GENRE: Action platformer
RELEASE DATE: 11/25/89 – (JP), 01/90 – (US), 1990 – (EU)
SpellCaster really didn’t need a sequel. The Master System title combined action, adventure and RPG elements into a mystical soup that, while filling enough, was considerably more flash than substance. It also felt like a one-off, one of Sega of Japan’s easy to produce, bizarre anime/manga tie-ins. Or so it seemed. Shut my mouth and call me the Peacock King: Mystic Defender is the SpellCaster sequel that really needed to exist. By excising the adventure/RPG elements of its predecessor and doubling down on the action and platforming, the game stands as one of the best early Genesis titles.
Based, like SpellCaster, on the disturbing manga/anime “Kujaku-O,” you play as Joe Yamato, a sorcerer hero everyman who has to rescue The Supreme Deity’s daughter, Alexandra, from getting sacrificed to the evil god, Zao. We might not blink at that synopsis today, but this story is yet another example (after Phantasy Star II) of Sega not giving a damn when it comes to dealing with mature themes in games. Also, in an earlier incarnation of Mystic Defender, Alexandra is shown completely naked towards the end. The nudity actually made it over to the States (not sure about Europe), but was amended in favor of a ripped pink dress in a later version of the game. Thank God Sega released this game 26 years ago and not today, or the Internet would be crying censorship over their God-given right to enjoy pixelated nudity.
Mystic Defender begins in an innocuous forest. Monks and caterpillars attack from the trees, but Joe makes short work of them with his Psycho magic. The latter is both Joe’s offense and defense. He can shoot one projectile at a time or charge up the goods and unleash a three-pronged beam attack. Once Joe makes it to the end of the forest, he destroys a Worm guardian and gains Fire magic. The latter can only be used when charged and acts as a flamethrower. Other types of magic include Sonic, which unleashes several spheres in multiple different directions; and a Thunder attack that clears the screen of enemies with a three-headed dragon (this mighty magic can only be used once per icon collected). Choosing the right magic for a scenario is key to progressing more easily through the game.
As Joe moves deeper into Mystic Defender, his surroundings grow more bleak and disturbed. A rotting Japanese village is home to bouncing blue heads and creepy flocks of demonic babies. Giger-inspired metallic landscapes contain xenomorph heads that spit torrents of fire. One particular volcanic area is riddled with vomitous magma that can kill Joe in a split-second. As strange as SpellCaster was, the game had a lighthearted feel and carried the occasional humorous touch like “The Three Stooges” reference in the stone statues. Mystic Defender is a dark journey from start to finish.
Mystic Defender doesn’t genre-dabble like SpellCaster, and the game is all the better for it. The action platforming on display is intense, focused, and methodical. You don’t guide Joe recklessly forward into oblivion unless you want to waste the three lives you’re given. Many of the levels are compact. They lead you up and down confined staircases, through tight corridors, and force you to make precise jumps, all while flying goo creatures and flames brush around your hero’s jet black hair. Power-ups are scarce, though almost always necessary. Blue power-ups restore one of your three life points, while red power-ups strengthen your magic. If you die, you lose any magic strength you previously had.
Special attention should be given to Mystic Defender‘s graphics and animation, which are some of the best yet seen on the Genesis. From the blue-skinned priests that deviously rotate their arms to Joe’s continuous flamethrower spray, the detail is never less than stunning. What’s more is that Mystic Defender is not an arcade port, but an original game tailor-made for the system. Sega may have touted arcade perfection as one of the Genesis’ selling points and good on them for doing so. But Mystic Defender is an early example of Sega creating a console game from scratch and making it look as good or better than their arcade ports.
Like many early Genesis titles, Mystic Defender is often forgotten in favor of more popular titles that came afterwards. In this game’s case, Revenge of Shinobi, which literally debuted a week later in Japan. Joe Musashi might be a more iconic character with a longer lasting series, but Joe Yamato’s sorcerer hero everyman shouldn’t be relegated to the clearance racks of history. Mystic Defender‘s unsettling atmosphere and addicting platforming are a testament both to Sega’s growing skills as a console game developer and their willingness to move down darker paths than Nintendo.