Retro Game Review: “Kenseiden” (SEGA Master System, Festival of Dread Special)
Konnichiwa minnasan to the Dread Matsuri, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things 暗い and 怖い (“kurai” dark and “kowai” scary).
In any case, today we’re going to take a look at Kenseiden, a genre-blending, side-scrolling action RPG developed and published by SEGA in 1988 for the Master System. Indeed, you will all be subjected to my surface-level, one semester’s worth of community college Japanese as we go along.
Known as 剣聖伝 (Sword Saint Legend or Legend of the Swordmaster) in Japan, Kenseiden has been described as a feudal Japanese version of Castlevania. The comparison is understandable, as both are side-scrolling action games where a legendary hero (Hayato/Belmont) is on a one-man mission to overcome a dark overlord (Oda Nobunaga/Dracula) and his demonic minions. Certainly anyone familiar with the Castlevania series will be able to step into Kenseiden without much of a primer, but the two games are more different than some might realize.
Set in 16th century Japan, Kenseiden is the story of a samurai warrior named Hayato who has dragon blood flowing in his veins. The land is besieged by Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長), who history remembers as the unifier of Japan, but SEGA would like you to know that he was actually an evil despot that commanded a legion of monsters and evil spirits. Nobunaga’s underlings have captured five magical scrolls and the sword of the Dragon Lord, and now Hayato must defeat them all and reclaim these precious relics to restore peace to Japan.
Before he can confront Oda Nobunaga in his castle, Hayato must travel through several stages set in the various provinces of feudal Japan. The swordplay starts off fairly simply, with running, jumping and slashing through each demon-infested stage. The are no secondary weapons, but you can occasionally find a sword power-up that enhances your attacks. You will also learn new attack techniques with each magic scroll that you retrieve, including a high jump, upward sword slash, stealth kills (rear attack), armor smashing, and the “berserker” running slash. These abilities range in their usefulness (high jump is absolutely necessary to progress), but they add a great deal of depth to Hayato’s demon-death-dealing prowess.
And what kind of enemies are eager to meet their end at the tip of Hayato’s blade? There’s plenty of the generic type such as spiders, bats, skeletons, and of course, large birds, but there are plenty of unique, supernatural baddies that give Kenseiden its personality, such as flying demons, snakes with human heads, lizards with human bodies, giant Oni heads, and Nosferatu-esque vampires. It should go without saying that the stages are also filled with spikes, lava pits, falling boulders, and other traps, right?
Once you complete the second stage, you can choose your own preferred path on the map. You can travel to previous stages, and it is sometimes necessary to replay a stage depending on which path you take. This might make you regret your choices and it can be a bit of a hassle, but most of the stages are fairly short so it doesn’t take too long to trudge back through them. It is still worth exploring the outlying areas over taking the most direct route to Nobunaga’s castle, as there are a few training dojos scattered across the land that will increase your life bar, which will absolutely come in handy down the line, particularly when taking on bosses. Many of the individual stages also have branching paths where you can find other items like health or other charms, so the game encourages and rewards exploration.
Not every stage has a boss fight, but the bosses you do confront are varied. They include a skull-adorned spirit wheel, a hooded giant carrying a mace, a massive two-headed worm, a giant floating eyeball, and the final battle with Oda Nobunaga – which is naturally a two-staged fight with a floating wizard and a masked demon. Many of these battles are difficult – in fact, I’d call the final boss nearly impossible – without the more powerful upward sword slash attack. Even then, he’s immensely tough to defeat. If you do manage it, then you are congratulated with a fairly decent 8-bit ending.
Visually, Kenseiden is a pretty slick game compared to its 1988 competition. The stage backgrounds vary from a dilapidated temple, a rocky cliffside, lava-filled caves, waterfalls, the training dojos, and of course, Oda Nobunaga’s enchanted castle. These are colorful, detailed, and generally pleasant to look at, though the designs will repeat a few times by the time you finish the game. There’s also a few “Easter eggs” in a few of the backgrounds, too, including a panda face peaking out from a bamboo forest and an Alex Kidd (SEGA’s mascot at the time) face hidden on a cave wall.
The moment you take control of Hayato, you will immediately notice that he has a – erm – distinct animation cycle. Oh, he controls just fine, but his walking animation looks like a “high knees” exercise that athletes and soldiers do for physical training. It’s very quick and rigid, and it will take a minute to get over as it’s kind of funny to watch.
As a hand-drawn sprite, Hayato has an interesting look, with a bright white and orange getup and high-contrast blacks to provide shadows for depth. This gives him an animated or comic book-esque flare, but unfortunately, nothing else in the game really matches the same style. Only the falling boulders in the cliff and waterfall stages look to use similar shading, and I wish that the stages and enemies matched a bit more. Between this and Hayato’s walking animation, he looks distractingly out of place.
Other than the typical fodder (i.e. bats and birds), Kenseiden definitely has some cool enemy designs. I found the human/animal hybrids to be my favorites, including the half-human-half-lizards and the snakes with human heads. The variety of larger monsters and demons toward the end of the game are also very interesting, too, but I have to ask, whose idea was it to make the giant spiders a bright shade of blue? Or is it a tint? Who cares? They look weird.
On the sound front, Kenseiden is one of the Master System games that has both a standard and an FM-enhanced music, depending on which version of the console you play. I grew up with an early Master System design with the original PSG sound chip and no FM sound upgrade. As a result, I have a much greater nostalgia for the standard music in most Master System games, and Kenseiden is no different. Sure, some of the extended high pitches can be a little ear-bleeding, but that pain just feels like… home.
Both versions of the soundtrack have essentially the same compositions, but I expect that most gamers will probably prefer the richer tones and more impactful percussion of the FM sounds, especially if they have no nostalgia for or prior exposure to the game. Regardless of which soundtrack you experience, it matches the action of the game very well, and there’s a distinctly Japanese tenor to it, but none of the music in Kenseiden will stick with you for very long after you put the controller down.
“Thou have learnt to slash with your sord”
Dismissing Kenseiden as a Castlevania clone with a Japanese finish does a disservice to both games. Kenseiden has a much deeper combat system than any 8-bit Castlevania game, and unique RPG elements that set it apart from at least the Castlevania games available at that time (those being the original and Simon’s Quest). Oh, and you can jump onto staircases in Kenseiden. Suck it, Konami.
The injection of nonlinear progression and deeper combat make Kenseiden stand out in the crowded field of 2D action games, but the full package doesn’t quite come together very seamlessly. The Master System shows off its graphical prowess with the onscreen colors and background details, but the sprite designs don’t match, making for discordant visuals, and there is nothing remarkable on the sound side, either.
I have to admit that Kenseiden is probably too hard for most casual or modern gamers to enjoy for very long. I’ve played the game off and on over many years so I know some of the game’s quirks, hidden areas, and best strategies for defeating certain enemies, but I doubt many newcomers would approach it with the level of patience and dedication necessary to enjoy it to the fullest. If you do put in the time, you may find a rewarding experience with quite a bit of replay value. Who knows? Maybe you can beat this ridiculous speed run of the game that clocks in a just over six minutes. (The game really is difficult. I swear!)
Overall, Kenseiden was a solid, innovative game for its time that has since been surpassed by so many other games that it’s hard to recommend now. All things considered, I think I’d still prefer to play Castlevania most of the time.
Thanks for reading!
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