Friday, July 15, 2011

Game Review: Demon Sword

Demon Sword
  • Publisher: Taito
  • Developer: Taito
  • Release: NES, January 1990
  • Genre: Action, Platformer
  • Save: Password
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$5-10)
In the history of video games, the turn of the 1990s was the age of the ninja. Think about it: we had Ninja Gaiden, Strider, two Shinobi games, two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, Demon Sword -- hey, wait a minute!
That guy's not a ninja! That's just some discount Conan the Barbarian! Ah, but here's the thing: in the game itself, you definitely control a ninja -- I can tell. His weapons of the trade are a sword, shuriken stars, and various types of magic. He soars from tree to tree in a bamboo forest in monster jumps. The bosses he faces, as well as the settings in which he does so, are also taken out of Japanese mythology. No, my good sirs and ladies, the cover-up will not last so long as I'm around.

Perhaps I should explain. A little while ago, it was the "norm" for media being exported from Japan to America and Europe to have any Japanese cultural elements removed or replaced with things more recognisable. This is how we get such classics as rice balls in anime being passed off as powdered donuts. Call me an otaku, but... I just don't see the point of going through the trouble. Yes, it could be to avoid assumed culture shock, but they could just as well pass it off as a new cultural experience for the kiddies to learn about... in a cool way. Fortunately, this trend seems to be over, no matter what 4Kids says. Shows in the mid-2000s, such as Power Rangers Ninja Storm (2003) and Naruto (2005) proved that you could successfully market shows to children while keeping Japanese cultural elements intact. ...Either that or the American cover artist and manual writer(s) didn't play this game themselves.

But enough about my ranting; let's talk about the game itself. Demon Sword is an unofficial sequel to The Legend of Kage (1987, NES), another ninja game. The plot stars the warrior Victar, whose titular sword must be re-assembled to its full power to slay an oppressive demon overlord. ...Or, based on what I could translate from Japanese Wikipedia, it stars the unrelated warrior Ashura, a descendant of Buddhist mythology figure Acala, who must save the Emperor's daughter from being used in a sacrifice by said overlord. Whatever; the backstory isn't really referred to in the game itself, apart from a few minor cutscenes. Victar Ashura ...ah, screw it, I'll just refer to him as "you". "Your" weapons are the titular sword (A), an endless supply of shuriken (B), and fire, lightning, and wind magic (Select). Starting out, the sword deals twice the damage of your stars, but has an abysmal range of only a few pixels in front of you. However, both the sword and stars' performances are upgradeable.
Magic and upgrades are hidden in bonus rooms.
In each of the seven levels, no matter where you go (apart from bosses or bonus rooms), you'll be assaulted by an infinite stream of enemies, and most bosses take a huge amount of hits, but it's important to take them on so you can collect items vital to survival. Red orbs fill a unit of your lifebar and black orbs extend it by one unit each, but for some reason they don't take effect until your lifebar drains. If you don't have the enclosed instruction book on hand, confusion will ensue. Keys open bonus rooms, where you fight minibosses for magic and shuriken upgrades, which reminded me of Kid Icarus. Other types of items let you survive falls into bottomless pits (which only exist on the first level...), shoot stars in four directions at once, and give you invincibility and a trail of shadow clones. Farming for items is an essential part of this game, because you get three lives, but once those are gone, your game is over, no continues, nothing. ..Or so it would seem.

Actually, there is a continue and password function in this game, but they're hidden by button codes. On the Game Over screen, hold Down and press B, A, B, and A to get your password and continue the game. To load a password from the title screen, hold Up and press A, B, A, and B. These codes may be easy to remember -- either one is basically the mirror image of the other, but the same cannot be said for the 17-character passwords. Fortunately, these passwords save your items and stats as well as position. And yes, these codes are included in the original manual, but like I said, these days you're less likely to come across them included with copies of the game itself.
You can almost leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The jumping and movement physics, while befitting of the "awesome" ninja archetype, take some getting used to from a usability standpoint. Your character's running speed is fast enough to give Sonic a worthy challenge (in some of his games, at least), and your jumping height (in case you haven't figured it out, you press the Up direction to jump) is beefed up to match. The downside of having such super-powered speed is that you run the risk of running into one of those infinitely-spawning enemies I mentioned earlier. Also something to be mindful of is that, while jumping in one direction, you can change your horizontal speed but can't turn around. This is a pinch of realism compared to the jumping mechanics of most other platform heroes, but drawing the line between realism and playability is a tricky proposition. You also have the ability to climb tree trunks and other vertical surfaces. While you still retain the ability to attack while climbing, the fact that automatically grab onto these surfaces while airborne hinders the flow of movement, in my opinion.

The Japanese release of this game is titled Fudō Myō'ō Den ("Legend of Acala") and shipped out in March 1988. Apart from the manual's backstory matching up with the game itself, there's a whole lot more content to be found compared to the American Demon Sword. There are more cutscenes with (Japanese) text, more types of magic and items, and six more levels, bringing the total level count to 13. ...Wow, that's almost half the content they ripped out of the American release, and I have to ask... Why? Granted, one of the cut levels was a graveyard, and in the 8- and 16-bit eras Nintendo vetoed the use of religious symbolism in games for their consoles, but I've seen examples getting around that. So... I've got nothing. On the other hand, the life bar from Demon Sword has been removed.  Taking one hit (without the right items to back you up) costs you a life, so even though the password system remains intact (without needing button codes to work), you'll need a lot more skill and patience to slog through this version.. While Fudō Myō'ō Den is superior for being twice as long and otherwise more fully featured, playing Famicom cassettes outside of Asia is a complicated affair, since cartridge converters are way hard to find, much less at a reasonable price. That said, don't feel too bad if you're stuck with the American version. It's still as much of a challenge as many games of the era were wont to be.

Japanese: 1 kanji out of 5 (Japanese version only)
Control: 3 missing levels out of 5
Design: 4 missing levels out of 5
Graphics: 3 missing levels out of 5
Sound: 3 missing levels out of 5
Value: 3 missing levels out of 5 (NA) / 4 missing levels out of 5 (JP)
The Call: 70% (C-)

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