The curse of living in the United States in regards to gaming is that while we tend to get the best that Japan has to offer we also miss some of the best franchises that game publishers think are too "ethnic" for American tastes. Thus our only exposure to Goemon was the Snes title Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Unbeknownst to us by the time Goemon 64 came around it was actually the fourth game in the series.
So a little background education is in order. Goemon is a popular anime character loosely based on a Japanese-Robin Hood figure of historical legend. He beats people up with a pipe. His sidekick is the very fruity Ebisumaru who is based on a Shinto deity. Rounding out the cast is Yae the lady ninja cop and Sasuke the robot ninja (more like Pinocchio ninja.) Eventually you get to switch inbetween any four of these characters on the fly (Yae and Sasuke appear later in the story.)
As with games of this type each character earns specific abilities that you need in order to get past certain areas. Goemon gains the ability to smash rocks, Ebisumaru gets a spell that lets him shrink down, Yae can swim underwater, and Sasuke can get a rocket jump to reach high areas. Each character also has a secondary power/weapon such as Ebisumaru's camera that can make invisible ghosts appear or Sasuke's freeze ray. All characters can also throw ryo (Japanese money from the Edo period) as a weapon.
The story here is that some evil troop of actor people have kidnapped all the children in the country in order to make the whole world a stage, for some reason. True to anime bad guy rules the head honcho villain is pretty effeminate and looks at you with that smug-I-can-kill-you-in-a-second look, even after you've just finished kicking his ass. He also has a laughing hot chick sidekick. The story has you traveling from castle to castle tracking them down, solving puzzles and killing a lot of flying things along the way.
The game plays like a mix of Mario 64 and Zelda is this respect. You travel to a certain area and wander around jumping on platforms and obstacles until you figure out how to unlock the next part of the map and progress. In this quest you venture through different towns (that are named after real locations.) While in town you are safe from danger. There is a thief that will snag your money until you beat him up to get it back. While in town you can buy food, extra lives, sleep and save the game at the inn, and visit the "Plasma" fortune teller, who screams "Pllaassmmaaa!" when you walk in the door. Each town usually has some kind of puzzle that must be solved before you can progress.
The game does have some backtracking, but later in the game this is made instantaneous via a large dragon you can ride on inbetween areas. The game progresses smoothly and gives good hints on where to go next. Maybe once or twice I actually got stuck and had to do the ol' visit-every-area-until-you-find-it technique. While the graphics are nice and the various platforming elements make all this trekking fun for the most part the game suffers from horrendous slowdown while in most outdoor areas. When three or more enemies appear kiss the framerate goodbye. Thing is while indoors this is not an issue in the slightest.
At the end of each area there's a castle/maze in the lead up to the boss. These castles are where the game really shines, each is thought out well, challenging without being too hard, and most of them have secret areas that can only be accessed by using a character's special ability. The castles usually have some kind of puzzle that when solved gives one of you characters a new ability (such as a giant crane game to get Ebisumaru's camera.) The castles seem to not suffer any significant slowdown as well, which is strange because they seem to have more detailed graphics and just as many enemies on screen as the overworld.
Boss battles are totally awesome. A few castles have you facing huge ghosts or giant statues, but the best battles occur inside of Goemon's giant robot, Impact. That's right, you have a giant robot, complete with catchy theme song (with subtitled lyrics.) The robot battles are fought first person Punch-out style, with you punching and kicking when the boss gets close or nailing it with your giant robot chain pipe attack (which leaves you open to counter attack if you miss.) You can also shoot the bosses with Ryo. These battles aren't too hard after you figure out the pattern. Leading up to the boss encounters is a strange sequence of the robot running where you have to jump over obstacles like logs, houses, trees, etc. Thing is there's no punishment if you fall and eat it, so there's really no reason for these sequences to be there. Game design 101 folks.
I can see why none of the other Goemon titles made it to the USA. This game is very Japanese, published at a time when very Japanese stuff was not as cool in the states as it is today. Some of the jokes aren't very clear to our narrow, uncultured western minds. "What is funny" isn't something that's very culture independent in the same way as the satisfaction of extreme violence or gratuitous sex is. Ebisumaru's walking and running animations for example may be funny in Japan, but here they translate as "gay."
All in all a very fun and impressive title with good music that never takes itself too seriously. If you can look past the crappy overworld framerate and insider Japanese jokes that come off too weird you'll find a good time.
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