Ever since gorgeous RGB screenshots appeared in the hallowed pages of Gamefan magazine, hardcore Saturn importers have dreamt of holding Shinrei Jusatsushi Taromaru in their grubby little hands. I fondly recall my own college days, subsisting on instant ramen, saving dollar upon dollar, only to discover that Planet Anime had already sold their single copy.
Thanks to my man GUTS’ golden generosity, I finally played Taromaru. I wish I could call it over-rated. I wish I could offer others some closure to their curiosity. Unfortunately, aside from the quirky controls, this game — the tale of a psychic monk gorily slaughtering Japanese demons — really is pretty damn cool.
Similar to Gainax’s cult classic Alisia Dragoon, the player simultaneously controls both the hero’s movement and the direction of his lightning attacks. Manipulating two independent items with a single D-pad isn’t unmanageable, but it’s certainly awkward. Alisia made up for this with a competent targeting system, but Taromaru isn’t quite as adept. Sometimes the lightning didn’t strike exactly where I’d like; other times, Taromaru steps in the wrong direction and gets gored by stampeding bulls (thank the heavens for lengthy health bars). Playing with a friend masks this flaw, since there’s SO MUCH lightning flying across the screen . . . but as a single-player adventure, this is not what I would call fine tuning.
The things that set Taromaru apart from its better-playing peers are its imaginative enemies — imaginative both in appearance and behavior. Ghosts hover near lamp-lit temples, briefly possessing Taromaru should he draw near (quite an inconvenience while fighting ninjas). Sturdy marionettes attack from the ground, controlled by fragile puppeteers in the sky. Enormous spider-women skulk about the screen, spawning broods of hatchlings; either leap and seize the rail above, or blast the buggers as quickly as you can, because she’ll be spawning more. Not only are the enemies creative, but they’re hugely varied and nearly endless. With its 2D/3D presentation and relentless swarms, Taromaru reminded me of a clunkier but trickier version of Shattered Soldier . . . with a hell of a lot more bosses.
Key word is “tricky”. The fiends attack with ruthless abandon, but their patterns are discernible and entirely avoidable. Learn Taromaru’s limitations, learn the monsters’ limitations, and discover that this quest is challenging but fair. Having trouble with the skull dragon? Does it keep smashing Taromaru with its indestructible claws? Normally, people aim for the body part that makes the creature “flash” in pain . . . in this case, the head. It’s a pretty obvious spot to target. Unfortunately, shooting the head doesn’t stop those damn claws! The trick is to throw common sense out the window. Don’t try to hurt the monster. Zap those indestructible claws — the force from your lightning slows the bony beast down, giving Taromaru time to ascend the stairs and make his escape. Death isn’t the only way to end a fight!
Taromaru doesn’t make the same mistake as many other “boss-fest” adventures; there are plenty of smaller fiends to slaughter along the way. Not just the aforementioned bulls, ghosts, ninjas, puppets, and spider-women, but also slithering naga, scythe-wielding shikimaru, and even the ROKURO-KUBI: flying, screaming, decapitated female heads. I’ve loved those things ever since I read about them in a grade-school monster book. This game may sound like the result of a feverish nightmare, but it’s all based on Japanese lore. If you’ve any interest in Asian mythology whatsoever, then you’ll likely encounter a familiar foe or two. And they each play their own special role in the game’s devious master plan.
And what a plan it is! Those of you who played Kid Niki on the NES may remember being swallowed by the whale; it was a surprising, unexpected scene that made the game suddenly seem twice as good as it really was (and yes, Taromaru has a similar moment). Now imagine being surprised over and over, several times throughout every level — and imagine being forced to truly think through each action, rather than simply react with a quick button tap.
Some may write Taromaru off as a flashy platformer with bothersome controls, but I would call it a curious blend of action and puzzle, similar in principle to Treasure’s Ikaruga. Even though it comes from a crowded genre, even though I can draw a dozen comparisons based on this little detail or that, there’s nothing else quite like Shinrei Jusatsushi Taromaru.