From the instant you fall through the first stage’s blossom-pink skies and into Jinmu Denshou‘s stripy world you know exactly what Big Club/Wolf Team’s into-the-screen shooting PC Engine exclusive is going to be like – it’s going to be like Space Harrier. As instantly recognisable as the visual style of Sega’s arcade titan is few games ever dared to take it on, no doubt in large part due to the difficulty in recreating a game so reliant on moving many detailed and constantly resized sprites around a screen at high speed on consoles and computers that simply weren’t up to the task.
But not Jinmu Denshou. This little HuCard’s not only unafraid of the one cutting-edge game everyone’s going to compare it to as soon as they turn it on, it’s also eager to demonstrate it has its own ideas about where the genre could go from that memorable starting point too. The familiar sci-fi fantasy of that game has been given a demonic-fantasy makeover, the screen swarming with golden ninjas and armed birdmen before an end-of-level gigantic crab (or dragon, or floaty-headed-multi-snake/penis…thing) shows up for a one-on-one battle, and tall bamboos may be guarding useful treasure. By and large it’s an interesting place to be and the action comes thick and fast, with very rare bouts of slowdown only occurring when the screen’s clearly overloaded with sprites. The parallax and perspective effect work well together to really sell that all-important feeling of the ground rushing by under your feet, and when jumping the ground moves away from you in a manner that does convincingly feel like you’re leaping high into the air and away from the floor below. Every second feels speedy and energetic, and each stage brings something new and unusual to see and slash at.
A fresh lick of paint is not unwelcome but a game needs more than that if it’s going to escape another’s shadow, and so Jinmu Densho offers you the chance to not only stop running whenever you like (certain circumstances excepted) but even run backwards a short distance, giving you a second chance to pick up a just-missed power-up or line yourself up with the gap between incoming damaging obstacles or a floating platform. It’s not revolutionary by any means (especially as you still need to run forwards to finish each of the game’s seven stages) and the level design really doesn’t do anything with this newfound freedom, but it’s a novel idea that gives Jinmu Denshou a little extra something, a special little flavour all of its own.
The other unique twist comes from the power system. Along the way you can pick up various upgrades for your sword, bestowing upon it a range of magical shot types – so far so normal (as is losing these if you take too much damage). But what you can also do is hold down the fire button to increase the strength of your shot – and the current length of your health bar determines how high that gauge goes. The less life you have, the weaker you are. It’s as simple as it is pretty broken, putting already struggling players at an inherent disadvantage. It’s also something you’ll butt up against often as the game’s damned hard and your health doesn’t fully restore at the end of the level either (restorative items can be run into during the stages, however).
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here because to clear a stage you’ll have to defeat the boss first, and if you don’t already have or end up losing your magical projectile shot then you’re better off resetting the game (password saves are available) than carrying on. It’s literally impossible to slash at these large and otherwise impressive adversaries using the sword without taking damage, and even with a full health bar and a hypothetical series of perfectly timed attacks you’ll still find yourself dying before they do. To make matters worse this no-hope scenario only serve to bring all of Jinmu Denshou’s other flaws to mind: It’s incredibly unforgiving. The stages are a bit too long. As early as stage 2 it’s possible to drop yourself in the middle of a group of damage-on-contact obstacles with no way out other than a perfectly timed jump onto a suspended slab of rock, a task I found nigh impossible even with save states. And can be hard to keep motivated when you’ve gone from a stage with a beautiful animated background to one where the ground and sky are nothing but plain horizontal stripes.
So it’s undeniably flawed but even so this is clearly a case of good intentions gone awry than a lack of effort or ambition. Each stage looks and plays differently from the last, whether that’s the damaging water of the third forcing you to stick to platforms as much as possible, the fourth’s breakneck no-stopping-no-reverse-running speed changing the focus to dodging moving pillars and staying alive, or the nightmarish moving holes in five that transport you to a hellish stage full of loop-resetting portals and flaming arms should you run into one. Even at its worst Jinmu Denshou’s infectiously energetic, and at the time of its release – 1989, the same year Sweet Home launched on the Famicom, the same year Final Fight debuted in arcades, the same year the US got their hands on Sega’s Genesis – this would’ve looked and played like little else. It’s not great, no. But it makes a good honest effort to iterate upon a popular idea and for the unremarkable price it currently fetches online (loose or complete) this is an import-friendly way to spend a bit of free time with a game that dares to be different.