Some game purchases are deliberate: That exciting new release eagerly preordered as soon as possible, the retro classic either carefully saved up for or patiently hunted down. Some are happy accidents: The unusual game you took a chance on, the surprise title thrown in to a larger package by a generous friend. And others just seem to turn up on your shelves one day, the reasoning and even the vague year of their acquisition completely forgotten. The latter is how I ended up with a copy of Genji Tsuushin Agedama, a PC Engine title based on a 1991-1992 Japanese TV series I’ve never seen or expressed any previous interest in. The colourful little HuCard went unplayed and largely unnoticed for a very long time, only coming back to mind when I was looking to feed my new PC Engine GT any and all HuCards I could find within my disorganised jumble of games (if you ever wondered: yes, those System Cards designed for use with CD interfaces/Duos do uselessly boot on the GT). I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a licensed Nineties release based on an old TV show, but it sure as heck wasn’t a beautifully drawn auto-scrolling run ‘n’ gun with colours so vivid they could rival the eye-catching arcade-born palettes of Chiki Chiki Boys or Rod Land. I was instantly hooked, and every time I’ve come back to it since has been nothing less than an absolute pleasure.
It’s one of those action games that at a glance looks like it’ll be a total pushover for anyone already fond of the genre: It may be an auto-scrolling run ‘n’ gun (almost) constantly pushing you forwards but in spite of this screen is never flooded with enemies or their projectiles and our titular hero isn’t expected to make flawlessly timed movements through a constant barrage of life-ending hazards – not a fantastic first impression for anyone hoping for some “real gaming”, is it? But to dismiss Genji’s lack of intensity would mean missing out on a game with a can-do and accessible approach to adversity, on a game that’s as quick to take life points away as it is to dish them out. The difficulty curve is pitched perfectly, giving everyone a chance to test themselves against a few less menacing challenges at the beginning before smoothly increasing the background level of danger, introducing a few new obstacles in a controlled manner before layering those on top of everything you’ve already survived. Take the game’s platforming for example: The ground in the opening segment’s completely flat and featureless, allowing you to get used to basic movement and the important-to-master two different jump heights (push up and I for a higher jump, needed to shoot some enemies before they get too close or reach certain platforms) and from there you get a gentle transition to some basic leaps across static ledges. With that cleared you’ll then find yourself introduced to more precise jumps, then moving platforms, and after all that indestructible enemies swinging back and forth over the one place you need to land. It’s “just” very well made, always ensuring you have enough time to react to ledges and enemies rather than relying on memory to see you through – and if the worst does happen and you touch the bottom of the screen the game takes one chunk of your life meter before immediately bouncing you back upwards again, a designer’s choice to keep the action flowing rather than stopping the entire game over one honest mistake.
Genji Tsuushin Agedama takes an equally inclusive approach to the gunning part of the long established run ‘n’ gun formula: Collecting your full range of shot types is nothing more than an early formality and once collected they are kept for as long as you’re still playing, totally bypassing the usual shmup problems of a restart leaving you less likely to survive than a complete do-over. Standard button tapping produces a serviceable if uninteresting horizontal bullet, while holding down the shot button unleashes a more powerful blast – so far so normal, right? Well. This game has an interesting twist up its sleeve: Holding down the II button not only gives you the chance to unleash a more powerful shot but different types entirely, each with their own regular/strong variants, the gauge at the top of the screen lighting up to let you know exactly where you are along your wide range of abilities. Shots at the further end are generally more powerful, but not always what’s most useful at that particular moment – waiting for a localised blast of vertical lightning isn’t going to do you much good against a swift assault of ground-based enemies, and those straight-across-the-screen summons won’t do a great deal against an aerial attack – it’s a great way to keep players well away from a dull cycle of hold-and-release.
Better than all of that is Genji’s forward roll move, performed at any time by pressing down on the d-pad. You’re invincible to everything from stray bullets to blank-eyed ghosts while carrying this out, a small detail that changes the entire game: This is not a run ‘n’ gun that restricts you to shooting things before they shoot you or doing a series of pixel-perfect little hops over whatever hazardous landscape’s coming your way, you can be aggressive and proactive, rolling straight through an inconvenient wave of enemies just so you can get up and blast the next one. Mastery of this technique causes Genji to blossom into a top-tier action game, one that always possesses enough “teeth” to reward skill and punish those without it but not so demanding it would put off anyone who just wanted to play a charming action title without committing their very soul – not to mention the skin on their thumbs – to one game, Contra Hard Corps style. It’s even the right length too: The game’s six stages are long enough to have their own changes of scenery and tempo, but not so long you become weary of them or the game as a whole. Boss battles are dramatic and tense without being an irritating spike in difficulty or taking too many hits to go down, the slight change in your movement (the camera stops here, meaning pushing to the left actually turns you around rather than take a few steps back) forcing you to approach them differently to the game’s main levels – something that also applies to the final two stages, as they ditch the auto-scrolling entirely in favour of increasing the enemy count and the complexity of those platforming sections. It’s a game that honestly stays fresh right up to the last boss’ dying moments, everything within always feeling new, interesting, and used well.
It’s rare for a licensed game to be this good, and even more strange for a PC Engine shooter of any level of fame or quality to remain as cheap as this must’ve been when I b- ah. No. There we go. One quick eBay search has restored a little bit of unpleasant reality there – at the time of writing the game’s price has fallen in line with other must-play genre offerings, and that makes it understandable unobtainable to most. Still! If you can afford it you will find Genji Tsuushin Agedama to be a vibrant and well-paced run ‘n’ gun, a game demanding enough to be worth the attention of Treasure’s biggest fans while still remaining welcoming and generous for anyone keen on trying out something a little bit outside their usual field of expertise.