Review: Ganryu

Ganryu resurrects legendarily unbeaten Japanese warrior Miyamoto Musashi for one final fight. The problem is, in this ugly, lazy, soulless, Frankenstein of game...everyone loses

What hurts most in playing this near-perfectly ported Dreamcast edition of Neo-Geo game Ganryu is that the original creators seemingly just didn't care. They didn't care that they were besmirching and cynically exploiting the name and legendary story of, Genji aside, arguably Japan's greatest historical hero. The bloody life of Miyamoto Musashi and his epic duel-of-duels with Sasaki Kojirō on Ganryū-jima, an island located between Honshū and Kyūshū, is literally the stuff of Japanese legend and here, in this side-scrolling 2D hack-and-slash, it is used as inspiration for what, simply put, is a poor and crassly unimaginative title.
Giant floating doll's head? Coming right up, sir!

A legendary tale

This duel, which has been dramatised many times in film - including in the final movie of an epic three-part series staring famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as Musashi - is often seen as the greatest of Musashi's victories as Kojirō was a lethal swordsman himself, with his deadly use of a nodachi, a Japanese great sword, earning him the title of The Demon of the Western Provinces.

While his deeds have reached mythological proportions, Musashi was very much a real person and one who, arguably, perfected the two-blade fighting style. Musashi's Ni-Ten Ichi Ryu technique (two heavens as one), as detailed in his epic The Book of Five Rings (anyone with an interest in kenjutsu should read a modern a translation), was revolutionary for the time and, no doubt, a large part of how the greatest Japanese swordsman of all remained undefeated in over 60 duels.
The cutscenes are nicely drawn.
Musashi wasn't just the ultimate swordsman either. In his later life he mastered numerous arts and crafts - with arguably the finest being his beautiful broken ink pieces such as Shrike Perched on a Withered Branch. Simply put, Miyamoto Musashi is one of Japan's most well-known and beloved historical figures.

Why then would original creators Visco Corporation - a Japanese software house no less - use him and his most famous adventure as a vehicle to publish what is essentially a shoddy, cheap, bolted together Shinobi clone devoid of all soul?

The answer, of course, is money...

The Dreamcast edition

Let's be very clear here off the bat though, Rush On Game and JoshProd have actually done a technically good job in bringing Ganryu to Dreamcast. The game, asides from running fractionally slower than the butter smooth Neo-Geo version, plays exactly the same. Unlike its port of Breakers, which we at the 'Yard didn't feel ran well when compared to the original in terms of framerate and smoothness, Ganryu runs very well and, as we own the Neo-Geo version via an aftermarket 161-in-1 cart, we can confirm it delivers the same experience. The problem is that the experience is just as unimaginatively poor as it ever was on Neo-Geo.
Like many Neo-Geo ports, the instructions are left intact.
But, yes, in terms of the port this is a faithful and full-fat version of Ganryu. From the simple opening cutscene, through the options-less menu screen, and onto its brace of playable characters (Musashi and Suzume, a token faster but less powerful female character), the Dreamcast edition runs and plays exactly how it should do.

How Ganryu plays

Ganryu, which tells the trite tale of how Musashi must fight a resurrected, daemonic incarnation of Kojirō and an army of ninjas to save his kidnapped partner Otsu, plays like a mash-up of Shinobi and Strider. Entirely unsurprisingly, considering that both those titles debuted in the late '80s, Ganryu both looks and feels incredibly dated.

Once you've selected either Musashi or Suzume you are dropped into the first of a total of 5 levels, which run - generally, but certainly not always - from left to right. These levels range from outdoor rural Japan, with buildings and trees upon which you can climb, through to underground, waterfall-filled caves, and onto huge fortified castles and battlements. The art is, surprisingly considering the rich canvas upon which the game is set, remarkably flat and uninspiring though, with bland backdrops and, on the whole, dull character designs. When you consider that Visco released Ganryu in 1999, a full 9 years after Magician Lord debuted on the Neo-Geo, it is remarkable that it looks no better, with everything smacking of just good enough.
Just hanging about. Loitering with intent.
As you progress your way through each level by mechanically walking, jumping, sliding or - on rare occasions - swinging via your grapple claw you have to fend off a non-stop barrage of enemies, which in all but a few rare occasions consist of one of three types of ninja coloured blue, green and red depending on their toughness. Naturally for a game so clearly slapped together, each ninja sports the exact same design, so the only thing that ever changes is the colour and, rarely, the weapon they use against you. Also, when we say non-stop, we mean non-stop. In all but boss zones and a few secluded areas of each level, these ninjas will continuously spawn above your head in a flash of light. As such, even if you memorise the position of each level's set enemies - some of which are positioned in some of the cheapest, most credit chomping positions possible - each run you'll always have to deal with random drops.
Another ninja bites the dust.
You can dispatch the ninjas - and the game's only other enemies of hawks and even a toad! - via a main slashing attack (chargeable by holding down the attack button), by a secondary weapon that can be changed by picking up power ups (shurikens, dynamite and magic orbs being a selection), and if you really wanted to, your grappling claw. All are dispatched easily, however, while the game is not one hit kill you can only take a few blows before dying and, without doubt, is quite hard (as these old-school games are), so often just one or two mistakes is all it takes for a level or mid-point restart. This is especially true if you choose Suzume, who has less vitality than Musashi and therefore gets hurt more by each enemy blow. The only other inclusions to each level asides from enemies are tied up female hostages - which once freed grant you a health-restoring snack, score-building treasure or secondary weapon power up - and the occasional NPC screen run through, the latter not being interactable with in any way.
The hand drawn cutscenes are a highlight.
Once you've mechanically walked and slashed, jumped and slashed, slid, and generally slashed a dump truck load of ninjas, each level culminates with a cutscene with evil Kojirō and then a boss fight. Without giving away too much, these boss characters are just ridiculously poor, neither fitting into the game's time period or fiction and, once more, showing a massive void of originality and class. Seriously, you could simply pick up any one of these bosses and dump them in almost any C-grade run-and-gun, hack-and-slash or shoot-em-up and the gamer probably wouldn't notice. The music, too, which accompanies these fights is poor and is also totally at odds with what is happening on screen and in the story. Once more, however, this is hardly surprising considering this game was rumoured for years to have been the product of multiple other failed projects that were cobbled together at the last minute.
Villain Kojirō summoning daemonic spirits.

Eventually, when you have slashed through 5 levels of ninjas, only once really needing the grapple claw to actually progress in the game (the start of level 5), you get to face Kojirō himself. Almost though, as the final insult, the game then teases the only genuinely impressive piece of artwork in the entire game, Kojirō himself in human form (when he powers up we loved how his hakama and jacket billow about him and his tiny pixel fingers are contorted as he summons his dark magics) before immediately replacing it with a transformed wanna-be-Castlevania-style daemonic version that looks awful.

To the death

As you can probably tell, we're not big fans of Ganryu here at the Yard. Once more, Rush On Game has to be given due credit for successfully and legally porting the game to Dreamcast, and it is amazing that it and many more new titles are being released for the system in 2017. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Ganryu is not only a poor game that rarely manages to muster up prolonged moments of fun or satisfaction, but is also a totally missed opportunity to use the character of Miyamoto Musashi and his legendary fighting prowess to create a quality title.

Which really comes back to why it hurts to see what could have been so much more reduced to this by-the-numbers affair. There are undoubtedly some half-decent elements to Ganryu. Some of the background music is semi-authentic and at least in part evokes feudal Japan, the controls are tight, and the idea to use Musashi as a hero was an inspired one. Unfortunately, these few plus points are annihilated in one blow (Ikken Hissatsu; speaking of which Hissatsu Shigotonin is a fun Japanese jidaigeki) by the absolute paucity of commitment and a coherent vision to create a worthy piece of art. And that not only means that Visco lost, in terms of reputation, but also the gamer lost due to a poor overall experience; and the legend of Musashi itself lost, with his adventures added to in the most uninspiring, borderline disrespectful way imaginable.
The state of that artwork on the boss...
There is definitely an experience to be had by playing Ganryu, which depending on your taste in games and skill may even stray into enjoyment at times. However, we're guessing that for the vast majority of Dreamcast owners the cheapness, hyper-repetitive gameplay, and generally confused presentation will mean many will end up thinking this is 30 Euros badly spent.

Ganryu can be pre-ordered from Rush On Game, Play-Asia and Video Games New York.
What do you think? Will you be purchasing Ganryu? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation in our Facebook group.

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DCGX said...

This was my worry, starting with 'Breakers,' even though I bought it, that these frequent ports would be of lesser games for, let's face it, a premium. I was already on the fence, but the $40 plus shipping for Ganryu does not seem worth it. Thanks for the review!

Tom Charnock said...

It's a very honest Review Rob, thanks. Also kudos must be given for all the Japanese lore you included. It's worth noting that while this review isn't exactly gleaming, the port is not what's in question (it's a great port) but the subject matter. Cheers Rob.

DCGX said...

Yes, at least the port job was a good job. But I'd rather have a slightly lower quality port of a good game than a good port of a lower quality game. Actually, I'd rather just have a good port of a good quality game. That's me.

Tom Charnock said...

Haha! Yes, that's definitely the best thing to wish for 😅

Spaceturnip said...

Good review Rob. I'm still looking forward to receiving my copy, and I think i'll get some enjoyment out of it, but always good to see an honest review to show that, here at the 'Yard, we don't just praise new DC games for the sake of it.

Robert Jones said...

Yes, as I mentioned in the piece, it isn't the port I found disappointing but the original game, which could have been so much more.

Hiro said...

It is a good analysis.
He is not up to a Goemon or a Yokai Dochuki.
And neither is lavished games of feudal Japan in the DC.
I will be waiting to receive my copy and I will prove it as it is.

Deef said...

Simple emulation should be at least twice cheaper according to me... I was so disappointed by breakers that no way I'll pay 30€ for a poor game that again runs slower than the neogeo original...

FlorreW said...

I like the honest review, i have ordered the game and i think as well that i am gonna squeeze some joy out of it. Lets keep on being honest , we know that this game is a late 90s game wich in a cheap way reminds of Shinobi, so of cource... if you like arcade games from the 90s and Shinobi amongst them (like me), you will probably enjoy this game, if you dont and gets dissappointed when buying the game, then i think it is your own fault :)

Even if the game plays like little slower via the emulation on the dreamcast its baerly noticable , in my view of point , it seems like a good conversion/emulation and im glad i got it for the Dreamcast.

Deef said...

If it is emulated as bad as breakers, then this is crap, when you run it on the neogeo there is a huge gap in terms of fluidity, speed... when it was said breakers was optimized emulation of the neo4all it was just a lie, I have both of the versions, nothing is improved. Selecting a game that is originally not great (despite I love Shinobi-like games) and knowing it will run slower than the original is a no go especially at that price...