Developer: Graphic Research
Publisher: Pony Canyon
Format: MSX / Famicom
Release Date: 21 September 1988
Fan Translation: The Snark (Link to Translation Patch)
Sassy spirits abound in Kujaku-Oh! That’s right, it’s yet-another-ADV adaptation of a manga. These things are a dime a dozen, aren’t they? So it goes.
I must admit I’m not overly familiar with the source material; Makoto Ogino’s long-running shounen comic never received an official English release. I once attempted to rent the 1988 OVA but the tape was so badly degraded that it was completely unplayable. The closest I ever got was renting Sega’s Mystic Defender for the Genesis, which I only found out later was related to Kujaku-Oh due to its English localization’s efforts to hide the game’s origins by renaming protagonist Kujaku to “Joe”. So yeah, I’m no expert!
From what I gather (and I expect somebody will tell me how wrong I am), Kujaku-Oh is about the exploits of the titular Kujaku (“Peacock”), a young Buddhist monk of Mount Koya. When Kujaku’s not hanging out doing monk things, he’s vanquishing demons as a member of a secret task force of exorcists. Set in the present day, the serene countryside and religious tradition of Mount Koya is played against the hustle, bustle and (spiritual) corruption of Japan’s dense cities. Kujaku straddles the line between the two; excelling at exorcisms during crises but enjoying pornography and fast food during his downtime.
The first few volumes of the manga followed Kujaku as he battled against his monster-of-the-week, but later volumes show him facing off a shadowy organization called The Teachers of Eight Leaves who, for nefarious purposes (natch), conspire to resurrect the peacock god Mahamayuri who resides within Kujaku. Oh and for good measure Lucifer’s inside of him too because why not. So yeah, it’s just like every other endless boys’ adventure you’ve ever read, but with a monkish flair.
Although Kujaku-Oh never really caught on in America, it was popular enough to spawn three games, two of which were ADVs. We’ll be looking at the first ADV, a 1987 effort for the MSX and Famicom by Graphic Research and Pony Canyon simply titled Kujaku-Oh.
Graphic Research seems to be a fairly obscure outfit; I've played many of their games but I hadn't heard their name. The folks over at GDRI paint a portrait of them as a TOSE-style developer that covertly had their fingers in many a pie throughout the 80s and 90s, working on B-list oddities such as Widget, Psycho Fox, Bomberman Fantasy Race and a whole bunch of very Japanese games while rarely taking credit.
The publisher, on the other hand? Ahh yes, Pony Canyon. This record label-cum-game publishing giant is linked to dozens-upon-dozens of games of dubious quality, many of which were based upon established intellectual properties. Pony Canyon thrived during the MSX and Famicom eras, publishing games based on everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Koneko Monogatari (a heartbreaking bastion of animal cruelty that you may remember repackaged as Milo & Otis). Whenever a shoddy port of Ultima to Japanese microcomputers was required, Pony Canyon was sure to be there with bells on.
Much like its publisher’s pedigree, Kujaku-Oh is a pretty lousy game. The opening depicts a nighttime scene of a temple being struck by lightning, and then Kujaku is summoned before his Master. The Master tells us that this was the sanctuary at Mount Hiei that was struck, and that he has lost contact with the scouting team sent to investigate. Ordered to locate the missing scouts, Kujaku promptly departs from Mt Koya due north...and arrives at Wakasa Beach, overshooting Mt Hiei by a good 40 miles. Wrong turn at Albuquerque, I guess?
It is at Wakasa Beach that the game begins proper, and in true ADV style the player is presented with a menu of different investigative options. No matter what the player chooses initially, Kujaku will find himself thrust into an encounter with an evil spirit! It is through this encounter that Kujaku-Oh reveals that it contains a JRPG-style battle system replete with random encounters (and an ear-splitting battle theme, to boot).
Kujaku-Oh’s battle system is about as basic as it can get. You can fight to trade blows, use items, pray to invoke magic spells or turn tail and run away. There’s not much strategy to it; some prayers do more damage than others when it comes to certain enemies, and as far as I know enemies don’t have any special abilities of their own, so you’ll just be wailing on each other until somebody’s hit points run out, and that’s usually the enemy’s. Kujaku-Oh’s battles aren’t meant to challenge the player insomuch as they are a cheap attempt to pad out the length of a relatively short adventure. The game doesn’t want you to die, so when your hit points get low, enemies that previously hit hard will start to whiff. In the unlikely event that you do lose a battle Kujaku will find himself revived by his master, no worse for wear other than a bruised ego.
Once the spirit is dispatched, Kujaku is free to investigate the beach, where he learns that the local sailors are being picked off by a huge fish. The trail eventually leads Kujaku to a battle with a sea siren who, upon defeat, tells him to go to Mt. Hiei. And so Kujaku promptly departs south...back to Mt Koya to report to his Master, this time overshooting Mt. Hiei by a whopping 93 miles, only to travel the 93 miles back immediately after checking in. This guy, I swear.
Eventually, once Kujaku goes where he’s supposed to go, he gets swept up in a plot by the Iwato Clan of Izumo to revive the great serpent Yamata no Orochi. Kujaku must retrieve the legendary sword Kusanagi to put a stop to their plans once and for all. If you know your Shinto mythology, you’ll recognize that the game is basically a simplified retelling of the story of Susano-o.
Simplistic as its engine is, Kujaku-Oh still manages to be clunky as hell. Simple menu navigation is never enough to make progress with, so more often than not the player will be required to investigate individual parts of the scenery by moving a small, slow-moving cursor around the screen. Kujaku’s hit points and stats are not on screen during battle, requiring the player to press select if they care to keep track of them.
And, in true 80s ADV style, the game contains not one but two confusing maze sequences! The endgame is capped off with a huge pyramid maze, but a smaller maze is encountered early on in the form of sailing around Shimonoseki Bay. The game is merciful enough to provide in-game maps for both of these sequences, but it’s a small kindness, especially in the case of the sailing sequence: The sailing map itself is a 5x5 square grid on the open waters, but the player is tasked with diving into the sea at specific points to uncover three buried treasures. The map gives no indication as to where the player should be diving, and random encounters plague Kujaku at nearly every step of the way. Have fun diving into any one of 25 possible spots! And by the way, winning random encounters doesn’t net you any experience or items in this game. Fun stuff!
Prolific fan translator The Snark released many patches for obscure Famicom ADVs throughout 2008 and 2009, but Kujaku-Oh isn’t one of their stronger pieces. Sentences are short and occasionally somewhat nonsensical, but this could be due to constraints in the size of the ROM. Regardless, I’m thankful for their hard work translating so many weird little games, several of which we’ll be looking at in due course.
Kujaku-Oh was also released on MSX in 1988. The colors are a bit more vibrant and the music far more tolerable in that version, but the game is more-or-less identical. What’s not identical, though, is Sega’s port to the Mark III/Master System that same year. This version actually got released in the west under the name Spellcaster, with all references to the source material scrubbed away, and “weird Japanese stuff” like yakisoba neatly localized as spaghetti.
Due to Sega’s bizarre insistence on programming virtually every Master System title themselves, Kujaku-Oh was rebuilt in-house from the ground up, sporting all new graphics and music. The game follows the same general plot but with a key difference: Instead of JRPG-style battles, the ADV scenes are punctuated with side-scrolling action sequences, not unlike Kenseiden. The end result isn’t very fun, but it’s certainly more enjoyable than the shallow battles of its siblings.
Sega’s reimagining does make some changes to the game’s general progression: For example, Kujaku bypasses the unnecessary side trip to Wakasa Beach in favor of heading straight to Mt Hiei. As well he should, but I must admit I was slightly saddened to see this bizarre chunk of story completely excised. The world itself comes across as slightly blander, too; gone are the present-day cities of the Famicom/MSX, it’s all temples, rural villages and wilderness here. The end result feels more like a period piece than a story set in modern times.
So! Famicom, MSX, Master System, Kujaku-Oh, Spellcaster. No matter what way you slice it, it’s a pretty bland licensed ADV.