Thursday, August 31, 2017

Brave Fencer Musashi: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

It's been a while since I've done one of these. But with recent games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild blowing minds, Ys VIII poised to release over on this side of the pond, and Final Fantasy XV bringing some spotlight back on Square Enix's most popular worldwide franchise, it looks like many of the old action adventure and RPG series are getting a second wind. In this post, I want to focus on a game no one ever talks about and yet is very much a classic like the above series. It is a game that had been unceremoniously forgotten over the years, partly due to Square Enix's massive incompetence since Hironobu Sakaguchi left back in the early days of the PS2.

I don't think I have to point out just how big Square Soft was back in the day. In the SNES and PSX days they released classic after classic. Just to name some, they made Final Fantasy II (IV) and III (VI), Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Live A Live, Super Mario RPG, Secret of Evermore, Seiken Densetsu 3, Front Mission 1-3, Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve, Bushido Blade, Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, the Saga games, Legend of Mana, and the game that broke the JRPG genre, Final Fantasy VII. But for my money, the best game they released is the one that no one remembers.

I'm talking about the action RPG for the PSX known as Brave Fencer Musashi.

The game was originally conceived by Hironobu Sakaguchi as a story where the Miyamoto Musashi is taken to an alternate dimension and must fight his way out. He originally envisioned the tale about a wanderer pulled into a new world against his will and must fight to go home. The game turned out slightly different as instead Musashi turned out to be entirely different dual sword wielder, instead he's a sort of Good Samaritan with a rude exterior, transported to a strange kingdom and willing to help anyone despite how it inconveniences him. Where this Musashi (or Sir Musashi as some call him) actually comes from is a mystery and is never explained.

Initially released with a demo for the craptacular Final Fantasy VIII, this game is not known for much else even though it was Square's first fully polygonal game. BFM had high reviews at the time, but it was glossed over due to the high level of quality games Square were constantly putting out at the time, and that is a true shame. Brave Fencer Musashi was released around the same time as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and while that classic overshadowed this, I would say that I had far more fun here. I can't even count the number of times I've replayed this game over the years, it's just that good. 

You might notice something familiar about the character designs. That's because the characters were also designed by Tetsuya Nomura, though as the picture above attests, they are way more visually appealing than his later designs. I still contend that Musashi (this Musashi, not the other one) is his best designed character.

So what is Brave Fencer Musashi? It's an Action RPG about a teenage punk with a height problem named Musashi. He is summoned from another world by Princess Fillet in order to save the Allucaneet Kingdom from the evil Thirstquencher Empire. From the names you can tell there is a lighthearted edge to the story, but that's only part of it as it does get quite dark at times. The atmosphere varies from bouncy adventure, to menacing dungeon romp, to crazy action set piece, over and over again. In his journeys Musashi must also save the lost residents of the kingdom, trapped in Bincho fields, before the Binchotite runs out and he is unable to ever return home. Oh, and it might also kill him.

Musashi turns out not to be the Musashi of legend, but a very different sort of warrior named Musashi. I think this is an improvement on the original idea. You see, while he might not be Miyamoto Musashi, he is a swordsman, and he is unrelentingly strong and agile. He also has a snotty sense of humor, a love of fighting, and only initially agrees to the quest to return home despite being a very good guy at heart. We never learn anything else about where he comes from, other than his rival Kojiro (Not that Kojiro, either!), or his past but that only brings him across very strong on first impression. He's a character you want to play as and root for. That's partly why I became a fan of him within the first half hour of gameplay.

What first sold me on this game was the entire first segment of the game. Let me paint a picture for you.

Musashi is chewing out the residents of the castle for taking him out of time and space when he is directed to the creepy tower behind the castle where the legendary sword Lumina is held. If he uses that sword he can slay the evil that is on the way to the castle at that very moment. He agrees and runs off without any hesitation.

He heads to Spiral Tower in search of the sword first by crossing an eerie forest and slaughtering plant monsters, hopping over streams, and tossing Thirstquencher thugs around like sacks of potatoes. Then he reaches the tower, which is not a tower at all, but a small stone structure with giant statues erecting some kind of barrier around a huge rock head in the center. After destroying the statues, the tower ascends from the center, taking the head to the top.

Musashi goes into Spiral Tower meeting ghouls, bats, and spooks on the way. He quenches the flame with a huge bell, bringing back light to the inside and unlocking the way forward. Finally he reaches the top of the tower here he sees the head from before sealing the sword in another barrier. He breaks it, and finally has the legendary sword!

But it wasn't that easy.

Before he can descend the tower, the stone head goes berserk and fries the top of the tower. Now Musashi runs down the side of the tower as the destroyed head rolls down after him in pursuit. He must also hop stone ledges or become a Musashi sandwich. Finally after jumping over the ledges, and outrunning the head, he lands safely on the ground.

And so does the head!

It chases him back through the forest crushing all the enemies and obstacles Musashi had fought on his way there the first time. He hops more structures and streams on his way back to base. The sun sets as the head finally lodges itself in the castle wall as Musashi finally makes it back in one piece. Or does he?

Finally returning (after smashing a hole in the wall) he meets the villain Rootrick who has just captured the princess. It seems the earlier attacking force has finally breached the castle walls. Before he can do anything, the bad guy makes off with the girl. At the same moment a giant monster named the Steam Knight smashes through the ceiling. The huge robot has four legs dispersing steam, a love of oversized wrecking balls, and a hatred of heroes.

So what does Musashi do? He smashes the legs with his swords, then he throws the giant monster through the castle wall. He chases it down through the village, then throws it through the courtyard house and onto the next street. As it struggles valiantly against the pint-sized hero, Sir Musashi tosses the gargantuan hulk through houses and off a steep cliff. Then to make sure its dead, Musashi throws its own wrecking ball down from the incredible height, finally crushing it and making it explode. Then he falls asleep on the side of the cliff.

End of chapter 1.

Oh, and none of that was a cutscene. It was all playable.

Speaking of playing, the game was designed first as an action game with RPG elements to enhance the experience. Musashi has two swords, he can buy items, and he can jump. He can level up his basic abilities as well as find new gear that can give him more moves. So you get a lot of action, puzzles, and even platforming throughout the adventure.

The dungeons and bosses are all invigorating to explore and fight, and the rewards you get for beating them are always worth the struggle. It also helps that the controls are tight, and the music is big enough to carry the epic scope.

One interesting wrinkle is the fatigue system. Musashi gets tired running around all day. Because there is a day and night system (with enemies coming and going at different times, and the townsfolk having schedules... same year as Ocarina of Time, remember) Musashi will eventually get sleepy. The longer you are out, the more his meter goes up. When it gets to 100% he will randomly fall asleep, even in battle, and he will move extremely sluggishly. You can bypass this by falling asleep just about anywhere, but your percentage will never drop below 30% unless you visit an inn or the castle. Oh, and enemies can attack you while you sleep. So it's not always a smart idea to sleep outside.

As mentioned before, Musashi has two swords. When he powers up Lumina with the Five Scrolls he can unleash its full power with different magic skills. That paired with the katana named Fusion, which can absorb skills from enemies, makes him a force to be reckoned with. He can mix and match for a lot of different combos in battle. Musashi is a one man wrecking crew.

And that's why Brave Fencer Musashi succeeds so well. You really feel like you are in the role of a legendary warrior summoned to save a world because the hero is really that incredible. He's a tough talking loner with a heart of gold, but he throws giant robots through walls and slays ice dragons in between naps. Its a game where every jump, solved puzzle, and landed hit jut feels satisfying. Square has never made an action game nearly as satisfying as this one is.

Square would go on to make another action RPG named Dew Prism (Threads of Fate) and a sequel to this called Samurai Legend Musashi (which reflected PS2 era Square really well: it was insanely bland and missed everything the original did so well) but they have never come close to Brave Fencer Musashi in fun factor or sheer spirit.

Its also never been rereleased overseas. Possibly due to the surprisingly good voice acting (with VAs such as Mona Marshall as Musashi and Steven Jay Blum in several roles), Square has never even put it on PSN, depriving the classic of further recognition. That is the true tragedy here.

Much as I would like a remake that simply updates the polygons and leaves everything else alone, I don't see it happening. I also foresee game critic and modern Square Enix fans turning their nose up at it. Brave Fencer Musashi came out in a very different time in the gaming world and would probably not go over well today.

But it is a classic, and I feel no shame in saying so. If you missed out on it back in 1998 then you missed out on something great. Rectify that.


  1. I've heard of this game but haven't played it. The direction Square took in the late 90s (angst, religion-bashing, angst, fashionista character designs, did I mention angst?) was a turnoff for me. I'm guessing this game avoided those trends?

    I'm a major non-fan of Tetsuya Nomura's designs but this actually doesn't look bad.

    1. There's no angst, zero religion-bashing (there's a town church where you fight a cool battle, but there's no mocking religion or clergy), and the character designs are all straightforward fantasy like earlier Square games. This is probably Nomura's best design work in a game.

      That's actually a good explanation as to why Square fans never bring it up. It doesn't embody and of the tropes that would ultimately drag them down into the depths of mediocrity.