FYI, gentle friends, site content will probably be spotty over the next few weeks. I’m off to Tokyo Game Show, which I’ll be covering alone, which means not much in the way of free time. When I get back, though, I’ll put the wraps on Zelda and move along to something new and exciting.
Kenseiden is not a good game. One of the primary problems with many older console games is that they maintained the sensibilities of the arcades from which the video gaming craze spawned. Some developers handled this transition better than others, realizing that without the quarter-sucking impetus, the player didn’t have to be punished at all times.
Unfortunately, Kenseiden did not reflect this lesson. Enemies seem to spawn from nowhere, respawn with impunity after small backtracks by the player, and many tend to move so fast that there’s absolutely no time to react at all. This is not helped by the fact that, like many arcade games, Kenseiden utilizes rather large sprites. While these sprites do look quite good, especially given the vintage of the game, it leaves very little space by which to dodge. It’s almost Ninja Gaiden-esque in its unfairness. In some ways it’s worse, as the controls are often not responsive enough to react effectively to enemy threats.
The game compensates for this failing through its sense of progression. Your path through the game is non-linear, allowing the player to chart their own path through the game. Various training grounds appear through the game, allowing procurement of an extended life meter and items that increase defense. This is a great idea, but it also comes gated behind a massive wall of memorization. You’ll find is a sword-improving item and a life restorative that kicks in when your energy meter is depleted—necessary to defeat bosses, who drop scrolls that give the hero new techniques. Some of these prove quite useful and add to the sense of empowerment.
This empowerment is what often creates some of the greatest games of all time. Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night immediately come to mind. But it also allows games that would otherwise be considered fairly weak to rise above their technical limitations. And that’s exactly the case with Kenseiden.
It’s actually strange to see Kenseiden compared to Castlevania in some circles. Is it the diagonal staircases? The horror motif? At any rate, the game owes far more to games like Metroid or Zelda II, although it’s much more linearly constrained. (Okay, fine, we can count Simon’s Quest, too.) Player progression defined those titles, too, but there it was coupled with exploration elements that complemented their design (Simon’s Quest’s arcane clues notwithstanding). The player actually did interesting things with the abilities that were procured. Kenseiden uses them to compensate for glaring design flaws, and employs them as a punishment for gamers not taking the “right” path, which means that choice in the game is ultimately illusory.
Then again, many games give us that same illusion of choice, so maybe the harshness is, to some degree, undeserved. Most gamers will likely find their views on the title to soften as they proceed through the game. A revision of the initial statement may be in order.
Kenseiden is not a good game, but it is an interesting game.
Article by Lee Hathcock
GameSpite Journal 12: Kenseiden