Re-discovering Muramasa

The recent re-release of the Wii game Muramasa on the Vita is a good opportunity to re-discover this hidden gem.

I bought the game back when it came out on the Wii. After a cursory glance, it has been sitting in my backlog ever since. So I used the pretext of the recent release to double-dip on it and risk a second attempt. And so the game’s charm finally captured me.

The game is a mash-the-button-to-win brawler with silky smooth, rewarding sword fighting animations. It set in an kinda-open-world 2D platformer world not unlike Metroid or the latter Castlevania games. To be perfectly honest, the actual gameplay is not that appealing to me personally. The sword slashery grows tiresome and repetitive quickly. The thing that keeps me going is the overwhelming visual style and some interesting structural choices.

Same World, Multiple Campaigns

Muramasa Wolrd Map

Muramasa’s world serves as the backdrop for two different stories starting at different locations.

Let start if off with the structure. The player is being offered two independent campaigns. Each campaign has it’s own protagonist. Interestingly, both campaigns play in the same world but you start in a different place. Imagine Metroid offering a second game mode where you play as a different bounty hunter starting in Mother Brain’s lair. You job is get out instead of getting in. It is an interesting way of getting more mileage out of an established word. It does require a slightly different approach to world building. The world becomes less an obstacle course designed for a specific set of player abilities but a more of a broad space filled with unspecific challenges that work for differently equipped players. Many sections of the levels are just empty which takes getting used to from a traditional gamer’s perspective. They turn out to be an excellent opportunity to simply let players enjoy the gorgeous game art. One side-effect of this approach is that it can be tricky to keep players contained.

Lazy Gating

Muramasa Red Gate

“Oh! It’s a RED magical gate in the middle of the forest. Man, I’m glad I got that RED anti-magical-gate-sword from the last boss fight.”

Gating is the way in which games prevent players from accessing certain areas in open-world game design. Without it, a player might just go straight to the final boss or experience a story event out of sequence. In my old World Design article, I described a certain type of gating which I’d call “Lazy Gating”. It is when the different gates present themselves as actual gates or magical obstacles. In the worst-case scenarios, the different tiers of gates are color coded. “You can’t open this blue magic door, you need to get the blue key first”. The actual keys to open the gates often have no other purpose than actually opening the doors. It is “Lazy Gating” because it can be applied quickly to EVERY type of game, it is repetitive, obvious and tends to stand out as a sore thumb. Muramasa suffers from Lazy Gating a great deal. Players are often stopped by color-coded magical barriers which can be only broken if certain, color-coded swords have been acquired. Considering the attention to detail the worlds of Muramasa were created with, the magical gates are awkward and simplistic. They may have been created as a concession to the multiple campaigns. Depending on which campaign you chose, the world is re-gated to accommodate for the different sequence of events. I keep wondering if a more integrated approach would have been possible. I also wonder if the gating is even necessary at all.

Games and Ethnicity

Muramasa Octopus Monster

Western Fantasy may be inspired by Medevial History, but how many Fantasy games are actually quoting Medevial Art?

Muramasa represents the kind of embrace of the developer’s ethnicity which I find way to rare in games nowadays. With a heavy focus on US-western mainstream taste, most AAA game developers seem to be keen to erase traces of cultural or historical origins from their games. The only exception there seems to be the Japanese culture, which found it’s way into pop culture trough tropes like Ninjas and Samurais. Of course, one could argue that the western Fantasy genre is a treatment of western medieval heritage. To some extent that’s true. But quite often, it seems fantasy is more concerned with repeating it’s self-established tropes rather then going back to it’s source material. Like Okami before, Muramasa draws heavily from source material – both visually and thematically. Of course there are samurai swords and ninjas. But there are also Kitsune, Inugami, Kuzuryū, Fudo-Myoou, Macaque Onsen all beautifully illustrated in a style strongly referencing Japanese watercolor art every step of the way. And there is food. Good lord! Let me tell you about the food.

The Food

Why is it that it’s only the Japanese developers that actually care about the food? From the top of my head, probably the most detailed western treatment of food is the GTA Series where you can chose between different fast food chains to order meals from. Comparing GTA to Muramasa in this context is like comparing the treatment of inter-personal relationships “Dick and Jane” to Patrick Marber’s “Closer”.

Superficially it’s similar. You go to different restaurants. You can eat food there. Food restores life energy. However, each restaurant in Muramasa presents you a whole menu of meals to choose from. Each restaurant has it’s own special set of dishes typical to the region the restaurant is situated in. The game actually offers a brief description of each dish. And when you actually pick a one, you are being presented with the most delicious, vivid, animated illustration of the chosen meal. Pressing a button and the food gets gradually consumed by the invisible hand (and mouth) of the protagonist. This process is also vividly animated. Gelatin balls bounce and jiggle as they are being split into halves and quarters. Rice balls reveal their meaty, steaming fillings. Glistering fresh sushi is being shown soaking up dark soy sauce sauce before it too disappears. It’s food porn in every way – completely superfluous in richness and attention to detail.

It’s the Mortal Combat x-ray finishing move of Japanese cuisine. (more here)

It is also entirely the whole point of the feature. The game actually offers enough opportunities to heal your characters in different ways – there are healing Onsen and various healing items. Your energy also replenishes every time you level up. Watching the food being consumed in the restaurants is a reward in it’s own. To top it off, you don’t just eat food at restaurants. There is also an extensive cooking system which allows you to prepare delicious stews and snacks from found ingredients. And yes, this process is also illustrated in a obscenely appetizing way.

So there are many takeaways from Muramasa. For the above and more reasons it’s a game I would recommend having a look at. With around 9 hours per campaign it’s fairly lightweight and it is available on the PS Vita and the Wii / Wii U. Better check the location of your next Japanese restaurant before playing. Sudden cravings for oriental cuisine are to be expected.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

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The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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