There have been many successful Japanese games released in America — “Mega Man” and “Harvest Moon” immediately come to mind — that sport relatable characters and universal gameplay, stretching the games’ fanbase across oceans. And then there’s Goemon, the wacky, pipe-swinging ninja with a hairdo that resembles a giant blue pineapple and his robot doppelganger who boxes other robots.

Goemon stars in the “Mystical Ninja” series, which was quite possibly the most bizarre group of Japanese games aimed at popular American audiences in the 1990s. (This throne, naturally, has been reclaimed in recent years by the “Katamari Damacy” games.) The best, and easily the strangest of the bunch was “Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon” for the Nintendo 64, the fifth game in the series but only the second released in North America.

After playing through “Starring Goemon” with all the head scratching and constant utterances of “What the hell?,” it should become obvious why only one more entry, the enjoyable but infinitely more frustrating “Goemon’s Great Adventure,” ever found its way to American store shelves.

At first glance, the games wouldn’t seem that difficult to sell. After all, the action-adventure gameplay, town exploring and epic quests merged the best bits from the Mario and Zelda series. In the game, there is strategy involved in switching between the four playable characters and their special abilities (Goemon, his flatulent best friend Ebismaru, tea-drinking robot Sasuke and half-mermaid Yae), as well as plenty of variety between the on-foot segments and the robot battles that basically play out like first-person “Punch-Out!!”

For whatever weirdness “Mystical Ninja” lacked in gameplay, it more than made up for it in story and presentation. You’re barely five minutes into the game before a giant, peach-shaped spaceship lands on Mt. Fuji. After Goemon fights his way to the ship, he discovers that feudal Japan is in the midst of being commandeered by a group of theater-loving aliens who dub themselves the “Peach Mountain Shoguns.”

Their leader, an angel-winged samurai named Spring Breeze Dancin’, explains his nefarious plot to transform the country into his own private stage where he can perform musicals for all eternity … or something like that. And he reveals all of this through a song-and-dance number. With a laugh track.

Naturally, the only way to stop him is to ride on the backs of dragon gods, teleport with the help of magic tea houses and equip robots with roller skates so they can pull off extreme tricks while destroying entire towns in the name of the good guys. And if mixing robots, spaceships and Eastern European theater architecture into feudal Japan sounds just anachronistic enough to elevate the game to a plateau of artful goofiness, well, so much the better.

Granted, much of my enjoyment of the game as a child most likely stemmed from the incredibly poor translation and my own unfamiliarity with Japanese culture. For example, the character of Goemon is based on a legendary bandit from the 1500s who was essentially the Japanese Robin Hood, stealing gold from the rich and giving it to the poor. (One of video-game Goemon’s abilities is to hurl stolen coins as projectile weapons.) Not to mention that the villain’s seemingly nonsensical theater obsession is actually modeled after kabuki, an ancient Japanese performance art. Had these things been apparent to a certain young American boy at the time, I might have had more respect for the game beyond laughing at the silly hair.

But there’s no denying that the pure ridiculousness of “Mystical Ninja” is what’s kept it alive in my memory all these years, long after other generic action-adventures faded away. And even pulling back all the silliness, there’s still a very strong game to explore. The puzzles are challenging, the in-game trek across Japan is daunting in all the right ways and the feeling you get upon seeing the countryside for the first time is comparable to that warm-and-fuzzy sensation of riding into the sunrise on horseback in “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Plus, you learn a ton about Japanese geography, thanks to the talking dogs along the way.

And maybe it’s just a side effect of the translation, but much of the humor can be refreshingly disarming. Take the gatekeepers who guard the entrance to Goemon’s hometown, who tell you that they’re just going to keep standing in the same exact spot until you’ve beaten the game. “Kinda painful … kinda depressing,” one of the guards says. It’s enough to make you feel for all the other non-player characters in all the other adventure games you’ve ever played. In instances like this, “Mystical Ninja” may not know how to appeal to a mainstream American audience, but it does know how embody the soul of a damn good video game.

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