Aren’t you a little short for a Samurai?
My household had an N64 for the late ‘90s, so all of my PS1 experience was had on a close friend’s console. However, they weren’t as focused on video games as I was in my youth, so I mostly just got to play the really big titles. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Twisted Metal, and whatever could be found on demo discs.
I’ve been making up for lost time, recently. My PS1 collection has been growing, and I’ve been paying close attention to the titles that slipped between the cracks. 1998’s Brave Fencer Musashi is one such title. It was made during what was probably Squaresoft’s most inventive period. Between all the Final Fantasy’s, we got Parasite Eve and Vagrant Story. Nowadays, it feels like between each Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest entry, we get a bunch of spin-offs and remakes from those series.
Brave Fencer Musashi interested me because I knew next to nothing about it.
Not my problem, pal
The introduction to Brave Fencer Musashi does a hilariously great job of setting things up. The Alucaneet Kingdom is under attack by the Thirstquencher Empire, so the princess of the kingdom summons Musashi to fix things for them. He absolutely has no interest in doing this, everyone immediately makes fun of him for being a child, but he’s not allowed to go home until he solves their problems.
Screw setting up compelling motivation for the protagonist. Musashi is on a quest because he’s obligated to be. Many times when an NPC asks him for help, he responds with some variation of, “Isn’t this something you should be doing yourself?” But because the villagers absolutely refuse to help themselves, Musashi has to do it for them.
This is a subtext that a lot of games just ignore, but it’s literally the driving narrative force behind Brave Fencer Musashi. Musashi is someone who is just trapped in a video game. The villagers all play their parts, but that act is entirely coming up with some dangerous task for the hero.
The whole “you’re a hero, don’t ask questions” schtick has worked for video games since time immemorial, but every so often, it’s nice to have a hero whose catchphrase is, “Not my problem, pal.”
Well, excuuuse me, Princess
While Squaresoft is largely known for its RPGs, Brave Fencer Musashi leans a little heavier into the nebulous action-adventure category. There are RPG stats and questing, but the focus isn’t on them. Instead, it plays closer to a Zelda game but with platforming elements. In some ways, its lighthearted and whimsical storytelling and tilted-angle platforming reminded me heavily of Super Mario RPG, but I was surprised to find almost no staff crossover between the two games.
You spend a lot of your time at the castle or the neighboring Grillin Village. All the action areas branch off from the village. Most chapters of the game begin with the village having a problem, and that points you in the direction of where you need to go next. It’s not foolproof, but usually, if you talk to the villagers, you’ll catch wind of a rumor.
Musashi’s goal is to collect five scrolls to power up his sword, Lumina. These scrolls (and the sword) are also what the Thirstquencher Empire is after, so they’ll be making a nuisance of themselves. It’s a pretty standard video game narrative, especially for the time.
Anything generic about Brave Fencer Musashi’s plot is made up for by its whimsical quirkiness. There’s a day/night cycle that moves the townsfolk along their path, and as you quest, one of your goals is to save captured citizens from crystal-like “Bincho fields.”
The fact that you keep orbiting Grillin Village goes a long way towards making it feel like home. You learn people’s schedules over time and catch wind of how other townsfolk feel about them. There’s an unfortunate dearth of side activities to take on, but each character feels unique, and their interactions with Musashi are enjoyable.
There’s also an action figure collecting diversion that is completely there for its own sake. You can buy these figurines of many of the characters and enemies you encounter, then take them back to your room and view them. However, they all come mint-on-card. Will you break open that blister pack? You fool! You’ve destroyed their resale value! All well. At least now you can play around with them.
Harass the wildlife
The biggest issue I had with Brave Fencer Musashi is that it isn’t much fun to play. The platforming is underwhelming at best and finicky at worst. The combat isn’t great, either. It’s sort of gluey and lacks any real impact.
You have the ability to absorb abilities from enemies, but aiming your fusion sword is just so crappy. Then, most of the abilities suck and are only useful in specific situations. Unless there was obviously something in the environment that I needed an ability to bypass, I’d often just forget that this ability even existed.
On the other hand, sometimes it has amusing effects. Like, one of them just makes you stink and puts flies on your screen. That’s a good one.
Brave Fencer Musashi also flows like a river of butts. The hardest part of the game for me happens early on when you have a limited amount of time to avoid a catastrophe. You do this with a mini-game that consists of hitting switches in the right order, pressing buttons at the correct time, and, worst of all, platforming with a fixed camera angle. The difficulty is all over the place. Certain segments drag or even repeat. It makes actually getting through the game rather unenjoyable.
Should’ve hired a poet
Brave Fencer Musashi is one of those games that I kind of slogged through, finished, and then was left wondering why I enjoyed it so much. Then, as someone who will sometimes bashfully refer to themselves as a “critic,” it’s my job to figure out what I liked about it and then put it into words. That’s sort of difficult here. For one thing, I believe I like Brave Fencer Musashi so much just because of its general vibe, but that’s something else that isn’t quantifiable.
Truly, Brave Fencer Musashi’s weaker points actually play out in its favor. The fact that its pacing is practically broken and its story is so weirdly non-conformist makes the whole experience unpredictable. Power-ups are given sporadically, but you don’t know what you’ll be getting or when. There are droughts with no changes to your powerset and others where they’re coming in fast. It’s worth it to keep playing because you never know what’s over that hill.
Any beyond that, it’s like home. Grillin Village is a bit like Kattlelox Island from Mega Man Legends. Over time, it kind of grows on you, and it’s a comfortable feeling. The characters may not amount to much in the time you spend with them, but they become familiar faces.
Brave Fencer Musashi is just a special sort of game that pops up every now and then. It’s like the Dark Cloud series or Deadly Premonition; there’s an earnest warmth underlying everything. Maybe the game itself won’t rock your world, but you will remember it fondly. And I think beyond just being a fun diversion, that’s exactly what every game should strive for.
For other retro titles you may have missed, click right here!