At first glance, a second look, and even after skimming over a few screenshots, anyone interested in playing Heisei Shin Onigashima could reasonably assume this 1996 (Satellaview release, with some differences)/1997 (Nintendo Power service)/1998 (boxed retail cartridges shown above) two-part Super Famicom adventure game wasn’t much more than a graphical overhaul of Nintendo’s 1987 8-bit double-act Shin Onigashima – I know I did. What’s actually contained within the game’s two carts – and these really are two halves of one whole story, neither complete without the other – is largely an alternative look at the events surrounding the original tale, an old story seen from a whole new perspective rather than a quick visual makeover of something familiar (both Famicom Disk System titles are included as unlockable extras if you wish to experience the original adventure).
You spend the majority of the story playing the role of either a dog, a monkey, or a bright red pheasant; and as Heisei Shin Onigashima is steeped in Japanese fairytales nobody thinks it strange or remarkable if any of these beings talk to humans, or enlist the help of a gigantic crab, or magically grow large enough to carry a band of adventurers on their back to an island crawling with demons. Does this mean it all falls apart if you don’t go into it already knowing which mythological figures live on the moon or under the sea, or why some demons have long noses and others horns? Not at all. The names and the details may change but everywhere has old bedtime stories of forbidden places, of something shut that must never be opened, of magical children, supernatural guidance, and cunning animals outwitting hungry monsters. Heisei Shin Onigashima does touch upon many old tales and tropes that would be familiar to its intended audience, but in practise that doesn’t make it less intuitive or enchanting for anyone else.
As with all true fairytales the stories told here aren’t afraid of putting our brave heroes in real peril or having them live with some awful consequences: When demons devastate faithful dog Ringo’s village there’s no magic cure that puts everything right at the end, the blue-skinned demon Yamanba really will cook Matsunosuke the monkey in a pot if he can’t figure out how escape with Oume in time, and if you can’t fend off the spirits attacking Donbe then he will die in the dark. There’s still plenty of heroism, adventure, and humour in here (just look at the fantastic boggle-eyed expressions on display whenever someone’s shocked or surprised) but characters might be attacked, drowned, chased, and fall to their death, their courage only elevated by the many potentially fatal mistakes they can make along the way. This does lead to a lot of restarts – all those times you dodged to the right instead of the left, or didn’t respond to a prompt quickly enough, or simply got something wrong – but the good news is regardless of when you last saved (performed by visiting a little stone statue of the game’s narrator at any time you can find one) if you do end up dead you’re always brought back by Hinoe, the benevolent spirit guiding the heroes throughout the game, and given a chance to restart the sequence from the beginning. It’s a clever way of giving failure meaning without making honest slip-ups overly frustrating, beautifully finished by the added charm that comes from your restarts being treated as if they’re just another part of the story.
As much fun as the story is this is still an adventure game above all else, a game that expects you to hunt around for clues, find the right person to talk to, and pick up the right item to use in the right place. There’s enough freedom to not be sure where you need to go or what to do, to discover hidden objects you missed the first time around and take the odd wrong turn in a small cave system, but not so much you’ll find yourself puzzling over places that have no relevance to the plot or lugging around more trinkets than you know what to do with. Most of your interactions come from a stock list of the usual commands – look, examine, talk, take, move, and so on – but you’ll never be shown a command you can’t actually perform at that location or that point in time, saving you from the tedium of listening when there’s nothing to hear, examining objects you can’t use, and offering everything you’ve collected along the way to everyone in the vicinity just in case one of them happens to react to it. Heisei Shin Onigashima also throws in a few real-time sequences where appropriate, making you leap over gaps using traditional platform game timing or dodge incoming obstacles/slide under demonic claw swipes using the d-pad. Considering the genre this should be a terrible idea – you can select the correct option and still fail because you did the right thing at the wrong time (and you can be too early as well as too late) – but the events its used in do benefit from forcing you to wait until the very last moment before making a dangerous move or asking you to quickly react to an immediate threat, as if these tense scenes are playing out right now and you really are in the thick of it with the cast.
Heisei Shin Onigashima’s epic moments all hit their mark with ease but it’s the attention it lavishes on the little things that make a big difference: Characters can swing from branches, dig in the dirt, place objects on the ground, steer a raft, and have elaborate close-up portraits – even if they only ever do those things once. Text isn’t simply printed on-screen, it’s written on top of unfurled scrolls – one for dialogue, one for commands. Begin a new chapter and you’ll find yourself greeted by the uneven page edges and soft brushwork of a carefully pixelled illustrated book, as if you’re sitting down with a favourite story. It’s got a lot of heart and soul and warmth to it, an adventure that knows how you tell a tale is just as important as anything that happens within it.