I really want to like Ganryu 2. From the instant you load it up, its vibrant, detailed pixel art and slick character designs call to mind the twilight years of the Neo Geo arcade system, when SNK (and other developers) were really pushing that hardware as hard as they could. It takes the atmosphere of the original Ganryu—a good game, but not exactly a technical showcase for the Neo Geo— but kicks it up a notch, to the point that it wouldn’t look slightly out of place alongside the likes of Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Sengoku 3. That’s an impressive feat.
That strong first impression continues with a quick, punchy opening that sets the scene for Miyamoto Musashi to travel the length of Edo-period Japan to fight his resurrected old rival, Sasaki Kōjiro. When the game starts proper, everything just feels right: Musashi’s nimble movement, powerful sword strikes, and an extremely useful new dashing attack make combat feel smooth and dynamic, while a decent variety of enemies and sharp level design push you to explore—both the map itself, and your own set of tools. That first level, in particular, is nothing short of arcade action platformer bliss.
Until you die.
Ganryu 2 is, by design, a game that revolves at least a little bit around trial and error. Skill and quick reflexes obviously help, but the most useful lessons are the ones where you get caught out by something you didn’t see or couldn’t figure out how to avoid in time, and can better prepare for next time. That’s not an inherent problem—plenty of games, both in ye olde arcade days and today, build an exciting ebb and flow around that process of practice and mastery.
But for the trial and error approach to work, you need to limit the barriers to trying and retrying. That’s where Ganryu 2 falls over. Checkpoints aren’t too scarce, but they’re placed far enough apart that dying can set you back a fair way. When you respawn, you do so without any power-ups or items you’d collected, and while not strictly necessary, the extra room for error those things provide is noteworthy, and a big thing to lose. Having six hit points instead of five, or being able to eat a big chunk of the boss’ health in one go with a super attack goes a surprisingly long way.
The disempowerment from dying isn’t great, but where things really get frustrating is when you get a game over. Run out of lives, and you’ll continue from the very beginning of the current level—and when levels are long enough that a first pass can take upwards of half an hour, with at least one mid-boss along the way and numerous other fiddly challenges, that kind of setback just feels like a kick in the teeth. Even the most miserly of arcade games designed specifically to get players pumping in credit after credit at least have the decency to let you resume from the last checkpoint (or short enough levels that returning to the start isn’t that much of a hassle).
It’s not even an excessively difficult game in its individual pieces, but the only way to get through Ganryu 2 is to practice, practice, practice until you know a stage off by heart and can get somewhere close to perfect play, breath a quick sigh of relief when you finally clear it, then get ready to do the same for the next one. (Thankfully, the game saves between levels, at least.) Practiced mastery and the goal of the one-credit clear is part and parcel of many arcade games—one of their most enjoyable features, really—but even then, that journey needs to feel worthwhile. Ganryu 2, with its marathon levels and punitive approach to failure, makes the learning process as odious as possible.
Something as simple as an easy mode that lets you keep power-ups upon death—not unlike the way Andro Dunos II handled things—and/or continue from the last checkpoint instead of the level start is all it would take to keep frustration at bay and make a satisfying endeavour of overcoming Ganryu 2‘s challenges. There’ll be some who relish the challenge of running the gauntlet, but as it stands, that’s the only way to play. For everyone else, such a harsh continue system makes an insufferable experience out of a game that is, otherwise, extremely well crafted and a whole lot of fun.
That’s why I’m so torn on it. In almost every regard, Ganryu 2 is spectacular: it looks fantastic, builds on the original game in meaningful ways, nails the level and boss design that’s so crucial in an action platformer, and plays like a dream in the moment. But a horrific continue system that feels restrictive even by arcade standards means that actually experiencing all it has to offer requires the patience of a saint, and what should be a surefire hit instead turns into a painful slog.