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RETROspective: Goemon's Mystical History

On 01/28/2023 at 11:32 AM by The Last Ninja

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Looking back at that kid who would always "go for it!"

Remember Goemon? He was a mascot character for Konami for the longest time, but we haven’t seen him in almost 20 years. Goemon was tightly tied to Japanese culture, making him a unique gaming character. In this retrospective, we’re going to look at the historical figure Goemon, then look at many of his games (over 30 total). Was he popular? What about his games outside of Japan? And finally, we’ll look at why Goemon has disappeared from the gaming landscape.

Goemon the Historical Figure

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Believe it or not, Goemon was actually based on a real historical figure. Born in 1558, Ishikawa Goemon was a thief in Japan who stole from the rich and gave to the poor (like Robin Hood). However, there are several different accounts (or myths) of this man, making him a real mystery. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second “Great Unifier” of Japan, spoke of Goemon as a common thief. 

Certain tales say that Goemon’s parents were murdered by members of the Ashikaga shogunate, and then he trained as a ninja under Momochi Sandayu. However, Goemon fell in love with Momochi’s wife, and the two of them ran off together. Supposedly he became impatient with the woman later on and ended up killing her (doesn’t sound like a good guy). Suffice to say, this version of Goemon is completely different from the “Robin Hood” version. 

It is also said that Goemon was executed at the hands of Hideyoshi. He was sneaking into Fushimi Castle to kill Hideyoshi, but he knocked a bell off a shelf and was seized by the guards. He was burned alive in a burning caldron with his toddler son, whom he held over his head so he could survive (in another version, he cast his son down into the caldron). So Goemon is a very interesting character. Now the question is, why on earth did Konami choose him as a mascot character? That’s a mystery too. The video game Goemon certainly ended up being quite different from the historical one.

Goemon Gets into Gaming (1986-1991)

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The man behind the Goemon games was Etsunobu Ebisu. I’m not sure if he was the creator of Goemon, but he was the main producer for most of the franchise. The franchise in Japan would become known as "Ganbare Goemon," which translates to "Go for it, Goemon." The very first game was Mr. Goemon (Arcade, 1986). This simple platformer had Goemon running from left to right, jumping on platforms, and attacking enemies with his golden pipe until he reached the end of the stage, where he would find either gold or a boss. Goemon’s appearance in this game resembled the classic painting of Ishikawa Goemon (he didn’t have that youthful look yet). Goemon’s first home console game was Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dochu (FC, 1986). The gameplay resembled Zelda with a top down perspective, although the game had levels. Goemon must find three passes to advance, some of which are found in boxes, secret passages, or can be bought. Goemon can also be powered up if certain items are found or bought. This game laid the groundwork for the direction of the series. 

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Ganbare Goemon 2 (FC, 1989) was a direct sequel to the first Famicom game. The gameplay is basically the same, although now there are action stages throughout the game. This is also the first game to have two-player co-op with the introduction of Ebisumaru, Goemon’s chubby sidekick. Ganbare Goemon Gaiden: Kieta Ogon Kiseru (FC, 1990) goes into RPG territory with random encounters and turn-based battles. When Goemon discovers that his golden pipe (called a kiseru) is gone, he and Ebisumaru go out to find it. Along the way, other characters will join them, such as Yae (who would become a series regular). This was the first game where Goemon started to look like the blue-haired kid that we’re familiar with. 

Up to this point, Goemon had seen good success in Japan, but Konami wondered if they would be able to get his games out to the rest of the world. It makes sense that they kept him in Japan since Goemon was so tightly tied to Japanese culture. Would anyone in the West or Europe know who Ishikawa Goemon was? But Konami still wanted to try…

Goemon Goes Global (1992)

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1991 saw the release of the first Goemon game for the Super Famicom. It was called Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyushutsu Emaki. Konami decided to localize the game and ship it out to the rest of the world. The West would get the game in 1992 titled The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Europe would have to wait until 1994 to get the game. The non-Japanese versions of the game referred to Goemon as “Kid Ying” and Ebisumaru as “Dr. Yang.” This is probably because they thought their original names would be too difficult to pronounce. 

The game itself is excellent, one of the best in the whole franchise. Two players can play through the game together as Goemon and Ebisumaru. The game’s progression is fun and addicting. You’ll first go to a town, where you can interact with townspeople, visit shops, and play mini-games. Then you head to the action area, which changes into a side-scrolling action platformer. At the end of the level will be a boss, after which the story will be fleshed out further and then the pair will travel to a new town. Goemon’s pipe and Ebisumaru’s flute can both be upgraded over the course of the game. The game has nine levels, and there’s quite a bit of extra things to do. Non-Japanese players were probably surprised by the foreign setting and some of the shenanigans “Kid Ying” and “Dr. Yang” get into. The traveling cutscenes are especially funny, and certain interactions with townspeople can be amusing too. 

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Upon release, the game was critically acclaimed in the West. However, it probably didn’t sell too well due to the Japanese setting, which kids would have seen in the ‘90s and said, “Pass.” This is unfortunate as the Super Famicom would get two follow-ups to this excellent game. However, there would be more Goemon games released in the West and Europe, but Japan would get way more. In fact, Goemon seemed to be popular enough in Japan to also get his own anime and manga. Not bad for a thief.

Games, Anime, and Manga (1993-2005)

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In 1993 Konami released Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shogun Magginesu, a direct sequel to the first game on Super Famicom. This time the game has an overworld map just like in Super Mario World. Levels can be replayed. There are also three playable characters (Sasuke being the newcomer). The Super Famicom trilogy was completed with Ganbare Goemon 3: Shishijurokube no Karakuri Manji Gatame (SF, 1994). This time there are four playable characters (with Yae now being playable), which would become a regular staple of the series. Also each character has their own magical abilities. This game is unique in that the entire world is interconnected (like Zelda). What’s amazing is that the Goemon games work well as platformers AND as top-down adventure games (the best of both worlds). It should also be said that by this point Goemon had lost all ties to the historical figure and now was just a mischievous kid who goes on adventures. 

Goemon showed no signs of slowing down as there were two more Super Famicom games released in Japan. First was Ganbare Goemon Kirakira Dochu: Boku ga Dancer ni Natta Wake (SF, 1995). Here different characters could enter different worlds consisting of several side-scrolling levels and one or two towns. The second game was Soreyuke Ebisumaru Karakuri Meiro: Kieta Goemon no Nazo!! (SF, 1996), a spin-off game where the player must guide Ebisumaru through a number of labyrinths presented in an isometric perspective. This shows that Ebisumaru was popular enough in Japan to get his own game. 

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Goemon made his jump to the Game Boy with Ganbare Goemon: Kurofune To no Nazo in 1997. This was released in both Europe and the West in 1998 as Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. The game has five levels, and you can choose to play as Goemon, Ebisumaru, or Sasuke. Goemon also made his jump to 3D with Ganbare Goemon: Uchu Kaizoku Akogingu (PS1, 1996). Similar to Ganbare Goemon 3, there is a top-down map which leads to side-scrolling levels. There are still four playable characters, but this time, Sasuke and Yae have been replaced by two new characters, Goroku and Baban. This is the only game they appear in, as fans were not happy about Sasuke and Yae’s disappearance. 

In 1997 Goemon made his anime debut. Simply called Anime Ganbare Goemon in Japan, the show had Goemon and his friends entering the real world (they lived in the game world apparently) and defending it from the Demon Lord Makamuge, who wants to rule both worlds. The show ran for 23 episodes, and was eventually released with an English dub and was titled (what else?) Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Honestly, the show is so ridiculously goofy that you’ll find it either very enjoyable or very annoying. Goemon also appeared in several different manga magazines (such as Famicom 4koma Manga Kingdom), but also got his own manga based on various games. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these manga have ever been released outside Japan. 

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Goemon also made his jump to the Nintendo 64 with Ganbare Goemon: Neo Momoyama Bakufu no Odori (N64, 1997), which was also released worldwide as, again, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. Players can now explore open 3D areas, and the gameplay is a combination of Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. You can switch between the four main characters at the press of a button. Visiting towns will allow you to chat with folks, stock up on items, buy armor, and sleep at the inn. There are also dungeons in which you will face a boss at the end. The game also features sections where you can rampage through an area as Goemon’s huge mech Impact. Top it all off with a goofy story, and you have an N64 classic. 

The game actually sold decently in non-Japanese territories, so Konami followed it up with a sequel: Goemon’s Great Adventure (N64, 1999) [in Europe, it was titled Mystical Ninja 2 Starring Goemon].  This time a world map is present and the game is actually a 2.5D side-scrolling game, but you can still switch between the four main characters. This makes GGA one of the few side-scrolling platformers on the N64 (the others being Kirby 64, Yoshi’s Story, and Mischief Makers). The game also has a day/night cycle which will produce unique enemies or characters depending on the time. Japan also got Goemon: Mononoke Sugoroku (N64, 1999), a spin-off game based on the Japanese board game sugoroku. I suppose we could say it would be similar to the Mario Party games. 

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In late 2000 Konami released Boken Jidai Katsugeki Goemon for the Playstation 2. This time the game was more serious and Goemon received a redesign. This was another 3D adventure game with RPG elements, and this time Goemon was aided by a white tiger named Kotora, who could attack enemies. Working Designs tried to localize this one for the West, but it never happened. Rumors say that Sony squashed the attempt because of the game’s subpar graphics. Oddly enough, Goemon got another game on the PS1 in 2001 titled Goemon: Shin Sedai Shumei! This time the game has a futuristic setting with redesigned characters (Ebisumaru has been changed to a girl). Could it be that Konami was trying to appeal to older gamers? Or that they simply wanted to do something different with Goemon? Whatever the case, the game was ported to the GBA in Japan. 

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I’m not going to bore you with all the mobile phone Goemon games or the pachislot games, so I’ll just skip to Goemon’s last game: Ganbare Goemon: Tokai Dochu Oedo  Tengu ri Kaeshi no Maki (DS, 2005). This game returned to the original character designs as well as the top-down gameplay. This time the art style was reminiscent of Okami (brush-like drawings). The classic style, familiar gameplay, and fun story make this an excellent sendoff for Goemon and his friends.

Is Goemon Gone for Good? 

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Since 2005, Goemon has disappeared from the gaming landscape. The big question is, why? One big reason could be because the main producer behind the series, Etsunobu Ebisu, left Konami in 2005 and founded his own game company, Good Feel (which has made several Nintendo games including Wario Land: Shake it, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi’s Woolly World, and Yoshi’s Crafted World). Of course, there were other producers for the Goemon series, but perhaps Ebisu was the main guy, so without him, the series dried up. It’s unfortunate and surprising considering how popular Goemon was in Japan. 

Now the next question: will Goemon be coming back? Unfortunately, there’s a good chance he won’t, at least for a good long while. Goemon is owned by Konami, and apart from some collections and a new Bomberman game coming out this year, Konami hasn’t done much of anything with their franchises and characters. This is very frustrating because Konami has such stalwart franchises as Castlevania, Contra, Metal Gear, Silent Hill, and yes, even Goemon. How about a Goemon collection? That would be more likely, but there’s a wide group of gamers who probably would not know who Goemon is, so Konami might not do that. What Goemon needs is a reboot, but again, we can’t trust Konami to do one in their current state. 

Thank you so much for reading! Do you have any Goemon memories? Do you think he’ll ever come back to the video game scene? Leave your comments below. 



Cary Woodham

01/29/2023 at 07:44 AM

One other thing about the real life Goemon myth is that he was known to throw coins to distract enemies.  They kept that idea in some of the games, too.

I rented Legend of the Mystical NInja once.  It's too bad we didn't get the SNES sequels.  Those were really good.  They added first person mech battles, even though this was feudal Japan!

I wish I could've played the N64 titles.  The first one came out when I was a poor college student and couldn't afford to get it.  And when the second one came out, I tried to find it in stores and could never find it.  I heard it was really rare.

I have the DVD set of the Goemon anime.  It's pretty silly and goofy.  I love it.  Did you know around that time they also did a Twinbee anime?  I don't think that was released in the US though.

That's interesting that the main Goemon creator went on to Good Feel.  They've made a lot of really good 2D platformers.  They should do another, it's been a while.

Yeah Konami kind of sucks right now, so I wouldn't trust them to make anything cool with Goemon for a long time, if ever.  Too bad.

The Last Ninja

01/29/2023 at 10:25 AM

Apparently both N64 cartridges are pricey (like $100 or more), which is a shame because I really want to play them! 

Also, Good Feel made an original game for Switch in 2019 called Monkey Barrels, and it looks pretty fun. But still, that was years ago, so hopefully they will make another Nintendo-series game. 


01/30/2023 at 01:39 PM

Twinbee anime? I'd like to see that. 


01/29/2023 at 09:24 PM

I never played the NES or GB games much. I loved Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, though. It was my favorite N64 game that wasn't made by Nintendo of Japan (yes, I liked it better than Rare's games.) It was basically 3-D Zelda before Ocarina of Time. It even had a hookshot, although much more limited in ability than the hookshot in the Zelda games. 

I will admit that part of it was because the N64 was absolutely starved for RPGs and action-adventure/exploration games, and of the few RPGs that even got announced for it, most of them were never released. Meanwhile, the system was getting buried in racing games. Quest 64 was a poor attempt to fill that yawning void. Anything that was even remotely RPG-adjacent was welcome. In time, I gave up and got a PlayStation. However, Mystical Ninja is a great game in its own right. I hope it does come to Nintendo Switch Online or a collection.

Given all the PS2 games that were legitimately crappy and still got released in the US, I wonder if Goemon PS2 getting denied had more to due with personal issues between Sony management and Victor Ireland. He was already openly critical of them because they wouldn't let WD release Growlanser 1 and 2 separately on PS2.

Goemon is the Protagonist's starting Persona in Persona 5. He looks more like his traditional Japanese representation than he does like Konami's rendition.

The Last Ninja

01/30/2023 at 12:56 AM

I've never played the N64 games, but I would love to. Unfortunately the carts are very pricey and I doubt we'll see them in a collection or on NSO. But you never know. 


01/30/2023 at 01:42 PM

I remember coming across Mystical Ninja games in my travels and was curious but never picked one up. Now that you've enlightened me, I'll definitely try and play them if I can. I really enjoyed your write up of this series. Great job. 

The Last Ninja

01/30/2023 at 07:35 PM

Thanks. It's a weird series, but if you get the chance, the SNES game is fantastic, and the N64 ones are good too. But the carts are very pricey.

Super Step Contributing Writer

01/30/2023 at 06:10 PM

I've wanted to play this series for a while but was not aware of it until well after most games came out. 

I think a modern video game with a realistic take on the historic Goemon would be an interesting game changer, but I don't think Konami will make that either. 

The Last Ninja

01/30/2023 at 07:37 PM

A realistic take on Goemon would be cool, although fans would be very upset because it would be completely different from the goofy games that have come before. But it's still a cool idea. No way Konami's gonna do it, so we seem to be stuck. 

Super Step Contributing Writer

01/31/2023 at 10:08 AM

Maybe we'll get an Assassin's Creed: Japan where you're the historical Goemon. Laughing

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