Nintendo has a weird interest in The Mysterious Murasame Castle. There's only been one game in the series, which was released for the Famicom Disk System in 1986. But it's a title that they keep referencing quite often in their modern games. Takamaru, the main character, has had cameos in a handful of titles. He's featured in a spin off mode for Samurai Warriors 3, he's a resident of the main island in the Japanese only Captain Rainbow and he's set to appear as an assist trophy in the upcoming Super Smash Brothers on Wii U and 3DS. The 3DS Virtual Console release is the first time the game has officially left Japan.
The Mysterious Murasame Castle is an isometric action adventure game, but with a heavy focus on action. Taking place in Feudal Japan, you play as Takamaru, a samurai apprentice, who is tasked with infiltrating castles that have been taken over by an evil power. This divides the game into two separate instances. Each level first has Takamaru navigating to the castle, and then he must retake the castle by killing the corrupted lord.
The game features some elaborate branching paths in levels, giving it an exploration aspect not seen in many action games from the time. However, you won't get much time to just stop and seek out secrets and hidden treasures. First, you're on a timer so you'll have to keep moving. Second, the game throws an avalanche of death at you. It's surprisingly just how much crap packs the screen while playing this game. Dashing ninjas, shurikens, fireballs, tornadoes, suicide bomber ninjas and all other sorts of enemies and obstacles fly across the screen at relatively high speeds.
The timer and rain of enemy death doesn't give you space to do much other than get to the castle or boss as soon as possible. It doesn't help that the longer you're on a single screen the more enemies and projectiles will fill it. Avoiding all of the enemies and projectiles is your first and foremost goal. Making it to the other side as fast as possible is your second goal. Actually killing enemies is the last thing on your mind.
It reminds a lot of shoot 'em ups since you have to mainly focus on evading projectiles while just spamming the attack button to take out the immediate dangers in front of you. Takamaru has a sword to deal damage in close quarters combat, but you'll largely use it to slay minion ninjas and deflect throwing stars that fly directly into Takamaru's face.
Your main offensive weapons are your ranged attacks. You start with a basic throwing knife, however you can power it up to a strong but short-ranged fireball, or a long-ranged windmill sword. These projectiles can be augmented with a variety of other power ups that can increase the throwing speed, multiply number of that can be thrown, and change direction as which they can be thrown.
You have a limited number of shots for enhanced projectiles, but ammo is dropped frequently so running out isn't that much of an issue. There are also a couple special moves that will clear the screen of enemies or make Takamaru briefly invincible.
All of Takamaru's attacks can be used while in motion, so it makes the game just a non-stop forward march death and destruction.
The Mysterious Murasame Castle can be punishingly difficult. Unlike a lot of 8-bit action games, there's quite a bit of leeway. You have a health bar and there's a plentiful number of health recovery items hidden in the world. Losing a life simply returns you to a powered down state on the same screen, but there are a lot of power ups scattered about to quickly raise your capabilities again. Running out of lives will return you to whichever area you were playing and the game even features a save function.
It's an intense game, something that the fast-paced soundtrack only amplifies. For $5, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is definitely an 8-bit gem worth checking out. It's just a shame it's taken so long to leave Japan.