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All Wii Reviews

Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)

A really good game that too few people talk about (because you’re all a bunch of lazy f&^ks)

This game could be the poster child for the reasons gamers need to do their homework.  We all know that a ton of Wii systems belong to cooler-than-average grandmas and impulsive parents, all of whom used the system for nothing more than a days worth of Wii bowling or occasional balance board calisthenics.  It is no secret that those same Wii systems are now buried in epic mountains of dust, just waiting for the day that a well-meaning mom decides to try to sell it for $150 at her fabulous weekend yard sale.  Nevertheless, it’s a ridiculous, crying shame that most of the other, oh, I don’t know, several million Wii owners out there haven’t played a game like Muramasa: The Demon Blade.  It’s a gorgeous piece of programming that highlights the fundamental strengths of Nintendo’s core system and truly deserves more notoriety than it got.

rantin' joe

Listen here, you ignorant whippersnappers


If I might be permitted to disgress for a paragraph or so, I’d lead off by saying that Muramasa’s original premise and kiddie-sounding title didn’t help it’s chances.  While an obscure, difficult to pronounce moniker might add appeal in Japan–or attract prepubecent boys who gravitate to things like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Dragonball Z–American audiences typically limit themselves to A: Violent shooters,  B: games that feature famous IPs or lead characters, or C: games tied to current Hollywood films.  But this tendency can serve the serious gamer very poorly, especially if what we really want is innovation and quality. Shooters are a dime a dozen, studios avoid taking significant (i.e. innovative) risks with major properties, and Hollywood-tied games are, almost always, putrid, unplayable garbage.  Complaining about this phenomenon as a Nintendo player might seem sort of ironic (we’ve been playing remakes of a small core catalog for over 20 years), but my underlying point remains sound:  Nintendo fans have a genuine responsibility to seek out the best non-Mario/Zelda/etc titles and to support the quality developers who bother to bring good games to our favorite system.

I propose a solution: If every player promised that for every Donkey Kong or Metroid title, they’d also research and purchase a corresponding non-Nintendo-developed game, our home system would be the better for it.  More dollars spent on 3rd party games means more innovation will head our way, and also sends a message to Nintendo about what kinds of games we want to see.  Too many Nintendo players opt for lazy purchases, not bothering to do their homework.  And I get it–simply whipping out your credit card to buy Mario Vs. Sonic At The Olympic Games is a lot easier than keeping track of reviews or perusing the back catalog, seeking out the really great games you missed along the way.  But personally, I’d rather spend less and get the most for my money.  Games take a lot of time to play–why waste it on less than the best?  WHO’S WITH ME?!

Ill Considered Choices

Whew.  Rant complete.  And now, a few words about Muramasa: The Demon Blade.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade–the ACTUAL reason you clicked the link–is an intelligent hack-and-slash style game with a ton of awesome graphics and a tasty serving of Japanese-flavored weirdness.  As I age and “mature”, I have no patience for the plain old button-mashing you might find in less innovative adventure/fighting games.  Muramasa, on the other hand, leaps out of your television and smacks you in the face with an enormous, evolving roster of special attacks and a delicious sense of kill-em-all action.  Armies of disposable ninjas and cartoonishly evil monks populate every screen, each of them begging to be slashed to ribbons.  But rather than requiring the player to save your most awesome, most colorful attacks for the toughest enemies, Muramasa wants you to hit ’em with all you’ve got, every time, no holds barred (nor encouraged).  The experience could be compared to playing a Street Fighter-inspired brawler in which Ken or Chun-Li has a finite limit on their attack power . . . but not too limited.  Each screen is a new set-piece that begs for you to attack as though the battle might be your last.  A victory often means ending the fight within seconds, classic samurai style.  Even low-level enemies attack with ferocity and can deal heavy damage, so a wise player will exhaust all resources if needed–you’ll live to fight another day, and there will be plenty of time to count your supplies when the enemy is nothing more than a bleeding corpse.  The whole concept lends itself to a delicious sense of masturbatory violence; while so many games force a player to cogitate and conserve, Muramasa revels in a twisted, cartoony brutality of action and high-energy swordplay.

A illustrative shot from the Japanese version

A illustrative shot from the Japanese version

You’d have to suffer from severe cataracts to miss how visually awesome this game is.  Featuring an art style unparalleled by anything else on Wii, your first few experiences with this game will have you calling for your friend/girlfriend/fiance/mother to “come in here quick and be awed by the stunningly lush and colorful graphics!!” (that’s a verbatim quote I used on my own significant other).  Animated but not childish, artful without pretentiousness, you’ll cite Muramasa’s visual style the next time the old “can video games be art” argument raises it’s tired head.  From the opening sequences (staged as the film credits of an epic Asian-flavored fight film) to each and every boss battle, you’ll be constantly wowed by eye-popping comic-bookish layouts and striking imagery.  One of the main reasons to keep playing Muramasa through the final scenes is simply to see what the next boss will look like–what is the last game you can remember having that sort of appeal?

A small sampling of the excellent boss fights

Just a few of the friendly creatures you'll meet along the way!

Of course, the other major reason you’ll love Muramasa are the swords.  Incorporating some basic elements of an RPG, your characters (you’ll play through different sides of the same story as two different protagonists) need to earn spirit and souls in order to upgrade their swords.  The pace of the game is relatively fast; you’ll be able to earn a few new swords in a single play session of an hour or so. Blades come in two basic varieties–long and regular–which determines the speed and power of the basic slash attack.  Only three swords can be equipped at once, so a player needs to maintain a balance of quicker weapons alongside slower, more deadly swords.  The real fun, however, is the secondary attack that each sword possesses.  Again, imagine Street Fighter special attacks–some swords might create decoy images of your character, while others launch spectacular whirlwinds, meteor showers, or enemy-seeking fireballs.  You’ll level up so quickly, and acquire so many swords that you’ll hardly have time to get used to a single weapon before another more powerful option becomes available.

I could almost fault the game for overwhelming variety of weapons, a design decision that made the diverse sword selection feel slightly generic.  The special attacks are flashy and entertaining, but often less important than the basic attack power of a given sword.  As I played through both storylines, I never needed to consider my loadout very carefully; I could beat most enemies by simply using the most powerful swords, rather than spending any time weighing my special attacks in light of the enemy I faced.  This made the the swords feel somewhat interchangable, and felt like a missed chance to incorporate a higher degree of strategy into the basic gameplay action.  Nevertheless, Muramasa’s basic premise is one of bombast and brawling, not subtlety or strategy–and it largely works.  The experience of fighting enemies, grinding for souls and XP, and winning battle after battle is a really good time, if slightly mindless.  Don’t think about it too deeply, and you’ll probably enjoy it more.

The game’s glaring flaw is a definite sense of repetition that sets in about halfway through the game.  On one hand, the developers went the distance to include a significant amount of content, meaning that the game gets high marks in the “bang-for-your-buck” category.  With two separate storylines that weave a single (somewhat confusing) narrative, and a satisfyingly high number of boss battles, you can’t fault Muramasa for delivering a substantial, complete game.  On the other hand, the two storylines (which can be played separately or concurrently, a neat option) recycle all of the basic enemies and areas, so by the time you’ve played through even one character’s tale, you might be tired of slaughtering the same gangs of ninjas and cave goblins that you’ve already defeated.  The swords and boss fights are completely unique for each character, and these elements are reason enough to finish Muramasa with both characters.  I can’t deny that I’ve begun to tire of the game, just a tad, as I close in on the final bosses.

Any experienced gamer should be sure to set the game on ‘hard’ difficulty at the outset; you’ll suffer a few defeats along the way, but I haven’t encountered any enemy or boss that required more than a handful of attempts.  (Lives in Muramasa are essentially meaningless anyway, given that you’ll respawn within feet of your last encounter, and there is no limit on the number of attempts you can make).

Given that this game is easy to find and sells (used) for around $15, you have no excuse to not pick up a copy.  I predict that when the Wii is surpassed by Wii U and we’re looking back on the Wii’s complete library, Muramasa: The Demon Blade will definitely be one of those games that makes it onto every “best of” list.

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