Having grown up on a steady diet of 2D masterpieces that ranged from Gunstar Heroes to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I was reluctant to see the industry move into the third dimension. While the polygon-pushing technology of 32-bit hardware allowed for more realistic gaming environments, traversing those realms was often fraught with frustration. Having to manipulate a virtual camera to garner a functional perspective often reduced the sense of immersion for a title. More importantly, wonderfully evocative hand-drawn sprites had transformed into boorish clumps of geometry. It was hard to appreciate the cubist simplicity of Virtua Fighter after witnessing Guile’s face wrenched in pain.
As hardware technology advanced and 2D diversions dwindled, I grudgingly acclimated to the incorporation of the Z-axis, intermittently retreating to my retro library for a quick side-scrolling fix. In 2007, my preoccupation with two dimensional gaming was renewed by developer Vanilla Ware. GrimGrimoire and Odin Sphere dexterously reacquainted gamers with the efficiency and beauty of sprite-based entertainment.
Two years later, Vanilla Ware has returned with a title so graphically sumptuous, Nintendo owners may be wondering if the production team has found a way to upscale and enhance the output of their Wii consoles. Muramasa: The Demon Blade presents a continual visual feast for players- from the delicately drawn backdrops adorned with multiple levels of parallax scrolling, to the graceful animations that breathe life into the title’s protagonists and enemies. The game’s lush artwork is further complemented by soundtrack that serenades tranquil moments with a soft flute, while setting the tempo for enemy attacks with heated taiko drum cadence.
The game’s two protagonists- possessed princess Monohime and amnesic ninja Kisuke, offer players two distinct narratives which sporadically intertwine as each character moves through the game’s Metroid-inspired network of rooms. Gamers may initially select from the title’s Muso (easy) and Shura (hard) difficulties; once the campaign is completed, Shigurui mode is available, challenging players to traverse the title’s landscape with a single hit point.
Demon Blade allows for a range of control methods, from the requisite Wiimote and Nunchuck combination, to options for the Classic Controller and even the perennial GameCube pad. Each input scheme works flawlessly, allowing both Monohime and Kisuke to slice through swarms of foes effortlessly. By employing a single button for attacks, Muramasa doesn’t require players to master complicated button combos. Instead, conflict allows players to instinctively attack, block, and parry projectiles, all while maintaining enough nuance to offset battle fatigue. Players must constantly monitor the condition of their swords, as each defensive measure whittles away at the blade’s health, necessitating a switch with one of the two other weapons readied for combat.
While combat is satisfying, it’s the title’s light role-playing elements that truly endow Murasama with a distinctive personality. Skirmishes reward the player with both experience for leveling up, and currency. Money can be used not only to purchase health replenishing items, offensive accessories, but also to buy ingredient lists so players can make their own recuperative recipes. Restaurants also offer authentic cuisine, which is shown in magnificent detail, as the player takes each bite.
Muramasa’s single hindrance lay in its insistence on backtracking to artificially extend the title’s playtime. While many might be able to overlook the occasional color switching of enemies to expand the game’s bestiary or the reuse of an environmental backdrop, many will scoff at having to plod through successions of foe-less screens. In essence the trajectory of Muramasa boils down to a simplistic ‘find boss, kill boss, obtain sword to open a new door’ mentality that is stands in sharp contrast to many of the game’s other design decisions.
Although players may initially be attracted by Muramasa: The Demon Blade’s radiant visual charms, the title’s delectable gameplay will surely sustain their interests. With over a hundred swords to collect, memorable boss battles, and countless bonus rooms to explore, the title is an obligatory purchase for all action-loving Wii owners. Muramasa not only represents the best third-party title in the Wii’s library, but may also have the power to cultivate a resurgence in 2D gameplay.