Friday, 3 April 2015

GROW: Samurai Warrior (The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo)

Developer(s) Beam Software
Publisher(s) Firebird
Distributor(s) Thunder Mountain
Platform(s) Commodore 64
Amstrad CPC
ZX Spectrum
Release date(s)
Genre(s) Adventure
Mode(s) Single-player
Distribution Cassette tape
Floppy disk
Medieval Japan.  A time of civil unrest and warring factions.  The young nobleman, Lord Noriyuki, has gone missing and no doubt the nefarious Lord Hikiji is behind the misdeed.  The ronin samurai, Usagi Yojimbo, must now rescue the young lord before Hikiji's ninjas and mercenaries can find him.
This sounds like pretty standard stuff that could be the basis of countless Kurasawa movies or anime shows, but it is in fact an early plot from the wildly successful anthropomorphic animal series by Stan Sakai.  If you haven't already discovered Usagi Yojimbo's adventures, please do yourself a favor and pick up some of the collected editions as soon as possible.  The cute animals should not dissuade you from what is truly an engrossing, and very much adult, take on medieval Japan, with both its politics, violence and mythology thrown in for good measure.

With such a vibrant world, it is no wonder that a game had to come about.  The Australian company Melbourne House, originally a book publisher that was one of the first to specialise in books on home computers before moving into software publishing and later development was an ideal candidate for buying up the license.  Their development subsidiary, Beam Software, which had already had success with literary adaptations of Tolkien classics such as The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Shadows of Mordor as well as other book-to-game conversions such as Sherlock, Asterix and the Magic Cauldron and Judge Dredd, as well as original games such as The Way of the Exploding Fist, Bazooka Bill and Bad Street Brawler were primed to take a crack at this indie comic hit.

Similar to Fist II, you move Usagi on a 2D plane, from left to right on his search for Lord Noriyuki.  You have a small variety of attacks and parries when in combat and can jump over some obstacles, like rivers.  All fairly simple stuff and at first glance, the game seems a bit simplistic.

The easiest thing to have done would have been a simple left to right scrolling beat-em up, but Beam decided to add some real depth to the game.  The incorporation of a few simple details, such as sheathing and unsheathing your sword, bowing to passerbys, multiple paths on the road, the ability to give alms to the poor and to monks, the addition of a variety of mythological beasts and simple dialogue bits from NPCs made the game feel alive. 
Every good deed and adherence to social norms increases your karma meter, which can then also help with NPC interactions and finding money and health.  If however your karma reaches zero, the shame of being such a wicked person will lead Usagi to committing hara-kiri.  NPCs will mostly be neutral towards you unless you fail to bow when they are of equal or higher rank and directly hostile if you have your sword drawn.  Obviously this leads to a constant reaction test when new characters appear on screen.  React fast or find yourself quickly jumped upon by backstabbing ninjas.
The graphics are nicely detailed and very well animated, especially for the time.   With Usagi looking good, Sakai's trademark death bubble appearing when an enemy dies, wild lizards popping up from time to time, various characters from the comics are instantly recognisable and the variety of backgrounds keep things entertaining.  The close up of Usagi's face is also a nice touch and adds to the atmosphere.  The music is not great, but does switch when danger lurks, adding to the atmosphere and making it easier to determine when to pull your sword. 
Amstrad Port
Spectrum Port

The original Commodore 64 version is probably the most playable version because of the bigger window and relatively small sprites.  The Spectrum and Amstrad ports while nicely detailed give the player a bit less reaction time and can therefore be a bit more difficult to control.  But no matter, all are essential playing for Usagi fans and for those retro fans looking for a somewhat different gaming experience, definitely boot this one up.


  1. Excellent review of an excellent C64 game! I used to love this game back in the day, and yet I had somehow totally forgotten about this little gem of a game.I might give this a go tonight :-)

  2. I used to love this game too but had also forgotten all about it until this review. Great stuff and I too am going to have to give this a go this weekend. And also, how appropriate releasing a game review based on a rabbit on Easter Weekend!

  3. Crap... I hadn't even thought about the Easter connection.... Serendipity I guess. :)

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