The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (Konami, 1993) was one of the great sleeper hits of the Super Nintendo. Though the game was hardly a blockbuster, it still seems like everyone has played it.

On a strictly superficial level, Mystical Ninja is not an overly impressive game. It's a traditional side-scrolling action-platformer where one or two players battle through enemy-packed, arcade-style levels. Its biggest gameplay innovation was the incorporation of so-called "RPG elements" to mix up the pace; in between the side-scrolling action sequences, players can roam villages to talk to townsfolk, visit shops, or play mini-games.

No, What makes Mystical Ninja a title worthy of deeper analysis is the theme. Mystical Ninja takes place in some vaguely-defined period of ancient feudal Japan, full of characters, settings, items, and events that make broad reference to noteworthy elements of the country's history, folklore, peoples, and religion. It's a game brimming with clever in-jokes and allusions, but the majority are difficult for the non-Japanese to fully appreciate. To American eyes, the game simply reads as just so much random nonsense.

As a longtime Japanophile, I've spent a fair bit of time researching the weirdness in Mystical Ninja to see if I could make any sense of it. The game has long been crying for some westerner to systematically go through it and explain everything. So here's my attempt.

There are a lot of sequels to Mystical Ninja, but aside from a 1997 N64 title, none have been released in the States. Though I could write more about the series in general, my interest in investigating this particular game comes from it being the first title in the franchise. First titles are often the purest. You have to get out as many of your good ideas as you can. Who knows if you'll get another chance?

This guide has two parts:

Part One- General Stuff

Part Two- The Levels