This review was originally published in June 2014. We’re updating and republishing it to mark the game’s arrival in the Nintendo Switch Online NES library.
Although not originally released outside Japan, chances are that longtime Nintendo fans in the West have noticed nostalgic references to this unfamiliar title over the years. Takamaru’s Ninja Castle in Nintendo Land? Murasame Castle mode in Samurai Warriors 3? Or perhaps some music in Super Smash Bros. Brawl? All of these, as well as some more in other games, are references to this very Famicom Disk System game from 1986.
The Mysterious Murasame Castle, a literal translation of its original Japanese title Nazo no Murasame Jou, puts you in the shoes of Takamaru, a samurai apprentice who has to defeat both an alien creature that has taken over the titular castle, and the daimyos of the neighbouring castles that were corrupted by said alien’s power.
In a way, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is like a more linear, action-oriented version of the original The Legend of Zelda. It even uses the same engine, much like how Kid Icarus and Metroid were ‘sibling’ projects that shared the same technical framework. Although there are ‘only’ five stages, each consists of two sections, one outdoors and one indoors, with each inside section ending with a boss fight, except for the final stage which has a boss in both sections.
In each stage, your goal, unsurprisingly, is simply to make it to the end. While each of them is fairly maze-like, there are no puzzles to solve or keys to find, which means that you could technically just run to the end without ever fighting anything but bosses and a few other required enemies. Of course, that’s much easier said than done, because this is easily one of the most fast-paced, hectic Nintendo games around, and there are almost no moments where you can stand still — enemies, which are for the most part ninjas, will be popping out of bushes, trees, water, and even thin air left, right and centre, so you’ll be dodging and attacking constantly.
Luckily, Takamaru is well-prepared for the onslaught as he has a number of tools at his disposal. By default, you slash with your sword if you are close to an enemy (or if you time your strike well enough to deflect incoming projectiles) or throw shuriken if you’re not. While the katana is quite powerful, there’s usually too much going on for you to actually get close to something unharmed, so throwables tend to be the safer option. Of course, the trade-off is that these cost ammo, so you’ll have to keep collecting more; luckily, enemies tend to drop plenty. Takamaru also has a highly limited-use invisibility cloak that, in essence, temporarily makes him invincible, which is naturally great for tough spots.
However, this is just what Takamaru starts with — there are plenty of additional power-ups and weapons that you can find through enemy drops or hidden pickups, or receive as gifts from friendly tanookis, such as fireballs or windmill blades to replace the shuriken, an explosive lightning attack to replace the cloak, shogi pieces that let you fire projectiles in multiple directions, sandals to speed up your movement or allow you to walk on water, and more.
Even when you’re fully powered up, the game is still quite tough, but what is surprising is that there’s almost no randomness. enemies will always pop out of the exact same spots and do exactly the same thing, which makes everything quite fair. However, in a Gradius-like fashion, you’ll lose almost all of the available powerups should you keel over, which can be absolutely brutal if you’re in a later stage. Unlike the Vic Viper, however, Takamaru at least has three hit points, so he won’t instantly disintegrate from the slightest touch — you can even find medicine to replenish lost health, and the game is kind enough to fully refill it after every segment.
For an 8-bit game from the mid-’80s, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is also fairly impressive in the audio-visual department, thanks to the fact it was on the Famicom Disk System rather than being a cart-based game. There’s quite a lot of variation in the types of screens you’ll run through and the enemies you’ll fight, with each stage having a different colour palette and the enemies indoors being completely different from those outdoors. It’s all accompanied by an incredibly catchy, upbeat soundtrack befitting a samurai that’ll keep your blood pumping no matter how many attempts a stage takes. It should be noted that the game is completely untranslated — however, there is little to no Japanese text in the game to begin with, so this shouldn’t pose any problem whatsoever.
Although a blood relative of The Legend of Zelda, The Mysterious Murasame Castle isn’t quite like any other Nintendo game of the era, with incredibly fast-paced gameplay and a high degree of difficulty which, thankfully, feels completely fair. With all of the nods and references this game has had over the years in other Nintendo games which did release outside Japan, it’s great to be able to see what the fuss is all about. And as an action-oriented ‘sister’ game to the original Zelda, it’s absolutely worth checking out.
This story originally appeared on Nintendo Life