Writing a review for La-Mulana might be every bit as hard as actually playing it.
Games made by fans of the particular genre of video games known as “Castleroids” tend to be exacting, grueling affairs if done poorly; exacting, grueling and COMPELLING affairs if done exceedingly well. La-Mulana, in both its original (freeware) form and its 2012 remake manages to achieve just about the perfect balance of difficulty and depth, even where it leaves me needing frequent breaks. The Japanese indie outfit Nigoro originally created the game to be a PC retro game that apes an MSX game — the MSX being the Japanese Microsoft home PC during the Famicom era. In fact, Konami and Hudson Soft developed heavily for the system before moving on to the true consoles, including such titles as Metal Gear (an MSX exclusive, at the time).
I’m currently playing the 2012 remake of La-Mulana, having only briefly attempted a playthrough of the original game. Its graphics bring to mind a 32-bit game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, only much cuter and more cartoony. Your character, the one-block-high Professor Lemeza Kosugi, is a Japanese-American ninja-slash-archaeologist. The “ninja” part is evident in his choice of sub-weapons like caltrops and shuriken, and the “archaeologist” part is evident chiefly in his Indiana Jones attire and bullwhip main weapon.
And, I suppose, the setting — you’ve travelled to La-Mulana, the “cradle of civilization” and evidently a single ruin that contains references to numerous world cultures including Aztec, Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian and Japanese in a sort of Stargate sort of way. With your bullwhip, laptop and a million shuriken (which you have to buy at a gold apiece), you’ll have to unravel the mysteries of the ruins in order to beat your father and professional rival to the punch.
Content note: I complain about another game by this dev that involves “creepshots” type sexual assault. Highlight where the note is to read it.
The original game, which you can obtain for free here for Windows, was designed to evoke the MSX title The Maze of Galious, and it succeeds easily. The screen-by-screen scrolling, retraversal, and controls that give you all the lack of agility of Simon Belmont and half the whip range, reminded me very much of the old adventure game for the Amiga, Cosmic Relief. (Now there’s a game meriting a review from a social justice perspective — every character is a racial stereotype, and even the item switching mechanism is a set of three bone-in-nose tribal slaves!) And the giant bosses, ridiculous conservation of health and ammo, and necessity to memorize the map and fight through various screens over and over again while trying to take another stab at that one accursed boss, reminded me somewhat of Ninja Gaiden or Battletoads.
This game is HARD. And not just hard from the perspective of being linear with a set bunch of patterns you have to learn — I mean, even with heavy use of a wiki and a “spoiler-free” walkthrough, I’ve poured 20+ hours into the game and have only just beaten the third of eight guardians. I’ve most recently kicked Anubis’ (a sub-boss!) ass, bested Argos (another sub-boss!) and grabbed the feather that lets you double-jump — and as far as I can tell, that was an entirely optional part of the game, as my next objective is to finish off Bahamut in a waterway. I’m, as best as I can tell, about a quarter of the way through the game and I still get lost getting from one well-traversed part of the game to the next. The clues are dense, and I spend a good deal of time making notes and consulting maps online. And half of the things the game trains you to do — like putting weights on every dais you see — result in a sudden and untimely demise.
The puzzles that you solve in the maze don’t necessarily result in changes on the current screen, either. You might have to throw a switch, find a dais, and then gain access to a ladder each several screens apart to make any progress, with little to no indication (either through the cryptic riddle clues on tablets or through subtle changes on-screen) as to what your current goals are or where to find and obtain your rewards. In one (early!) example, a clue directs you to do something in a dark room that serves as the first room in a whole new area, that will actually cause a change in the previous area, with absolutely zero indication that you should back out once you’ve done that thing and heard the Secret Tone play. Nor would you necessarily notice what exactly has changed in that previous room — that you suddenly have access to a small room full of perfectly ordinary breakable jars. Nor that you should go all Link on those jars to find the item you need to gain access to yet another area, nor where to use that item to gain access.
The whole game is full of this sort of stuff. Without a step by step guide, you’ll spend literal hours backtracking through every previously traversed room looking for something you’ve missed. In some cases, it’s impossible to know that you need to break a specific wall, nor are you given any indication that that wall is even breakable. You might, in frustration, wander around every single room whipping every single thing, and you might get a face full of lightning from the Eye of Divine Retribution when you accidentally whip the obviously-important block. You might even figure out that you can (and should!) destroy a specific piece of wall art and, if you don’t know which way it’ll bounce when you do it, end up getting squashed by the falling mural.
The game is punishing in a way that evokes the bad old days of Nintendo Tough — those games that expected you to figure out what to do all on your own with little or no help or indication as to what even is expected of you at any given juncture. It’s one of those “Nintendo Power” games, the games that basically upsold you a subscription to a gaming magazine to teach you that one secret trick for beating King Hippo in Punch-Out because I’ll be damned if anyone would find that trick out accidentally without being extraordinarily thorough with experimentation.
Only, since it was a fan game, when it first came out there was no Nintendo Power to turn to. Fans had to unravel La-Mulana’s mysteries all by themselves, and in the process, discover just how devious the devs at Nigoro were.
(Content note: highlight to read)
Nigoro is not without its storied history, either. In La-Mulana, you can install games and programs on your laptop, and the games have passive effects that assist you by doing things like increasing your whip strength or guaranteeing a specific type of fairy in the Fairy Point “roulette”, which otherwise you’d need to trust the Random Number Gods to give you the fairy you need at any given moment. Each of these game roms is a title from a previous Nigoro game, in the remake, where in the original game you might install Castlevania or Contra. Nigoro’s previous games were mostly Flash games, and they were each problematic in their own right — [for instance, Mekuri Master, a game where you play a lecher running through a school hallway flipping up girls’ skirts in what amounts to a mouse-based rhythm game. Where others are quick to say “oh, Japan! How wacky you are!”, I’m way more inclined to be completely skeeved out by this normalization of sexual assault. Frankly, I’d be completely unwilling to acknowledge I was ever involved in such a game, rather than proudly enshrining its existence in my masterwork game which, I’ll note, has even made it to the Wii U platform.]
La-Mulana doesn’t have anything near as problematic as [skirt-flipping] in the game, by my understanding — at least, not so far. I understand Tiamat is a giant woman (a giant woman!) with exposed breasts beclothed only in her prehensile hair, and I further understand that there’s a secret ending wherein Mulbruk (the 19-year-old girl NPC — well, technically, 3019-years-old, I suppose) is seen wearing the ridiculous suspender mankini that you can outfit Lemeza with, should you happen to beat the game wearing it. I’m nowhere near either of these events, yet, so I honestly don’t know how bad they are (and I’m not skipping ahead in any video walkthroughs, dammit). But, they cannot possibly be as gross as [Mekuri Master].
To get through this game to get to those parts, I’m going to need to take breaks. A lot of breaks. Probably playing Terraria, since that game has added a ton of endgame content and has just released a beta Linux client — I’ve restarted the game a few weeks back, and frankly, even on Expert mode and getting my ass handed to me by Skeletron repeatedly, I’m still not feeling as dismally underprepared for the trials ahead as I feel every time I launch La-Mulana.
Even when I make progress, I often feel as though I haven’t done enough, that I’m not smart enough, that I’m not devious enough to figure out the puzzles in the game without looking them up. Then I remember just how absolutely scant the clues are, and I realize that I’m neither one of the game’s devs, nor am I someone who can spend a thousand hours on a single game trying to solve every puzzle by spamming every available option in every single room repeatedly, sweeping the whole entire map every time something has changed somewhere else thanks to my random and arbitrary actions, all just to get to that next screen and get my ass kicked thoroughly by a water-based version of Bahamut, King of the Dragons.
I would imagine I’ll feel accomplished as hell when I finish this game, though, even looking all of this nonsense up. It seems like that kind of game. It’s just a shame that I’ll have to consult the notes of adventurers who went before me just to stand a chance at finding the Macguffin of Power or whatever the hell it is that I’m seeking — I mean, I don’t even know THAT yet, either.
Of course, I’m sure I’ll be told right at the end of the game just before Belloq steals it, though. That’s how these things go — I have it on good authority. Top Men have told me so. Top. Men.