I can count on one hand the times I've discussed Brave Fencer Musashi with someone. It's sad, really. I figured if there was one place anyone would have any reverence for this game, it would be Giant Bomb. Much to my dismay, I was apparently wrong. COME ON, GUYS. Where is the love? It wouldn't bother me as much if it wasn't such a fantastic game, but it is. So leave it to me, because I'm going to discuss the shit out of this game right now and school you fools.
Like the game I previously blogged about, Parasite Eve II, Brave Fencer Musashi is a PS1-era Squaresoft game. For someone who wasn't into RPG's as a child and cared very little for most of Square's output, some of their more nontraditional releases from that era really stuck with me (Einhander is definitely on that short list, but I sadly never played that much of it). Brave Fencer Musashi is another one of my all-time favorites, despite having never finished it until recently. I've been wanting to write about it for awhile now, and when I finally decided to, I realized how much I really wanted to go back and play it. It's been, oh....probably at least 12 years since I last gave it any attention, if not more. So I dug out my PS2 (I think my PS1 is long gone) and the game, wiped some seven-year-old unknown sticky crud off my old DualShocks and fired that bitch up.
I guess Brave Fencer Musashi was supposed to be Squaresoft's "Zelda killer" at the time. It obviously didn't penetrate the market like Zelda had,but you know what? I think this game wipes the floor with the sorry ass of any Zelda game. That's right, I said it. Okay, in all fairness, I've never been much of a Zelda fan, not that I really have anything against them. In fact, I don't think the series was even on my radar back then. It certainly does share some distinct similarities to the Zelda franchise, like an overworld with areas that require certain items or powers to access, but it doesn't exactly lift the entire Zelda formula wholesale.
As for the story, it is very loosely based on the real-life Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi, who was known for his excellent swordsmanship. The character name is about all the game takes from the true legend, though not being a Japanese history buff, there are probably some other references that flew completely over my head. The plot of the game has a kingdom in peril, under attack from the powerful Thirstquencher Empire. A child version of the legendary Musashi is summoned from another dimension to save Allucaneet Kingdom via collecting five elemental scrolls with crazy powers and infusing them into a magic sword called Lumina. Like I said, I'm no history buff, but I'm like 99% sure that didn't happen in real life.
Good thing I did decide to play it again, because although I remembered a staggering amount of things about it, even parts that I had only ever played through once when I originally got to the end of the game all those years ago, there were more than a few things I probably would've overlooked and kicked myself for later. What I was most worried about, though, is that I was viewing the game through rose-tinted glasses and couldn't remember whether or not I just loved it as a kid and it wasn't an objectively good game. Somewhat shockingly, it still holds up quite well. That was a sigh of relief. Most of the things I liked about it back then I still like about it now. Other parts...don't get by as well. But I think of this game as having a mildly retarded child; it mostly performs well and is very likable, and will occasionally do something stupid like walk head first into a wall, but I love it unconditionally and forever.
Lemme give you the goods first. What stuck in my head most about Brave Fencer Musashi since it came out in 1998 is almost everything but the game part. Not that playing it is bad by any means, but it has a very cutesy anime look to it that I still find irresistible to this day. The art design is colorful and vibrant, with many of the human characters having a slightly chibi-ish look to them in-game (their concept art is more traditional), without the big dumb heads. Even some of the enemies are adorable, but the bosses usually look as badass and intimidating as they ought to. This mix of designs never clashes as the overall art direction is very cohesive.
And if the art isn't charming enough, how about the fact that many of the game's locations and characters are really food-related puns? Allucaneet Palace, Thirstquencher Empire? Princess Fillet, Steward Ribson, Mary-Nade? Imagine me repeatedly nudging you with my elbow, asking you "D'ya get it?!" Some of you may roll your eyes at this, but the game is so committed to this stupid joke that it's endearing. I mean, the castle taste-tester is named Salmonelli. That's too great not to like. Much of the game is voice-acted, too, mostly the main story beats. The voice acting is...I don't want to say good, but it's not terrible either. Okay, some of it is, but it really just feels...appropriate. I honestly couldn't imagine in any other way. The dialogue can be bizarre and is often campy, but is almost always delightful. Really, you can't get any better than this:
Also, the Wolverine himself, Steve Blum, is in this game. I was blown the fuck away when I suddenly recognized his voice for a character that appears early in the game. It's weird coming back to this game so many years later and having that hit me.
The cast of characters is interesting, to say the least. Musashi himself is a bratty, cocky know-it-all kid. Playing as him isn't nearly as bad as it sounds, I promise. Playing as a kid with a shitty attitude that must face insurmountable odds over and over is actually kinda funny. The rest of the cast runs the gamut. There's your wise, bearded sagely old man, a simple-minded muscle-head bouncer, cowardly knights, brave mercenaries, etc. There's a slutty waitress at the diner who clearly wants to bang the shit out of Musashi, who, might I remind you dear reader, is probably around 12 years old. I also suppose Brave Fencer Musashi could be considered a very progressive game for its time, as it is insinuated that the blatantly gay librarian Scribe Shanky is in a relationship with another man. But then again, Shanky is portrayed as being so ludicrously and stereotypically flamboyant that somebody somewhere is bound to be offended. I just find it funny. In the end, all of the characters come together to create a great sense of community and world that was comfortable to be in.
Oh, how foolish of me. I haven't mentioned the soundtrack for this game yet. Holy shit, it's so good. Like, really, incredibly good. For me, it's as big a part of the game as the gameplay. This music has been ingrained into my soul. Every last composition perfectly sets the tone for the epic adventure it accompanies. One of your main goals parallel to the main quest is to rescue the 35 castle residents that have been captured. One of my favorite parts of returning to the game was learning that each time you rescue one of the castle musicians, another instrument was added to the castle theme song. As if it couldn't get any better! Seriously, go check out the OST.
A few other little touches go a long way in adding to the game's personality. One of the coolest things is being able to go to the toy shop and buy action figures of the game's enemies and bosses. Then you can take them back to your room and play with them, or you can choose not to open them and keep a pristine collection. It's totally incidental to the rest of the game but awesome nonetheless.
So obviously the gameplay is pretty important, as well. It's real simple and doesn't always work the way you want it to, but gets by with the novelty of its few systems. The basic combat of your two swords (Fusion and Lumina) is fast, sometimes kinda finicky, but usually satisfying. One of the biggest draws for me, especially when this game was new, was using the faster sword, Fusion, to 'assimilate' abilities from enemies. Playing it again now, I realized it wasn't as dynamic as I had remembered, as many of the abilities are used to traverse specific environmental obstacles or solve puzzles. I still think it's pretty neat, though. The other, heavier sword is Lumina. It's a key piece of the game's story, and as Musashi gathers the five scrolls, Lumina is infused with their elemental powers. This is really where the Zelda-ness comes through, because the abilities you gain from the scrolls allow you to progress through dungeons and defeat big bosses.
The game is way more of an action/platformer than an RPG. You do still gain experience levels and increase the power of your weapons, but the focus is definitely on jumping around on moving/collapsing/stationary platforms and killing dudes. The game gets quite of bit of mileage out of its gameplay, though, as it has you doing all sorts of video-gamey shit and it never really gets old. The boss battles are still pretty great, if not mostly kind of easy (until the last few, at least). Many of the main ones follow the rule of 3's, though the more skill-based ones are definitely the most fun. There are only two or three real dungeons in the game, and they're not super-inspired but they are certainly welcome in the context of the rest of the game. Environmental variety isn't a problem. Forests, mines, ice fortresses, flying sky bases, ancient underground ruins, the game has it all!
That latter location is part of what is maybe my favorite part of the game. In the third chapter, the town is overrun by zombie-vampire hybrids - called 'vambees' appropriately - and it's up to you to find out where they're coming from. They only appear starting at midnight during the game's day/night cycle and clearly wander out of the village diner/bar, but to ridiculously contrive things, even when you go in there to check it out, you can't actually do anything about it until you have evidence. Anyway, for a game that's kinda super-cute and charming, the vambees walking around the town at night is a little unsettling, despite the fact that neither you nor they can deal damage to one another here. Eventually you discover the ruins hidden beneath the bar, and then you go down there and kill vambies, solve puzzles, go bowling, kill a boss, yada yada yada.
I think the game does a respectable job of mixing things up, as each section of the game tries to set you up with unique puzzles or set-pieces. It keeps things fresh, for sure, but sometimes they don't work. And other times, they REALLY don't work. The raft ride down a river or obnoxiously long mine cart ride come to mind, but they are nothing compared to the infamous Steamwood section. Well, it's infamous to me. About an hour or two into the game, steam starts appearing around the town, and you learn that Steamwood, a facility that, I dunno, provides steam to the village I guess, is about to shit the bed and blow up the village if you don't intervene. You have "24 hours" to fix it, which is actually about 12 minutes in real time. What follows is painful series of stressful mini-games connected by what should be very simple platforming. And if you mess up or don't finish one of the mini-games, odds are you will have to do them all again from the beginning.
Sweet tits of Mother Mary, this part was designed by complete and total assholes. It's so easy to mess up and is the prime example of the wild difficulty spikes in BFM. This segment is what kept me from progressing on most of my playthroughs when I was kid. There's a very unpleasant kind of sphincter-clenching tension that it provides. Good thing you only have to do it once OH WAIT YOU HAVE TO DO IT AGAIN BECAUSE WHY THE FUCK NOT? Unfortunately for me, I had fully forgotten that they make you do this utterly fucking rotten bullshit again hours and hours later. If there's one blemish on what I think is an otherwise wonderful game, this is it.
The end of the game is where things get truly batshit crazy. The final chapter consists of an exhausting gauntlet of combat, puzzles, and boss fights, one of which is a dancing rhythm mini-game that only comes out of absolutely nowhere. When I originally played this game, I had only made it to the end once, but never finished it. I didn't remember much about it, so after finishing it I loaded my old save and remembered it was the second-to-last boss that thwarted me. Not this time, asshole! I'm older and better at video games now! Anyway, there's a particularly awesome and extended combat sequence near the end that allows you decimate all matter of robo-knights, laser-trees, ED-209's and Contra doors with some mighty-powerful weaponry. It's exactly the kind of power fantasy the game needed before the final confrontations.
Eventually I made it to the final boss, which I had never seen before. As one might guess, it had multiple forms. The first form you don't fight, just run away from. The second was dead simple once I figured out how to cheese it. The third and final form was a bit more devious, but after an intense fight I killed that bitch with just 16 health (or one hit) remaining. As I struck the final, triumphant blow, I let out a cheer and a massive sigh of relief. I really, truly beat Brave Fencer Musashi. It was like closing a chapter of my life that had been open since 1998.
One of the reasons the game means to much to me is because of how it came into my collection. I rented it once or twice when it came out, but didn't come to own it until a couple years later. In 2000, at the age of 11, I came down with pneumonia, which in turn lead to the discovery of a grapefruit sized tumor inside my chest cavity. Of course, it required surgery to remove. This was undoubtedly the scariest part of my life. One of my cousins offered me any video game I wanted while I was in the hospital, and I asked for Brave Fencer Musashi. After the surgery, I received a smattering of gifts, one of which was BFM packed in a big white, cushioned envelope. I was so happy to own it. Finally finishing the game nearly 14 years later gave me a weird sense of closure and reminded me heavily of the game's role in my life.
Sorry for getting so touchy-feely for a moment. I guess what I'm trying to say is, Brave Fencer Musashi was and still is a totally rad game. When Square announced a sequel for the PS2 in 2005, called Musashi: Samurai Legend, I was excited beyond words. It even came out on my birthday! I should've known, though, that it wouldn't be what I wanted. The sequel isn't really a bad game. It has some neat boss fights and more RPG elements, but has nowhere near the same feel of the original. I booted it up after finishing the first to refresh my memory and see if I could get into it again. I played about an hour and decided that's all I needed to remember that the combat is very, very repetitive in the beginning and that the voice acting and dialogue is almost unbelievably horrid, and not in a fun way.
For as many parts as it pulls from other games, I still feel like Brave Fencer Musashi is one-of-a-kind. The pleasant atmosphere and colorful cast of characters mixed with the diverse level design and the combat mechanics lift it beyond being just a Zelda clone. It doesn't hit every mark, and even sometimes makes me want to shatter the disc into pieces out of frustration, but I'm confident saying that it's one of THE BEST GAMES EVER...according to me.