Muramasa Sengo was a
legendary swordsmith, alive during the Sengoku period of Japanese history.
Chances are that if you have played video games for long enough, you have come
across his name. He and/or his swords have made appearances in numerous video
game titles, including mainstays such as Ninja Gaiden, Final
Fantasy, and Castlevania.
Unfortunately, most of these
titles have evoked the Muramasa name lightly. Sure, Muramasa was a master swordsmith,
and games typically recognize him for this, just as Final
Fantasy III rewards the Muramasa blade as the ultimate weapon
for the ninja class, but that's only half of the legend.
Most geniuses are notorious
for their eccentricities, and Muramasa Sengo was notorious for being a violent,
delirious, and altogether unpleasant man. This perception, combined with a
series of misfortunes involving the Tokugawa clan, contributes to the more
sinister side of the legend.
It is said many members of this family were killed
by Muramasa blades, either in battle or in ritual suicide. The last straw came
when shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu accidentally wounded himself with one. He banned
any sword made by the Muramasa school.
superstitions regarding his blades were formed. Facts and rumors were distilled
through literature and performing arts into the legend as it stands today. Astro
Boy creator Osamu Tezuka's short film Muramasa (1987) illustrates the
In it, a samurai discovers a
cursed blade, which has great power, but he is unable to control the power,
leading to much needless bloodshed and, eventually, his suicide at the hand of
the blade. The story exemplifies a precedent on exchanging vitality for
strength. But this concept is not exclusive to Japanese folklore. It can be
found in many places -- such as in video games.
Side Effects May Include
It's a longstanding tradition
for players to be asked to intentionally harm their on-screen representation in
order to win. A recent and relevant example of such virtual mortification is
found in Vanillaware's Muramasa: The Demon Blade,
which tidily ties together Japanese myth and video game tradition. The game
allows the player to equip their avatar with three Muramasas, but each sword
will break if too many special attacks are performed.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade
And battles are tough,
requiring special attacks to be used frequently. Breaking all three swords is a
real possibility, and, without an adequate way to attack and defend, defeat is
too. In effect, the game tells the player to kill a bunch of enemies, but be
careful how you do it, or you'll kill yourself in the process.
At heart, this resembles the
legend of Muramasa blades: how they grant their wielders great power, but can
require of them their life in return. But what advantage does this principle
offer players? Surely such malice is an ill-seeded trope dreamt up by draconic
game designers solely to annoy unsuspecting gamers. Or could this bad medicine
be a case of tough love, ultimately leading to a more diverse and interesting
experience? The answer is... well, it depends.
Pick Your Poison
of games that employ a suicide button just don't have the player's best
interest in mind. They tend to serve some ulterior motive other than enriching
The traditional knock-everything-down special attacks found in
most brawlers, such as Haggar's spinning lariat in Final Fight, will hopefully rot in
their arcade graveyard. These moves knock back the throngs of thugs that will
surround you, but deduct a fixed amount of health each time. Given the pay-to-play
nature of arcade games, this makes the game designers out as the real
criminals, enforcing rules that serve only one practical purpose: to make you
Likewise, the turbo/fatigue
dynamic in sports games is an unnecessary relic. Its intent is to make the
experience more realistic, but not always more enjoyable. These types of
Muramasa devices seem to overlay the structure of the design, rather than being
an integral, organic cog of it. They have little relevance.
Another type of Muramasa is
the "Participation Is Optional" kind. These allow the player to opt
in to benefits, but face penalties for doing so. They somewhat improve the game
for experienced players by allowing them to choose a high risk/high reward
strategy. For instance, the Masamune is one of the strongest swords in Symphony
of the Night, but equipping it greatly reduces defensive
Similarly, the Thornlet/Bone
Mail/Cursed Ring combination is your strongest defensive option in Final
Fantasy V, but your health will gradually deplete, you won't
be able to resurrect yourself if you die, and you'll only have 60 seconds to
win a battle before instantly dying.
Then there are self-destruct
commands like Recarmdra in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, where
a player can sacrifice a party member in
exchange for restoring the rest of the party's health and magic points. These
types of suicide mechanics have some relevance to the design and can increase
the value of a game for those who care to use them, but you can take them or
leave them (literally).
These examples utilize
Muramasa concepts to an extent, but to really understand the advantages of
self-injury, it's best to look at systems in which these practices are fully
integrated. The types of systems found in games like Muramasa:
The Demon Blade require players to pay at the door.
way around it. Either vitality is to be sacrificed for attack power, or vice
versa. This at first may seem like a detriment, but can, in fact, improve the
gaming experience by offering multiple ways any given scenario can play out,
instead of the same, de facto situation every time.