Release: Mid-1999 | Size: 178megs | NGH-252 | Developer: Visco | Publisher: ViscoAuthor: M.E. Williams
Ganryu is one of few platformers on the Neo-Geo hardware. Although it released in 1999, Ganryu looks and feels more like an early Neo-Geo title in presentation and gameplay. It's not an unplayable game, but there isn't much to like here for casual or hardcore platforming aficionados.
Visco games are hit and miss. On one hand you have surprisingly well designed experiences like Breakers and Neo Driftout. On the other hand you have Ganryu - a slow, plodding, and stiff platfomer released late in the Neo-Geo's life. At the time fans and critics who were aware of the game's existence were eagerly awaiting its release as it had been five years since the last platformer was released on the hardware.
Despite some marketing hype in the Japan only Neo-Geo Freak Magazine in 1998, there was little fanfare to mark its release. Unfortunately, like a few other Neo games from 1999, Ganryu was left to languish in the arcade as an MVS only title. There is little sales data available, and the retro-reviews of the game that do exist from the era are from fans who don't exactly have a commanding presence of the English language. That said, Ganryu is the poster child for a rare and expensive title in the modern retro game market that only holds its value due to the scarcity of the cartridge rather than it being a truly unique, sought after experience.
Ganryu's plot is simple, and somewhat based in Japanese mythology. Musashi's love, Otsu, was captured by an evil ninja clan and it is up to Mushashi and Otsu's sister Suzumi to save her and the other kidnapped townsfolk from the nefarious shinobi. Before you fight each boss there is a dialog driven cutscene the furthers the plot along and helps to keep you engaged in the goings on of Mushashi and Suzumi's quest. Sadly, these dialog heavy sequences are marred by a terrible translation which often just leaves you scratching your head in confusion.
If you're after a nimble, twitch-based platformer in the vein of Ninja Gaiden, you're in for some disappointment here. Ganryu is slow, ploddingly slow. Mushashi and Suzumi walk at a pace that makes Simon Belmont feel like Sonic the Hedgehog in comparison. It's hard to tell if the developer was trying to make a game that is purposefully slow, like Sega's 1987 classic Shinobi, or if they just weren't sure how to pace the game. Visco doesn't exactly have a clean track record when it comes to platform action games either, so the general lack of polish and undercooked pacing isn't surprising
Combat isn't much better, with each character having a short range sword slash as their main weapon. You can collect other weapons in the game like kunai and bombs, but these pick-ups have limited ammo. The kunai is the weapon of choice as it is the only weapon that is both fast and has range. It also does the same amount of damage as your normal sword strike. The bomb is relatively useless given its short range. There is a verticality to some of the levels, in which the bomb might have been useful, but in these vertical segments you often cannot see below the platform you're standing on. What's more, enemies just spawn out of thin air around you at all times, which lends a bit of randomness to the levels rather than presenting the player with a lovingly crafted set of platforming puzzles to solve. In addition to weapon drops, you can also save townsfolk (mostly women) who will often leave you a food item to pick up that replenishes part of your health. You can sustain three hits per life with no way to permanently increase your chances.
Jumping is a lesson in tedium as there are no variations to your jump arch. Unlike most platformers, whether you tap the button or do a longer press, you jump super high. There is little trajectory to your jump arch, and since there is no run mechanic all jumps essentially begin from a standing position with no momentum behind the movement which makes every jump a dangerous affair. Due to level designs not being chiefly designed around the wonky jump physics, this makes a few obstacles in later levels a chore to get across. The only saving grace here is that you can wall bounce kind of like in Mega Man X. You can also press down and jump to do a sliding attack, but after stage one you'll have to be very careful when and how you use this attack as you can easily go careening off of a ledge into a pit or a gang of ninja. As mentioned before, you often can't see above or below you making any ledge a dangerous 50/50 gamble until you get the level layouts memorized.
Each character also has a grapple rope of sorts that can hook onto posts or tree branches above you to reach new heights. This mechanic works okay in theory, but because of the bland backgrounds it's hard to tell what you can and can't grapple onto. I remember the first time I played this game I sat it down in frustration the first time you're forced to use your grapple. See, you have to grapple on tree branches high above you, but the rub here is that the branches are above the screen giving you absolutely no indication what you should do. The entire game is full of these kind of frustrating elements that leave the player flustered rather than intrigued.
If you're thinking, "well, Castlevania is slow with unforgiving jump trajectories," you aren't wrong. Where Castlevania and Ganryu differ is that Castlevania's level design was structured around the way Simon Belmont moves, so the challenges and obstacles play into his strengths while keeping a high but even difficulty curve throughout the game. In Ganryu, the level designs are weak, unfocused, and have too much space to play with, making them feel like a Euro-Platformer (think Turican) that doesn't have the finesse or exploration elements present in those games.
Ganryu is an ugly game. From the bland marketing art, which is drawn entirely without applying shadow techniques, to the actual pixel art in game, everything has a low-budget feel to it that is less than appealing. What's more, the game is 178 megs - which is slightly less than the first Metal Slug (198 megs) which has some of the best drawn and animated pixel art of the entire 2D arcade era. Characters in Ganryu move with very little animation, enemies are bland and repetitive, and bosses are poorly designed monstrosities that have little personality. Color depth and variety is also lacking, making the game often look more like an early 4 mega bit Mega Drive title than a late Neo-Geo release. Sound design is also pretty drab with bad voice overs, okay sound effects, and completely forgettable music. I have no idea where all the memory was allocated as the graphics and sound are dismal by Neo-Geo standards, especially in 1999 - the same year that saw the release of three of the Neo's most gorgeous and robust games: Metal Slug X, Mark of the Wolves, and King of Fighters 99.
The interesting point to the visual design of the game is that the early prototype screenshots showcase a different game all together. In a 1998 issue of Neo-Geo Freak featuring SNK's Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 as the cover title (I personally own this issue), Visco featured a few of their upcoming games. The two screenshots in the spread of Ganryu showcase a game with brilliantly colored background art, a larger player sprite with loads more detail, a completely different UI, and other differences. To my knowledge, this prototype version has never been found, so it may very well be lost to time. It also could play even worse than the final game even though the original art direction was stronger than the release version? There really is no way to tell. One can only assume that time and money were a setback here, and what was eventually released is only a shell of what was originally planned.
As Visco's final release on the Neo-Geo, they certainly could have tried a little harder. The stiff controls, horrible jump mechanics, bland pixel art, and middling sound design create an experience that is hard to recommend to anyone, platforming fan or not. Ganryu is not unplayable, and it has a few moments where everything clicks and you think "this isn't so bad." Sadly, the overall bland design quickly catches up with you and you're reminded that that fleeting moment of brilliance will never get fully fleshed out. By 1999 there were more platform action games in the video game space than any other genre, so asking players of 1999 or even 2022 to suffer through a sub-par platformer is a tall order. I suppose there is a set of die-hard Neo-Geo fans who have taken the time to master the game's mechanics and do one credit runs, but for the majority of people this game is a hard pass.
If you want this game, you'll be paying upwards of $500 for a loose MVS cart or over $1000 for a complete kit. There was a modern re-release by JoshProd on both the AES and Dreamcast (I'm as baffled as you) in 2016, in which these officially licensed reproductions go for over $500 or more. If you really want to play this game on hardware, your best best is an unofficial AES reproduction from NeoOldStore. These are about the same quality as the officially licensed AES repros, and they sell for a third of the price. Or, just throw a rom on your NeoSD or emulator and be on your way.
If you're just beginning your Neo-Geo collection, or if you're a long-time collector, give this game a hard pass. I only recommend this game to folks who are going after a complete MVS collection. Otherwise, don't spend a dime on this turd.