Angry and vengeful! Full of venge! Rarrgh!
For one brief moment, I preferred Western Master System box art.
RELEASE DATE: 06/02/88 – (JP), 09/88 – (US), 1988 – (EU)
I wanted to bathe in Kenseiden‘s hot springs. The game has a luxurious art style, a setting in feudal Japan, and an anxious kineticism akin to Ninja Gaiden or Sega’s own Shinobi. Sounds like a rewarding soak to me. But every time I dipped my toe into the so-called “healing” waters, I got scalded by a giant skeleton be-boppin’ across my face. Or a spider knocking me backwards into a chasm. Or some nightmarish Japanese evil that’s apparently invulnerable to my sacred sword. Those ancient waters might seem entrancing, but rest assured, Kenseiden is brutal, ruthless, and will leave you with third-degree burns.
Runnin’ on rooftops is what good samurais do.
You play as Hayato, a samurai tasked with taking down the Six Warlocks of 16th century Japan. Each of the warlocks carries in its claws a secret scroll. Once retrieved, these scrolls give Hayato a new attack, which is great because the poor young warrior’s initial attacks are limited. While standing, he can slash horizontally or if he’s kneeling he can slice upwards, but that’s it. The special attacks allow you to attack from overhead (great for boss battles), attack from the back and the front at the same time, and whip your sword around like a bloody pinwheel of death, among other helpful techniques. These attacks lighten poor Hayato’s load, but alas, none of the scrolls extend the length of his sword. The sword’s reach is not quite Zelda II short, but also not as long or effective as Ninja Gaiden II. Many of the enemies float, bounce around, hover – basically, they don’t stand in front of your sword, waiting for you to hit them. Thus, there’s a slight learning curve for deducing the best techniques to slice ground-based enemies versus airborne enemies.
The blood moon! So that‘s why Japan turned into a gothic nightmare.
Each level comprises a province of Japan, with the setting being underground caverns, rotting pagodas, or bamboo-thickened forests. The gameplay is standard action platforming: enemies of various difficulty grades appear, Hayato slashes them (and/or gets knocked backwards), then continues until the end of the level.
What’s distinct about Kenseiden is the map screen. After you beat level two, you’re allowed to pick from two different directions on the map screen, giving you the option to skip levels. Optional levels are a nice feature, particularly in games as difficult as this one. In Kenseiden‘s case, they’re a trick. Skipping levels means you’ll skip areas that provide you with special items or weapons. When you get further into the game and tackle future areas or bosses without these items, you may as well start the game over. There are two training dojos in particular that are among the hardest optional areas I’ve ever found in a game. If you complete the training, you’ll gain extra defense and attack power. Absolutely worth it – as long as you understand in advance that you’ll be biting your Master System controller in half persevering through them.
“These old bones just can’t take lava like they used to.”
If the Master System had been popular in the States, I imagine Kenseiden‘s difficulty would have been the talk of the school yard. Take Hayato, an unwieldy character in standard 16th century samurai garb. He’s beautifully drawn and animated, like a watercolor, but his large sprite makes him too easy to hit. Once he gets hit, he stumbles backwards like a drunken master fresh out of booze. Enemies of all shapes and sizes appear without warning, making enemy placement memorization key to not getting hit a thousand times as you progress. Hayato’s life bar is sizable, but if you get caught in a loop between enemies, it will drain without fail. And the warlocks! Curse them! They take forever to kill, even with additional attack power. There are cheat codes to select levels and to continue after you lose your three lives. Until your techniques are as skilled as a 16th century samurai’s, use the codes liberally.
That spear floor’s gotta be custom. No self-respecting pagoda builder would have installed those willy nilly.
Like a bitter sake’ that burns a hole through your esophagus, I appreciated Kenseiden more than I enjoyed it. In an era where every Japanese game seemed to be dumbed down for American consumption, Sega’s “don’t give a damn” lack of Westernization – the level names being kept in kanji on the map screen, the scroll techniques’ Japanese names, heck, even the game’s title – is fantastic. The moody, oppressive atmosphere is likewise unmatched. I can’t recall playing a game as dark and cheerless as Kenseiden in a long time and certainly not on the Master System. The beautiful graphics, the freaky enemy designs, the fact that you’re playing as a freakin’ samurai. I should be lavishing kisses upon Kenseiden‘s sweaty brow, but I just couldn’t get past the clunkiness of Hayato and his coulda-been awesome swordplay. Hardcore action platforming fans i.e. masochists of the highest order have much to get excited about here. I just wanted a lukewarm bath and a nap.