One of the most difficult questions you could ever ask me would be “What’s your favorite video game?” And honestly, don’t ever expect me to narrow it down to a single game. One game that is the essence of everything that I love in the medium—even thinking about it now, the task is daunting. Sure, I’ve waxed poetic about Dragon Age several times, and have expressed my love for various other games, but to say any of those are my favorite? Well, that might be saying a bit too much. It still doesn’t feel right to claim this one as my be-all-end-all favorite either, but looking back, 1998’s Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64 is the game that I have the fondest memories of, and the only game I’ve ever cared to speed run. Furthermore, and perhaps more pertinent to this blog, the game really has shaped my so-called aesthetic when it comes to a game’s narrative and use of lady characters. Basically: if you don’t have a musical number by your big bads at one point, you’re missing out on a great opportunity.
If the video didn’t tip you off, let me tell you that Goemon is not a series that takes itself particularly seriously, least of all in this installment. Our titular hero—loosely based around the fabled thief Ishikawa Goemon—and his buddy Ebisumaru are hanging around their home of Oedo Town when the ground beneath them begins to shake. Looking outside, they see that a strange ship in the sky has set its sights on Oedo castle, and possibly attacked it with a strange looking beam. Immediately rushing over, they find that the castle hasn’t been destroyed, rather it’s been transformed into a stage! Upon shoving all the baddies out, the two discover that a nefarious group going by the Peach Mountain Shoguns (led by their leaders Kitty Lily and Spring Breeze Dancin’) is planning to turn all of Japan into a stage for their musical productions. Thus, Goemon, Ebisumaru, and their friends Sasuke and Yae travel across Japan to put an end to this evil plan!
Despite the obvious ridiculousness of talking kappas, giant robot battles in feudal Japan, and eventually going to space, this game was one of the defining factors of getting me interested in Japanese culture in the first place. There are many fake places, but the player does get to go to towns that actually existed and still may exist, as well as learning interesting things about Japanese mythology and art.
Additionally, Goemon gave me the first video game character I wanted to be like. One of the main party members, Yae, is pretty much the coolest person in the game. She’s a kunoichi (female ninja) who manages to keep a cool head in the strangest of situations and devoted to getting to the bottom of the Peach Mountain crisis. Devoted to protecting her friends, a fierce warrior, and, oh, able to turn into a mermaid: Yae is the epitome of a cool female character without slipping into any harmful tropes. Honestly, most of the lady characters in Goemon are cool, or at least they’re diverse despite not being many of them. Omitsu, Goemon’s girlfriend, isn’t a warrior. Rather, she’s a dumpling delivery girl and ends up getting abducted by the Peach Mountain Shoguns. However, the game doesn’t force her to be a damsel; Omitsu ends up getting along quite fine for herself, much to Goemon’s surprise. And though she’s a bit airheadded, she’s not stupid by any means. Additionally, Kitty Lily, the lady antagonist of the game, carries all the outlandishness of a 90’s anime princess-type character (laugh and all), but she’s still extremely competent in what she does. And the laughs she’s played for are equally mirrored by Spring Breeze Dancin’. There’s little to no gender inequality here, and for a game of that time period, I think that’s impressive.
However, what prejudice the game doesn’t hold against ladies, it makes up for in harmful stereotypes towards the LGBTQ+ community, especially the gay community. Kitty Lily and Spring Breeze Dancin’s right hands are comprised of a group of four… alien-people… back-up dancers/singers… I don’t know. While they are competent and really not bad people at all—they even question their bosses’ motives at times, most notably when one is forced to kidnap children—they are constantly called “weirdos” in the translation. With their flamboyant costumes, and effeminate mannerisms, and devotion to beauty, it’s clear that this group was coded gay. What makes this bad is not that they’re enemies, but the heroes’ reaction to them. As I said earlier, they specifically are called out as weirdos, and Ebisumaru has worries about being turned into one of them at one point, and not by means of the Peach Mountain Shogun’s magical musical powers. As with many gay coded characters, all these scenes are played off for laughs, which is uncomfortable sitting through it now.
Despite this and the game’s several glitching problems, the game itself is highly enjoyable and the mechanics are easy to get the hang of. Plus, it has some of the most memorable music from the N64 era, if I do say so myself. If you’re able to find a copy for the N64 (or find a rom of it, if that’s the way you roll), I’d totally recommend picking it up and giving it a try yourself. Just be careful: you may catch yourself singing along, preserving the spirit of the Peach Mountain Shoguns for years to come.