Mystic Defender

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Sega for Genesis, originally released in 1989.

Title
Console
Publisher
Developer
Players
Year
Mystic Defender
Genesis
SEGA of America, Inc.
SEGA Enterprises Ltd.
1P
1989


CONTEXT
Mystic Defender was released in the U.S. in 1989, shortly after the launch of the Sega Genesis system itself. While most U.S. players wouldn’t have been aware of this fact, the game is actually sequel to the Master System game titled SpellCaster, and it’s also a licensed game based on the Japanese manga, Kujaku O. However, since this manga was unknown outside of Japan at the time – and Sega didn’t want to let the game go to waste – it was released in the United States with the references to the original work removed (an anime based on the manga has since been released in the U.S., and is known as Spirit Warrior, as have 2 live action films: Peacock King, and Saga of the Phoenix).



Removing licenses was not an uncommon practice, especially in the 8- and 16-bit days, before Japanese anime and manga were prevalent in the U.S. For instance, the NES saw the release of a game called Dragon Power in 1988, which was actually based on the Dragon Ball license. However, this was before Dragon Ball had gained popularity in the U.S. The game was a port of the 1986 Famicom game titled Dragon Ball: Shen-Long no Nazo; it had some of the character sprites changed, and removed all references to Dragon Ball.



The first game in the Kujaku O series was released in Japan for the MSX and Famicom as Kujaku O, and was released on the U.S. Master System as SpellCaster, without direct references to the original manga. SpellCaster is a hybrid of side-scrolling action and point-and-click adventure, which was released at a time when this type of genre-splicing was pretty rare, especially on consoles, let alone one that utilized a point-and-click interface.



A sequel was later released for the Japanese Mega Drive called Kujaku O 2: Gen’eijo, which eschewed its point-and-click roots and instead focused on a completely action-based magic system. The main character’s primary weapon is called Psycho Magic, which looks pretty similar to the power used in SpellCaster, but the player is no longer required to enter a menu screen in order to cast spells. This game came to the U.S. Genesis system as Mystic Defender, again with references to the original license removed.




PREMISE
From the instruction manual:

Evil is at it again! Zareth, the Devil’s Disciple, has cooked up a fiendish plot to bring Zao back to life. Zao is the wickedest wizard in the universe. He is the Emperor of Evil! If he returns, his strength will be beyond imagination. He’ll be able to conquer the world and make all things in it his evil slaves.

You, Joe Yamato, are the only one with enough skill and power to stop Zareth. Get yourself to Zao’s stronghold, Azuchi Castle, and hurry! The beautiful Alexandra is Zareth’s prisoner there, and she is about to face a terrifying ordeal. Zareth plans to steal her soul in order to bring Zao back to life!

Your road is treacherous, full of monsters and evil beings with surprising powers. No one knows what terrors you’ll meet, or if you’ll be able to survive. You begin the hardest challenge of your life. But you face it with something special – Magic!





CONTROLS



Press to select your Magic
Press to swirl or throw your Magic. When swirling Flame Magic, press the D Button up and left or right to sweep through those directions
Press to jump. During a jump, press the D Button left or right to jump in either direction

* These are the default control options. There are a total of 6 pre-set control options available from the Options menu which, in effect, allow you to assign any function to any button. (Button function descriptions come from the game’s manual.)



MECHANICS
Mystic Defender starts Yamato off in a darkened wood with naught but his wits and a single weapon: Psycho Magic. Unlike many games where the player has to slowly work his way up to more powerful weapons, Mystic Defender allows the player to utilize the full force of Psycho Magic from the very start, which ranges in power from quick small blasts to a powered-up triple-shot that is capable of wiping out most enemies in a single blow. The only limitation: speed. It takes a long time to charge up the Psycho Magic to its full strength, and the enemies – even in the first level – are pretty fast.



So, let’s talk pick-ups. The single most valuable pickup in this game is a red sphere which increases your charging speed. There are two levels above your default (very slow) charge speed. At the second level, you can reach a full charge in about a second or so. At the third (highest level), a full charge is practically instantaneous. Since you can’t charge while walking, getting powered up and keeping your enhanced charge speed are vital to your success. And, since you lose one power level per death, it is all the more important that you do not squander your lives, especially during boss fights where being downgraded can leave you at a severe disadvantage. Fortunately, your health is automatically restored between levels, so you’re still OK even if you manage to squeak by with just 1 unit of health left.



To help you maintain your precious life reserves throughout the levels, the game offers blue spheres, each of which restores one unit to your life bar. You have a maximum of 3 units in your life bar, although not all enemies will drain a full unit with a single hit (graphically, even a half-unit is shown as a full unit, so it’s not possible to tell exactly how much life you have remaining). On Normal difficulty, you start the game with 3 lives and 3 continues. Two easier modes allow you to change the number of lives per continue to 4 or 5.



1ups are also hidden in the game, but their appearance is rare, making them a very valuable commodity, especially on Normal difficulty. Losing a single life in a level allows you to respawn near the point where you died, but using a continue forces you to restart the level from scratch. The game also prevents you from wasting a continue in the first level, and only allows you to begin using continues from the second level and beyond.



The most interesting gameplay dynamic in Mystic Defender is the ability to gain additional offensive magic powers, switch between them at will, and charge them up for different capabilities. Weapons appear as follows:

Psycho Magic is the player’s default weapon, which he carries from the start of the game. It is effective as a rapid-fire weapon, since it can fire without charging, and it is also a tremendously effective fully-charged weapon, killing most non-boss enemies in a single hit and penetrating multiple enemies in a row.
  • Uncharged – fires small energy bullets all the way across the screen, but is limited to 3 on the screen at once. Very low power, but high firing speed, and the best weapon to use when dealing with fast enemies.
  • 2/3 Charge – larger energy bullet which does more damage
  • Full Charge – very powerful triple energy shot with a tight horizontal formation, capable of killing most enemies in a single hit.

Flame Magic appears just before the first level boss. It is a stream of fire that can be fired in all 8 directions, and “swung” between these 8 directions similarly to the flamethrower in Mercs.



Uncharged, this weapon does nothing, but its length increases depending on the amount of charge. It does continuous damage to all enemies it touches – even multiple enemies – and it slowly depletes the charge meter, stopping when it has emptied. This allows the player to remain mobile while directing his fiery death wand as needed.



While not a great rapid-fire weapon, it is effective at dealing with more powerful enemies, and the player has the ability to interrupt the shot by hitting the Charge button again. This makes it a useful weapon against bosses and other large enemies, since the player can time the use of his charged shot to take advantage of an enemy’s exposed weak point.



Sonic Magic appears at the end of the second level, just before the boss. It is a difficult weapon to use effectively, but can be quite useful in certain situations, especially in enclosed areas.
  • Uncharged – nothing
  • 1/3 Charge – 6-way blast that moves quickly, but disappears upon exiting the screen
  • 2/3 Charge – 6-way blast, but only 2 bullets leave the screen, the other 4 bounce
  • Full Charge – Same as above, but the 4 bouncing bullets stay on the screen much longer



While this is the final standard magic you encounter, it is not necessarily the most powerful or useful. It is certainly less precise than the other weapons, but it also allows the player to deliver damage from a safe distance and take out enemies without requiring a direct line of fire. This can be a great strategy when attempting to conserve health, and can even be effective against certain bosses, but it has its drawbacks. For one, a fully charged shot with this weapon isn’t very powerful, especially when compared with Psycho Magic, so enemies will take a greater number of hits before they die. Secondly, unlike the Flame Magic, this weapon’s power cannot be interrupted; once the bouncing bullets are on the screen, the player cannot fire again until they have all disappeared. Thirdly, this is a poor run-and-gun weapon because its charge time and somewhat unpredictable trajectory make it difficult for dealing with high-speed enemies.

The final magic power that is made available to the player is called Thunder Dragon Magic. It first appears in level 3, but it can be picked up in many of the subsequent levels as well. This is a single-use screen-clearing weapon that summons a huge 3-headed dragon onto the screen, wiping out all projectiles and non-boss enemies. This weapon cannot be charged.



Since the player has to cycle through his weapons to select the Thunder Dragon Magic, it is not particularly useful as a last-ditch smart bomb. However, even though the weapon disappears when used, it can also be stockpiled. So, you can switch to this weapon and keep using it until you run out. It’s a rare pickup, but it is dropped by some key enemies, so it’s possible to have a few on hand toward the end of the game.

Weapon cycling is assigned to a single button, so there is no forward/back cycling option. This doesn’t cause too much of a hindrance, since the player can only carry a maximum of 4 weapons. However, weapons cannot be switched while projectiles are on the screen. Psycho Magic projectiles move pretty quickly, so it’s rarely a problem with that weapon, and Fire Magic can be interrupted at will. However, Sonic Magic can leave behind projectiles for several seconds, leaving the player vulnerable during that time. While it is understandable to balance this weapon by not allowing the player to fire again, it seems to be doubly punishing the player by not allowing him to at least prepare another weapon for when the projectiles disappear. This can lead to some cheap hits, and slows the pace of the game somewhat since the player will likely stand stationary while waiting for projectiles to clear. Also, the game reverts the player back to Psycho Magic during screen transitions, requiring the player to pay careful attention to his weapon selection, lest he inadvertently attempt to use the incorrect weapon.



Control-wise, Mystic Defender does some things well and some things not-so-well. Obviously, great attention was paid to the weapon system, which is the primary focus of the gameplay, so this works pretty well. Some of the more basic platforming elements, however, were not so tightly designed. The biggest issue is the jump mechanic. The player is able to control Yamato’s jump height by holding the Jump button down. However, the jump function is very fast, so the window between a full height jump and a reduced height jump is quite narrow. Also, Yamato is capable of performing a mid-air direction change. Unfortunately, the change is not instantaneous, but rather inertia-driven like Super Mario Bros., only a bit faster.



The combination of these elements can make precision jumping difficult, because the jumps are just too fast and too hard to correct while in midair. Fortunately, most levels do not focus on this mechanic, but certain areas – such as the Machine Rooms in levels 3 and 6 – can cause the player to fall all the way back to the beginning of the stage if a jump is mistimed. And level 4’s Lava Lake is just plain brutal since it punishes over-jumping, under-jumping, and imprecision in timing (see the BCE section below for more detail on this). Oddly, the game also requires the player to jump up and down stairs, rather than just climbing them, which adds a bit of unneeded frustration to vertical navigation.



The level design in Mystic Defender is a bit more interesting than your standard walk from left-to-right fare. There is some verticality to most of the levels, and many levels have hidden nooks which reward careful exploration with pickups. Some of the levels are purposely designed to be somewhat confusing in their layout and tempt the player with pickups that they cannot reach directly. 1ups are generally very well hidden and require the player to take indirect dead-end paths to retrieve them.



In particular, the level 2 Staircase Maze, level 3 and 6 Machine Rooms, and level 7 Elevator Maze feature levels which fold in on themselves, come to dead-ends, and frequently require the player to travel in all directions and/or backtrack to a certain point in order to progress. Fortunately, the player is free to scroll in any direction and backtrack as needed in most levels, and most out-of-the-way locales offer some reward for being explored.


SPECTACLE ENEMIES (What’s this?)

Bubble Skeleton This little skeleton guy shows up only once in the first level – never to appear again in the rest of the game. It sends blue and orange projectiles out from itself like bubbles. The patterns are odd and there are lots on the screen at once, making this a somewhat difficult encounter. A single charged Psycho Magic shot will destroy it.



Spitting Caterpillar This giant brightly-colored green worm chucks blue spit at you. Again, a single charged Psycho Magic shot is all it takes to bring it down, and it is never seen again throughout the game.



Slime Babies This series of enemies appears only in the second level, and they seem to be there just to turn your stomach. These things emerge as slime from drain pipes, splat on the ground, and form themselves into wobbly green babies. Anywhere in the level where you see a round drain pipe is a possible excretion point for a disgusting little Slime Baby. We wouldn’t make something like this up. And shooting them with your standard Psycho Magic doesn’t kill them instantly; rather it turns them into jiggly piles of baby guts that continue to move around until they are completely destroyed.






BASTARD CLASS ENEMIES (What's this?)

Level 4: Platforms OK, so technically the BCE here might be the player’s inability to make precision jumps, but here we have an entire level which seems solely designed to draw attention to the fact. For many players, the level 4 Lava Lake is the last level of the game that they will ever see. There are so many problems here that it’s hard to know where to start, so let us simply count the ways in which the game gungbeefs* you into oblivion with our ever-growing litany of despair:

  1. Platforms – so we mentioned how difficult the game makes it do perform precision jumps, right?
  2. Tiny Platforms – so let’s make it harder by requiring you to land on them just right, when your mid-air direction change maneuver is fraught with pain and suffering.
  3. Tiny Falling Platforms – oh, did the game forget to tell you that the very first platform you jumped on would fall down and make you go dead? Whoospie.
  4. Tiny Falling and Moving Platforms – so thank goodness that not all of the platforms fall and kill you instantly… some of them just move up and down to make it harder for you to land on them… Bless you so.
  5. Tiny Falling and Moving Platforms Suspended Over a Sea of Lava – As is common knowledge, one should never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Also true is that one should never go up against lava-bound platforms with a dodgy jump mechanic. Your reward for failure is deep fried you. Yummy!
  6. Tiny Falling and Moving Platforms Suspended Over a Sea of Lava with Low Ceilings – so now the game is not only punishing you with moving and falling platforms, but now you have to be careful not to jump too high or you’ll hit the ceiling and bump your noggin… and then watch your flesh burn off in the lava… again.
  7. Tiny Falling and Moving Platforms Suspended Over a Sea of Lava with Low Ceilings and Spawning Enemies – Insult? Injury? Have you two met? Not only are you contending with what can only be described as Platform Hell, you have to do it while enemies fly at you. Your most likely method for dealing with this threat: Jump, Dodge, Cry, Repeat.
  8. To add to this nice hot mouthful of gungbeef is that dying amongst the Tiny Falling and Moving Platforms Suspended Over a Sea of Lava with Low Ceilings and Spawning Enemies respawns you at the last safe point before the platforms. It’s like having a machine that allows you to travel back in time to fix your terrible mistakes… only you don’t. Hey, and if you have to use a continue, you get to start the level from scratch!


* The term “gungbeef” is © 8 Bit Horse, and is used in substitution of the exceedingly fowl terms that could have been used in its place.


Hopping Mad Monks OK, so let’s be serious here… there’s nothing that can beat those cursed platforms. Once you make it past level 4, everything else you come up against seems like rainbow-flavored kittens. But we’ll share an annoyance with you nonetheless. In level 2, you encounter a bunch of monks in a boss fight (see below). Level 5 pits you against them once more, only now they don’t just hover about and shoot little projectiles at you; rather, they can leap all the way across the screen and smack you in your peepee. They don’t do very much damage, but they’re fast and frequent, and they can eat your health up pretty quickly. One uncharged Psycho Magic shot can kill them, but they’re hard to hit, and they can come in from both sides of the screen.



Some of them – the really mad ones, probably – can turn into hopping spiders. These are even more dangerous than the regular spiders you encounter in this level because they can jump and shoot yellow projectiles at you. Because, well, they can.



BOSSES

Level 1: The Forest This boss fight takes place in a very vertical area, with tree branch platforms extending well off the top of the screen. The boss will jump around in the trees for a while and will eventually roll up into a ball and begin rolling along the ground, forcing you to take refuge in the higher branches. In ball form, the boss is invincible.



Once you’ve reached the safety of the upper branches, the boss will revert back to his previous form and jump up toward you. 3 fully charged Psycho Magic shots will take him down, but it’s important to remember to dodge and shoot, rather than just trying to take him by brute force. Or, you can try out the Fire Magic capability that you got seconds before this encounter.



Level 2: Staircase Maze While this is far from a difficult boss encounter, it is definitely among the creepiest in any game. First off, you’ll walk into a room and see 5 monks suspended in the air and spinning. Above them is a single spinning monk with a red book, who appears to be commanding them.



The monks will slowly appear and disappear throughout the area, and are invincible as they fade in and fade out, leaving you with a narrow opportunity to damage them. Once they fully form, they’ll fire a green projectile at you and disappear. It only takes on fully charged Psycho Magic blast to take one down, at which point the monk won’t just disappear from existence, but his robes will crumple and fall to the ground, staying there for the duration of the battle.



After all 5 monks are killed, Yamato runs off the screen. Level over, right? Yes. But after you leave, the monk with the red book comes back onto the screen and hovers over the crumpled robes, resurrecting the monks into giant spiders. The level ends with no further explanation. Creepy indeed.



Level 3: The Fiends’ Machine Room There is no boss in this level. Your enemy is the level itself.




Level 4: Lava Lake Provided you successfully survived the platforms, you’ll be faced with a boss that incorporates lava and a platform into its attacks. Two segmented snake creatures rise out of the lava with a moving platform between them.



Each time they rise up, they’ll be facing either to the right or left, and they will vomit an arcing stream of fire at you. The strategy is to ensure that you’re never on the receiving end of the fire vomit, lest you take damage, and potentially be knocked down into the lava for an instant kill.



The direction they face is random, so you have to keep a watchful eye as they rise from the lava and determine if you can simply stand your ground, or if you’ll need to brave a jump to the moving platform between them. Once one of them has been destroyed, the second one will speed up, and can rise up from either side. Blow both of their stinkin’ heads off, and you win.



Level 5: The Spider Pit Remember the creepy monk boss encounter from the second level? Well, now they’re back in a level all their own. Not only do you get to fight monks, spiders, and transmogrified spider-monks throughout the level, the end-level boss is a stack-o-spiders that builds up and transforms into a worm.




The worm shoots a continuous stream of projectiles in an arc, with very loose tracking on your position. They’re not difficult to dodge, but you must pay close attention to the pattern because there are a lot of them on the screen at once. Oh, and you still have to deal some damage to the head of the worm.



After a while, the worm will start to “un-build”, sending individual spiders across the floor to the other side of the screen, where it will stack up again into a worm. (This is similar to the yellow rock monster fight in the original Mega Man, except that the pieces always move across the floor, rather than at multiple heights.) The spiders are invincible, and the worm’s head will continue firing during the transition. You can still damage the head, but successfully timing your dodges is paramount during this portion of the fight.



Once you kill it, a single spider escapes… not dead yet!



You leave the room and fight more monks and spiders before encountering the boss again, only this time the head tears open, revealing an armored guy with a sickle. This worm still fires projectiles and can actually move across the screen toward you as it tries to hit you with its sickle. Fortunately, it retracts a bit when hit, meaning that you can avoid being cornered if you deliver regular damage to it.



When it finally dies, it drops a cross, which falls to the ground and crumbles, seemingly indicating that it has met its final end.



Level 6: The Ghosts’ Machine Room There is no boss in this level. Your enemy is the level itself, which looks just very similar to level 3, only it’s green!


Level 7: The Elevator Maze Here, you finally face off against Zareth, the Devil’s Disciple. He is an armored cape-wearing guy with a katana. He is capable of flight and is quite fast. He will occasionally move in to deliver an attack with his sword.




He can also charge up the sword and send a stream of fire toward you, igniting the ground. The fire moves across the ground faster than you walk, so you must jump over it rather than attempt to outrun it. This is one of those bosses where the Sonic Magic can be pretty useful, since the boss stops fighting momentarily when hit, and this can interrupt his flaming sword attack as well, leaving you to simply dodge and shoot.



Level 8: Zao’s Lair The final level is basically a standalone boss fight. At the outset, you’ll encounter a large number of alien piranha sperm. They take a ton of hits to destroy as they move-stop-move slowly across the screen. Since they respawn infinitely, it’s best to fight the ones you must and avoid the others so that you can progress quickly to the boss.



Though Zareth is dead, he is using your beloved Alexandra’s soul to bring Zao back to life. This is a hideous monstrosity with bulging limbs and veins, topped off with a naked blonde girl. Zao continues to shoot alien piranha sperm at you – but only one at a time now – as well as arced projectiles.



Its weak point is a pulsating heart at the center, just below the sperm-dispenser. Each time it is hit, it shoots a spread of 7 pink projectiles at once.



Once you make it explode, the naked blonde girl descends to the ground, apparently no worse for wear, and in need of a hug.



The game ends and you receive your thanks from the developers for helping out Joe Yamato and for playing the game. Alexandra even gets some clothes. Awww…




HERITAGE

Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • Deep and robust magic system which offers variety in the weapons themselves, as well as a charging system, which adds another layer of strategy.
  • Wide variety in level design which teases unreachable areas and rewards exploration
  • Console nudity (on an almost imperceptibly small scale)
The downside:
  • An imprecise variable-height jump mechanic that’s also difficult to correct in mid-jump
  • 4th level is brutally difficult, and further exacerbates the jump mechanic issues

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