to uncover the passages.
Once you’ve got your passes, it’s time to find the exit. Boom. You’re on to the next level.
Standing in your way is, like, a billion dudes. Some of these dudes aren’t even trying to hurt you, they’re just going about their business and you come tearing through, ruining their whole day. I guess you are a thief.
Goemon’s weapon of choice is a giant kiseru, a type of Japanese tobacco pipe that was historically used as a weapon occasionally. Finding a maneki neko (the ubiquitous lucky or beckoning cat from Japanese culture) will upgrade your weapon so Goemon throws koban (oval, gold coins), making defense a lot easier. You can also find sandals that increase your speed and jumping distance, stacking up to three of these power-ups.
Along with those basic upgrades you find by jumping over chests out in the world, you can also buy other upgrades in the store. These include armor, helmets, incense cases, and omamori, all of which do various things to help protect you. What each of them do specifically, I’m not certain of, but depending on what you get hit by, the corresponding piece of armor absorbs the damage. This becomes necessary, since every hit that decreases your health also downgrades you weapon, so it can be a chore constantly going back for upgrades.
You collect gold by taking out enemies, finding chests in the underground area and mazes, and, what else, jumping over stuff. You can also gamble by playing chou-han, a traditional Japanese game that you guess whether a dice roll will land even (chou) or odd (han).
THE JAPANESE COUNTRYSIDE
The game follows Goemon as he attempts to get to the area’s daimyo, who is treating the townsfolk ruthlessly. There are 13 stages in all, taking you through a variety of backdrops.
For a game released in 1986, Ganbare Goemon is a marvel. It was released a few months after The Legend of Zelda, and in terms of technical features, is leagues ahead of it. Characters are much bigger, and though the world is far more horizontal and linear, there seems to be more of it. It was one of the first games to drop on the 2Mb cartridge ROM, and it’s well utilized. While some of the backgrounds are reused between levels, there’s still a great deal of variety in the enemies and locations. There’s a lot of flicker, but there’s less slowdown than what you’d normally find in Zelda.
On the other hand, it’s not quite as tight as Zelda. There’s an anomalous amount of instant death, with areas that require you to precision platform with controls and a perspective that does not make it easy. Missing means falling off a cliff or into a lake, and that means losing a life, as well as some of your upgrades and half of your money. There are also areas where stepping too far into the foreground will just straight-up kill you without warning. It’s a bit harder than you’d think to tell the difference between a fence and a rice paddy when they’re in the foreground.
The worst part about dying is the loss of the money, because items in later areas are quite expensive. This necessitates grinding for more funds, which is so excruciatingly vexing. This typically takes the form of finding a rock that spits out money when you jump over it, and repeatedly entering and exiting a nearby interior to reload the rock. However, with a good set of armor, you’re typically free to have a good time, but you always seem to be on the edge of losing it all to a hole in the ground.
Even with its problems, Ganbare Goemon is quite an amazing game to have been released in 1986. Multi-player would become a prominent component in the series going forward, but here, it’s only represented in an alternating style, which is a weird inclusion. The 13 levels take a fairly significant chunk of time to get through, but there’s no password system, which can be a bit frustrating. After beating it once, you’re given a second quest in another prefecture, which is the exact same level layouts, but more difficult. This goes on until you’ve completed the game a total of eight times, and, yeah, screw that. Once was enough for me.
Also note that you’ll probably want to have at least basic knowledge of the Japanese language to play this, as it only came out on the Japanese Famicom. There isn’t a whole lot of important dialogue, but if you don’t know the basics, you’ll have trouble figuring out which building the maze is in.
In any case, for all of Ganbare Goemon’s strengths, it’s still quite dated. The formula would be polished and expanded on in as early as the very next game. Yet, while the series would mutate over time, it would always occasionally return to the style that was formulated by this game. It’s still a fun game, it’s just not as classic as some of Konami’s best efforts, such Castlevania. It’s worth a look, but it also might be worth skipping it and just starting of with the sequel.
This review was conducted on both a Sharp Famicom Twin and an NES using a Famicom adapter and the original cartridge. This was all paid for by the author.