Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Cult of MUSHA

How did an obscure shoot 'em up become one of the most coveted games for the Sega Genesis, and is it worth the insane asking price?

Before I can give you that answer, first I must tell you my story.

Born Gaming

I was born in 1977. My earliest memories started around 1981 or 82. I can remember living in a world with only two Star Wars movies and two Star Trek movies. A world where Conan was relevant to pop culture and Roger Moore was James Bond. When Mel Gibson was best known for Mad Max, not Martin Riggs. Toy guns were completely black. No one owned a VCR. And video games were still emerging as a form of entertainment.

I grew up playing video games. My family owned an Odyssey 2 and Colecovision with the Atari adapter. We had to climb behind the TV set an switch the RF adapter from “TV” to “Game” whenever we wanted to play.

This was Hell...

Both of my parents were players: Mom was a beast at Burgertime while Dad excelled at Ms. Pac Man. Some of my fondest memories were watching them both play Quest for the Ring on the Odyssey – a primitive RPG of sorts that came in an elaborate, deluxe sized box. We often went to the arcades, and I vividly remember our one and only attempt to play Dragon's Lair. It cost a dollar to play - a dollar!

The Shooter was always my favorite (I never liked the term “Shmup”). I grew up playing the genre endlessly. Defender, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Galaxian, River Raid, and the first game I considered to be my “favorite” - Looping for the Colecovision.

Looping for the Colecovision

One day I came home from school to be surprised with an NES hooked up to the TV (complete with ROB the Robot, no less!). Ironically, this super-sized NES didn't come with the one game we really wanted: Super Mario Brothers. But, hey, we did get Mach Rider.

Jokes aside, we loved the NES, and played it relentlessly. Renting games every weekend became something of a ritual. You never knew what you would get, and even if the game turned out to be a stinker, you couldn't help but keep playing it (even T & C Surf Design). Eventually, we ended up owning lots of the classics: Contra, Castlevania, Super Mario, etc. We stayed up late watching my dad try to beat Kid Icarus, and of course we all marveled over The Legend of Zelda. However, some of my best NES memories didn't involve the mainstream hits, but rather the more oddball titles, like Lunar Pool, Raid on Bungling Bay, Golgo 13, and The Uninvited. Of course, I also had a soft spot for the great NES shooters: Life Force, Stinger, Tiger Heli, 1942, and one of my all time favorites: Dragon Spirit.

Dragon Spirit for the NES

The NES was a game changer, and we loved it, but later I got my hands on a Sega Master System and my fate was sealed: I was a Sega kid.

To the right person, this logo is magic

The Sega Genesis was released in 1989, and I just had to have one. Getting one for Christmas was simply out of the question (having already got a Master System by surprise in 1988 – a story for another time). I drooled over the weekly newspaper ads and TV commercials. But as a twelve year old, the $189 price may as well been $189,000. However, things changed the next summer, when I was given a job babysitting the kids of a family friend while she was at work. It paid $50 a week. I did the math, and realized that if I could just resist the temptation to spend, in four short weeks I would have enough to buy one – actually buy one – for myself. To a little kid, the idea of saving money was a foreign concept, and it was hard to do. I mean, I went from not having any money to suddenly having $50 a week! And the mall was just a bike ride away...

But I did do it. I saved the money.

I'll never forget that moment. It was night out, and my parents drove me to Toys R Us for my big purchase. Just me, not my brothers. We never went out to the store like that, let alone the toy store. But this was unique. This was my purchase. This is what I earned.

My original Sega Genesis, still proudly displayed on my shelf

The drive home was surreal. I can remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in the back seat with that giant Sega Genesis box in all its black beauty, sitting on my lap as I poured over the images on the box – front and back – marveling at the amazing 16-Bit graphics on display. Gawking at the insane imagery of Altered Beast. We got home. I ran upstairs and hooked it up myself (I was practically an A/V expert at this point), turned it on and was immediately transported to a world unlike any I had ever seen before. Right away, the difference was obvious. That shimmering, vibrant SEGA logo was now animated – a far cry from the Master System's now archaic logo. Then came those familiar opening notes to Altered Beast. Music that is forever etched into my brain.

Altered Beast for the Sega Genesis - Trust me, this was impressive at the time


For a few weeks, Altered Beast was the only game I owned. But once again, I was able to save my money, and I set my sites on my first Sega Genesis game purchase: Hellfire, and side scrolling shooter that had captivated me with both its aggressive title, as well as its amazing cover artwork. I simply had to have this game.

Hellfire for the Sega Genesis - How could you not want this?

Once again, I was blown away. Hellfire was even better than I imagined: stunning graphics, and amazing sound. This was heaven. It didn't matter that I only had two games. I loved it. I played and played and played. I got to the point where I could beat Altered Beast without even continuing. Hellfire, on the other hand, was a bit tougher. Not only did I never beat it. I honestly don't know if I ever made it bast the fourth stage.

And then, the summer was over, as was my cash flow. I ended up with a couple more games that year, but none of them shooters (Spider-Man, Columns, and a game called DJ Boy that I got for mailing in my proof of purchase). I was happy with what I had, but already looking forward to the following summer when my baby sitting job would resume, but in the winter months between, I discovered something that would forever shape my video game world.

Mega Play

Mega Play - Feb 1991 issue

Anyone who grew up with a Nintendo also grew up with Nintendo Power, the ubiquitous magazine for the system. In a world without the Internet, it was the only way to really find out more about what games were out and what they were like. Go to anyone's house and these magazines were as omnipresent as TV Guides. Everyone had a copy, and everyone read it cover to cover. It never occurred to me that there would be a game magazine devoted to the Sega Genesis the same way Nintendo Power covered the NES, but one day at the mall, after browsing the Sega games I could not yet afford, I spotted it. Two words written in that unmistakable Sega font: MEGA PLAY.

I ran to the magazine rack, grabbed a copy off the top shelf, and starred at it like I had discovered the Holy Grail. I can't even remember if I had the money to buy it, or I convinced my parents to shell out the cash, but that magazine came home with me. On the cover: Batman. On the inside: games, games, and more games. Games I never heard of. Games I couldn't believe were real. Games I suddenly wanted more than anything.

I read every word. I devoured every preview, every review, every letter to the editor. I took it all in, reading story after story multiple times, examining every picture until I knew it like the back of my hand. I was mesmerized. Even games from genres I had little interest in looked amazing: Shining Darkness, Phantasy Star III, Valis 3... There was even a preview for a Japanese game called Mega Panel, a Tetris-like puzzle game filled with images of sexy, anime pin-up girls.

There was also a ton of shooters featured: Air Buster, Arrow Flash, Whip Rush, Insector X, Darius 2, G-LOC, Elemental Master, Gaiares, Galaxy Force II, Thunder Force 3, Fire Shark, Burning Force...

And one game that stood out above all the others: a vertical shooter called MUSHA.

MUSHA's two-page spread

I was really struck by the colorful, anime-inspired graphics. It was unlike anything I had seen in a game before. The screen shots did a great job showing off everything the game had to offer visually: complex, highly detailed backgrounds; inventive enemy designs; powerful weapons that you could level up; unique stage designs that looked completely different from one level to the next.

Even though that magazine was chock full of amazing looking games, I always came back to MUSHA. And the following summer, when my babysitting job picked back up, it was my first purchase. I rode my bike to the mall, stopped into Software Etc., grabbed the only copy and bought it.

Right off the bat, you could tell this game was special. Even the box art stood out. Instead of the typical Sega Genesis design that featured a black background with a framed image of the artwork on the cover, MUSHA opted for a fireball yellow background that wrapped all the way around the box, and displayed the giant robot mech on the cover.

MUSHA's unique box art set it apart from other Genesis games

I rushed home as fast as I could, turned the game on, and was immediately blown away. Even the usual Sega animated logo was different. Instead of the shimmering blue animated wave, now the letters flew up from the black background with a 3-D effect. Then the game started and showed something I had never seen before – an elaborate, animated intro full of bright, colorful giant robot ships getting destroyed. Plenty of games had used various forms on introductions before, but nothing that was animated to this level of complexity. This was clearly something exceptional.

This opening animated sequence was stunning - unlike anything I'd ever seen from a video game

The game started, and the action never stopped. You played as Terri, the only pilot left after your squadron was destroyed by an enemy much more powerful than you anticipated. At the time, it was unusual for an action game like that to feature a female protagonist, but I wasn't phased in the least. It was perfect. Beautiful graphics, tight game play, and just the right amount of challenge, all set to a rousing, heavy metal style soundtrack. It instantly became my favorite Sega Genesis game and has remained so ever since. Eventually, I got to the point were I could routinely beat the game on the “easy” difficulty setting, but you didn't get to see the extra ending scene unless you beat it in a “normal.” Beating it on “hard” gave you the full set of cut scene images.

Each stage was truly unique, visually stunning, and full of tiny details

I would later discover that MUSHA was part of a larger series of shooters from developer Compile. The first game, Aleste, was released for the Sega Master System (titled Power Strike in America). Aleste 2 for the MSX2, and Robo Aleste for the Sega CD. There was no real through line, in terms of plot or characters, but an overall style that always had you flying a giant robot mech into battle. MUSHA actually stands or: Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor.

One awesome moment of MUSHA showed a gigantic, evil battleship that spans an entire level popping up briefly in the background of the level that precedes it

End of an Era

However, the game was never popular, nor was the shooter genre in general. Despite the fact that the Genesis had loads of games in the shooter category, none were really considered stand outs whenever there was talk about the best games out there. Beat em ups like Streets of Rage were extremely popular. As were arcade ports like Space Harrier, Golden Axe, and Out Run. Fighting games became the dominant force in the early 90s with the likes of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Primal Rage. And of course, the force of nature that was Sonic the Hedgehog, which became the standard for which all Sega Genesis games were judged.

My friends and I really did stay up all night playing this game

The side scrolling platformer was definitely king. Three Sonic the Hedgehog games, Gunstar Heroes, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Ghouls N Ghosts, Revenge of Shinobi, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Earthworm Jim, to name a few.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Super Nintendo was slowly catching up. It would eventually surpass the Genesis in overall sales and popularity. Shooters were virtually non-existent on the console, which heavily favored platformers like Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, and Mega Man, as well as smash hit RPGs like Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, and Secret of Mana.

Despite the countless shooters that were released at the time, the genre eventually faded into obscurity, becoming a niche oddity that only appealed to the hardest of the hardcore gamer. All of my friends were into video games, but none of them cared about shooters. We could play fighting games all night long (and did every once and a while). Beat em ups were fun for short bursts, but I was never really into them. RPGs never had any interest for me, so to hear my Nintendo friends gush over them was like hearing people talk in a different language.

Welcome to the Next Level

Eventually, the 16-bit era gave way to the world of polygons and 3-D gaming. It was a rough, ugly transition at first, with the Panasonic 3DO and Atari Jaguar leading the way. As a Sega kid, I embraced the absurdity that was the 32X, but no one else followed. Soon, the Playstation would arrive and change the course of gaming history. I, however, hitched my wagon to the Sega Saturn. And, well, we all know how that story played out.

Despite the evidence of Sega's crushing defeat at the hands of Sony's Playstation, I refused to wave the white flag. I embraced the Saturn, even though it was clearly on it's way out before it could barely get its foot in the door. While 3-D games became all the rage, Sega was still cranking out 2-D powerhouses for the Saturn, including a handful of stunning shooters, like Galactic attack, and the game that would become legend, Radiant Silvergun.

Radiant Silvergun - this was a near instant classic for the Saturn

But no one cared anymore. Tomb Raider had arrived, as well as a host of games that were unlike anything we had ever seen: Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, Metal Gear Solid, and Twisted Metal.

Not to be outdone, Nintendo showed up to the 3-D party with the N64 and brought revolutionary changes with the likes of Mario 64, Wave Race, Mario Cart 64, and Goldeneye.

Sega was nearly vanquished. I wasn't so much devastated by this fact, because it has clearly been a long time coming, but I did feel defeated. I could do nothing as I watched Sega's once great empire slowly crumble brick by brick.

And I know what you're going to say: Dreamcast.

Yes, Sega's final console. The fanboy favorite. But let's be honest. It was crushed just as well. Sure, it may have had its day in the sun, but it's demise was imminent once the technical aspects of the Playstation 2 were revealed. Of course, I was there on day one to buy the system – the one and only time I ever did such a thing. I was also the only one there. There were no long lines. No throngs of fans clamoring for a console. No news stories of scalpers. I simply walked in to the KB Toy store that I had reserved my system, and walked out without spotting another buyer of the console. I knew what hype was, and I knew the Dreamcast didn't have it.

When it was all said and done, the Dreamcast, a system beloved by many, sold less units than the Wii-U.

A Challenger Appears

Sega was dead, and I blamed Sony. They were my enemy. The murderer of my childhood love. I couldn't go back to Nintendo either. If Sony was Sega's killer, Nintendo was surly just as responsible for crippling them with the Super Nintendo. Plus, I could never embrace their family friendly ethos. Their candy colored, kid friendly universe simply had no appeal to me. Instead, I saw another home on the horizon in the form of a new, upstart video game console: the Xbox.

As it turns out, many former Sega people ended up on Team Xbox. Sega themselves, having gone software only, strongly supported the new system right out of the gate. Xbox even had some of that old-school Sega attitude. It only made sense for me to hop on board. When I finished college in May of 2002, my graduation gift was an Xbox, a copy of Halo, and I never looked back. As loyal as I was to Sega, I was now firmly swearing my allegiance to Xbox, and still remain so to this day.

The Past Returns

So, what does this have to do with MUSHA? Well, let me circle back to that.

During all my years of gaming, I was a bit different from most of my friends. I never got rid of my old games. In fact, I kept all of my system hooked up to my TV so that I could always play them. I slowly accumulated a large library of games for all the systems I owned: Master System, Genesis, Sega CD, 32X, Saturn, Dreamcast, Game Gear, as well as non-Sega systems like Turbo Grafx 16, 3DO, Jaguar, as well as classics from my childhood like Atari 2600, Odyssey 2, and, yes, the NES. (I even became an owner of a Playstation 1 and 2 – but only after they were dead and games were cheap.)

While everyone I knew dumped all there games to move on to the next thing, I kept mine. Part of it was nostalgia. Part of it was pride. And part of it was that I still loved playing those games even if they were obsolete. I was officially a collector. I had never planned on going that route; it just happened.

I also began to notice a pattern: with the release of any new system, I would see the Buy-Sell-Trade stores get flooded with inventory from everyone dumping their old systems. When the Genesis and SNES were hot, stores wold be bogged down with old NES games they couldn't get rid of. Then, a few years later, nostalgia for those old games would kick in, and people would go back looking for those old NES systems and games they had gotten rid of. Suddenly the valueless became the valuable.

I saw this trend happen over and over, with virtually every console released. I noticed it was getting harder and harder to find boxed Genesis games. That was when I realized that my favorite system of all time was making a comeback, but I had no idea how big it would get.

For the Love of...

In the fall of 2008, I found myself in the same predicament as millions of other Americans: I was unemployed. I spent nearly two years looking for work. It took me eighteen months to get my first job interview. All in all, over that entire two year period, I literally only had three job interviews, and luckily landed a job right as my final extension of unemployment benefits expired.

Let me tell you, those two years sucked. I applied to so many jobs. Jobs I was perfectly qualified for. Jobs that were exactly like my previous jobs. Jobs I was over qualified for. Over and over again, I applied myself and got nothing in return. Not even a “Thanks but no thanks” email. Not a “We're going in a different direction” voice mail. And why would they? In the worst days of the recession, for every one job opening, there were ten applicants.

I often heard the same criticisms from those who were lucky enough to remain employed: “Well, you can't expect to have the same job and the same pay that you had before. You have to be realistic. You have to get a job that might be 'beneath you.'” Well, guess what? That's what I did. That's what many of us did. Most of the jobs I applied to were lessor jobs that what I had been doing, and certainly for less pay. But like I said, the demand vastly outweighed the supply. So no matter what job I applied to, even if it was a job that was a step down in pay and skill, there would be plenty of people applying for that job that did have experience in that field, so a prospective employer would obviously go with someone who knew the job verses someone who would have to learn the job (not to mention jump ship the moment something better came along).

I ended up with a lot of free time, and spent it mostly at home. I was depressed. I felt alone and sad and defeated. I was an educated college graduate with years of management experience and other desirable work skills, and I couldn't get squat. It was like standing on a beach, throwing pebbles in the water and trying to get the ocean to come to me. I was stress eating and put on about fifteen pounds. I felt the life and energy just getting sucked out of me. So I passed the time by watching videos on YouTube.

I discovered channels like The Nostalgia Critic (and his various sidekicks and spin offs), Angry Video Game Nerd, and a few others. I started getting into various retro gaming videos and came across Classic Game Room. For whatever reason, that one resonated with me more than most, but part of the appeal was that the host, Mark, was clearly a Sega fan through and through. I started diving through the backlog of videos on the channel (there were a lot!), and was surprised to spot MUSHA featured during the opening title sequence.

I was taken aback. Why, there was my favorite Genesis game prominently featured in the opening segment of this popular YouTube show. Digging farther down, I found the show's multi-part review of the game – a video dedicated to every single level of the game. Watching these videos and hearing someone else gush over loving the game just as much as I did was something of a revelation. A weird little spot of happiness in my unemployment grind.

It was then that I discovered that not only was MUSHA well regarded by other hardcore Sega fans, but that it was one of the most sought after games for the system and would command extremely high prices on eBay. I mean, really high prices. I was absolutely stunned. I simply had not known that Genesis games were bring in those kinds of numbers.

Sure, I knew a hand full of games were rare, including my most infamous gaming regret: selling my copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga for a scant $60 (it now routinely sells for $400-500+). But MUSHA? My MUSHA? Valuable? Collectible? Desirable? All these years and I had never known that people were slowly catching on to what I knew in 1991 – MUSHA was great.

There were other gamers on YouTube I found also expressing their love of MUSHA, and they all were saying the things that had always praised the game for: amazing graphics; inspired design; fantastic action; and above all, an incredible soundtrack. Not only that, but I discovered several musicians who had produced awesome cover versions of some of the most recognizable songs from the game – most notably Sword of Justice (aka Toshinori Hiramatsu)

Sword of Justice's amazing metal cover of MUSHA's iconic first stage music

(This was also the first time I ever heard another person say the name “MUSA” - and it turns out, everyone said it differently than me. I had always pronounced it “Mush-uh,” but it seems the more common, and likely correct, way was “Moosh-ah.”)

It was a strange feeling for sure. There I was, thinking for more than half my life that no one knew or cared about this game that I loved, and then all of the sudden, there were fans everywhere, and they loved it too. And the word was spreading. More people gravitated towards MUSHA. Sales of copies on eBay continued to demand high prices – and the prices were going up.

And it wasn't just MUSHA – shooters across the board were skyrocketing in popularity, on all consoles: Truxton, Elemental Master, Thunder Force, Gaiares, Trouble Shooter, and Grind Stormer on the Genesis (most of which I owned!); Kolibri for the 32X; Lords of Thunder for the Turbo Grafx 16; In the Hunt for the Saturn; Robo Aleste for the Sega CD; Einhander for the Playstation – and many others.

The shooter had finally found its day. The genre, for whatever reason, had become the most sought after and coveted genre for retro game collectors. And the most desired game on the most desired platform was MUSHA for the Sega – freaking – Genesis.

The retro enthusiasm was largely driven by collectors of my generation – people my age. Meaning, we all grew up with these games. We all played these systems. But everyone passed on the shooter. Everyone overlooked the genre. Nobody paid attention to MUSHA and its many contemporaries. Until, one day, the gamers finally came around and realized what I already knew.

I was right. I was right the whole time.

The Story Continues

It's been many years since that eye opening experience. I found a job and life stabilized. The soul crushing weight of unemployment slowly drifted away. And I've watched MUSHA become more popular than ever. There was never a backlash. The resale market never crashed. MUSHA, as of this writing, is still king when it comes to the Sega Genesis. Demand isn't slowing down, and the Cult of MUSHA continues to grow.

MUSHA's stunning end credit images

Many of the most popular retro gaming YouTube channels continue to heap praise and spread the love. The game can be seen prominently displayed in the background on many shows, including the likes of Happy Console Gamer, who has often sung its praises. It has become a running joke for Game Sack to feature guest stars attempting to steal their copy of the game. And MUSHA continued to have a strong presence that permeated through countless episodes of Classic Game Room, and even became the subject of a feature length review produced by the show.

My favorite game, now nearly loved at a universal level. And I was there from the start...

So, you ask, is it worth it? Does MUSHA deserve the $500 asking price?

Oh, hell no! Are you kidding? $500 for a near-thirty year old Sega Genesis game? Are you crazy? Please, don't pay that price for anything, unless you are flush with cash and are trying to gather a complete Genesis collection.

There is just no way any game can live up to that kind of price tag. Sure, the game is a blast to play, but a good player can beat it in under 45 minutes. We're not talking about Skyrim, or GTA, or Saint's Row – the kind of games were you can sink 30-40, even 100+ hours into.

MUSHA is just a vertical scrolling space shooter. A product of its time. Granted, it is the very best example of that type of game, but if you weren't there, if you didn't grow up loving this genre, I just don't know anyone would react. I can't see MUSHA living up to the hype if it was never your thing to begin with. If you really want to play it, there are emulators and ROMs out there for free. Try it. You might like it, but I doubt you'll like it to the tune of $500.

It is my favorite Sega Genesis game of all time, but I can't, in good conscience, recommend anyone to shell out the equivalent of one month's rent on a game. Hell, if MUSHA was ever released for Xbox Live, I think more than $10 would be asking too much. But that's me. My relationship with MUSHA has been somewhat unique. I've had the privilege of owning it this whole time. And it is the one game that I will never part with. Not even for $500.

Now, watching MUSHA achieve this god-like status among retro collectors in general and Sega enthusiasts in particular, well, to me, that's priceless.

My original copy of MUSHA

Image Credits:

Cover art for MUSHA and Hellfire – The Cover Project

Game play stills via YouTube:

MUSHA - temujin9000

Dragon Spirit - Heroes of Xanadu - Sloth

Altered Beast - davpreec

Radiant Silvergun - iPlaySEGA!!

Mortal Kombat II - Amy Rose

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