This time around, instead of a computer port we have an original game for a change. Kenseiden isn’t one of the more prolific platformers on the Master System but does have a bit of a cult following among Sega gamers. This hack-and-slash title has often been described as Sega’s answer to Castlevania and it’s easy to see the influence of Konami’s famous series in this cart, but it also mixes in a little bit of Shinobi and even some Clash at Demonhead. Kenseiden certainly tries to be a unique entry in the SMS library and gives a nice first impression but that won’t prepare you for some ruthless action.
Kenseiden casts you as Hayaoto, a samurai warrior out to liberate 16th century Japan from an army of demons led by the evil warlock Yonensai. Thing is Hayato must traverse the country’s 16 provinces to find five mystical scrolls and the Sword of the Dragon King in order to have the power to defeat the “master warlock” who’s holed up in his castle in Edo. In each stage you use your sword to hack up the demons and monsters in your path, many of which are taken out of Japanese legend. Power-ups are available to assist you, such as gourds to regain your life, extra lives, sword icons that will increase your attack strength and others. After completing a stage you’re shown the map screen and given the option of which province to travel to next, allowing you to chart your own path to the castle. Some of the areas contain one of the five bosses, and slaying him will reward you with one of the mystic scrolls which will enable you to perform a special attack. Also available are two training dojos, each of which present you with a difficult test such as dodging spears and avoiding spikes, and passing them will either lengthen your life meter or give you a talisman to boost your defense. You can even return to areas you’ve already completed if necessary, though you do have to complete the stage again. Hopefully by the time you reach Yonensai’s castle in Edo you’ll have powered-up enough to handle the Master warlock’s three forms.
First we’ll discuss the positives, which include the surprisingly great graphics. The different stages do a good job setting up the grim atmosphere with its colorful, detailed backgrounds, though a few of the environments are reused for some of the later levels. The sprites are also large and detailed with mostly smooth animation, and the huge bosses are especially well done. The background music isn’t the best but is still decent enough and tries to fit with the fast-paced action. The controls work decent enough and pulling off the special attacks are no problem. The ability to choose your path adds a nice bit of non-linearlity to the standard arcade-like action, but you do have to be careful about which levels to skip, since it could lead you to being severely underpowered for the boss fights. It’s also interesting how Kenseiden doesn’t hide its Japanese origins as kanji is used everywhere, even identifying each province on the map.
Unfortunately Kenseiden has more than a few rough edges and frustrating moments which spikes the difficulty to Ninja Gaiden levels. Enemies constantly fly at you from every direction often without warning, especially from below and above you yet Hayaoto moves and attacks a bit sluggishly and jumps like he has rocks in his pockets. It also doesn’t help your sword has a very short range forcing you to get in close to strike your foes while taking damage in the process. Plus when you do take a hit you’re knocked back quite a bit, and can even get bounced around by a group of foes. In areas that require precision jumping you can easily get knocked backwards off a ledge into a pit which can cause you to break your controller. There’s no way to save your progress, though you can use a round select code to skip to the later stages, and when you lose your last life it’s game over unless you’ve found the Diary item which gives you one continue. Alternatively a secret continue code is also provided (Up, Up, Down, Down, Button 2) but will start you without any of your upgrades and can only be used a couple of times.
When all is said and done Kenseiden isn’t a great game but is still a somewhat solid effort from Sega. It’s competently designed for the most part with its cool dark atmosphere and some unique features, but the wonky gameplay and unnecessary frustrations keep it from ranking among the top Master System action titles. If you’re a fan of tough platformers then go ahead and give it a look, otherwise you might want to move on to the better games on the console.