Getsu Fuma Den
Review by Mike Finkelstein
For a while there, in the early NES era, Konami really wanted to experiment with what was possible in the platforming era. Very early on, after the success of the original Castlevania, the game developer started pushing what they could do, blending in elements that would eventually come to define the Metroidvania genre -- exploration, item collection, and maze-like locations. Straight, linear platforming didn't interest the company as much as really pushing their genres to new and weird heights.
You can see the elements of this not only in the Castlevania series, with Vampire Killer and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but also in other works from the company like both The Goonies games and their strange crossover title Konami Wai Wai World. The 1987 Japan exclusive title Getsu Fuma Den also has that same weird blend of platforming, the penchant for taking strange ideas and mashing them together to see what sticks. It's what sets the game apart, for sure, but it may be that same weirdness that kept the game from launching yet another big IP for the developer.
In Getsu Fuma Den you play as titular hero Getsu Fuma on his quest to save the world. You are one of three brothers who were defeated by the demon lord Ryukotsuki, a battle that saw the evil beast steal the three powerful Pulse Blades that had been guarded by the Getsu clan for generations. As the sole survivor of the attack, you have to venture into demon infested islands to regain the three powerful sword all so you can eventually take on Ryukotsuki, regaining the honor of your clan while sending all the demons back to Hell.
After a cut-scene (that you're going to see over and over whenever you retrieve one of the Pulse Blades), the game drops you on a path and leaves you to figure things out for yourself. Your hero starts off on an overworld, a maze-like series of paths that reminded me of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in appearance (just without the random overworld encounter zones). Follow one of the paths far enough and you'd hit a fixed-point encounter zone that Fuma would then have to cross before you could continue along the overworld. Much of the game follows this flow -- explore the overworld, venture through an encounter zone -- with the hero having to spend a lot of time bouncing back and forth through these zones as he tries to find his path through to his goals.
Actually figuring out where to go is one of the most brutal parts of the game. In the early going the title is surprising obtuse about what you're supposed to do or where to go. It really, literally, just drops you into it and you have to figure it out on your own, using the vague clues from the few villagers you meet (who are hiding in their huts) while you try, desperately, to survive all he encounters and figure out where the hell you're going.
The early game, frankly, is brutal. Your sword does a piddly amount of damage, taking multiple swipes to kill most enemies (and they will general bounce into you, causing damage, before you can kill them). Sure, enemies will drop health sometimes, but you'll still spend a lot of time early on riding the razor's edge, desperate to stay alive. It's not until you've earned enough money and can afford to buy some of the sub-weapons in the game (or find the couple of hidden ones) that the game becomes at all manageable.
Once you start gaining powers, and getting the feel for the game, things smooth out and the game starts to get good. But that's a steep climb and I wouldn't be surprised if a number of gamers were turned off by the brutal difficulty of the early going and didn't bother sticking around for the mid-to-late game. This is the kind of title I would have rented back in the day, played for an hour, gotten pissed off at, and then quit and never load it up again (although, since the title was Japan-exclusive I wouldn't have been able to rent this title specifically).
The hallmarks of a Metroidvania game are all here: go here, collect this item to unlock this next area, explore that area to gain some new ability or power (like a sword to break blocks, or a torch to light your way), all so you can gain access to one of the demon lairs. Sometimes the villagers will give you advise, and sometimes its useful, but in the end you're a lone hero exploring a vast and sprawling, fully explorable world, with only your wits to guide you.
The game does have a couple of flourishes that help it stand out. For starters there's a wide selection of offensive and defensive items to collect, most of which are quite useful. The nice thing is that none of them (aside from a cloak of invincibility) are consumable or use ammo so you can spam your attack items as much as you like (many of which are much more useful than Fuma's dinky sword). The game also has an experience system in place so, over time, your base sword will become more powerful, taking less hits to kill the demons and speeding up the game play.
By far the weirdest inclusion in the game, though, are the dungeon exploration sections. Once you've infiltrated the demon strongholds you shift from the linear platforming perspective to an over-the-shoulder, 3D exploration view. A number of NES, Master System, and SNES games used this perspective, especially in JRPGs, but it was strange to see this view used here, in an action title. Of course, exploration in these areas is difficulty because they're giant mazes with little in the way of markers. You just blindly navigate (literally if you don't have the torch), hoping to figure out the page through the zone. And then occasionally a random encounter will occur and you have to fight from this perspective. It really doesn't work. Thankfully there are only three of these zones in the game, keeping these weird sections to a minimum.
Despite its flaws there's a lot of like about Getsu Fuma Den. It has solid platforming mechanics, as you'd expect from a Konami title, with satisfying combat that gets really good once you're past the early going. Best of all, it has an absolute banger of an overworld theme, which you'll hear a lot as you play the game (but it never wears out its welcome). The game it tough, and obtuse, and seems like its actively fighting you at times, but once you get into the flow of it you learn to appreciate its charms.
The game isn't perfect, and I can totally understand why it never received a proper sequel (the best it got were crossover appearances like Konami Wai Wai World and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair). The game is just too odd, to tough in the early going, to hook a lot of players. This is Konami at its weirdest, when they would happily experiment to try and find new play-styles to blend into their titles. It didn't always work, and sometimes Getsu Fuma Den falters, but underneath it there's a fairly satisfying game to enjoy. Just bring some graph paper for the 3D sections, otherwise you might never escape those dungeons.