The Battle of Six Swings

Well, here we go. The fight of the centuries. A nightmarish Dewey Decimal mixup between Edo-era Japanese history, early 20th century pulp sci-fi, and the Who Would Win books. It’s Musashi vs. Cthulhu, and the winner can now be determined on the Nintendo Switch.

Kind of. Because the winner is going to be Cthulhu, or at least his minions. They’re never ending, after all, and Miyamoto Musashi is just one man. Musashi vs. Cthulhu isn’t about winning, it’s about chasing your high score…which sounds like it could be a lesson directly out of Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. I haven’t read that, but I have read David Kirk’s Child of Vengeance, and he made no mention of battle against Lovecraftian monstrosities.

That’s what Musashi vs. Cthulhu is, after all. This action game pits you, as Musashi, against an onslaught of creepy looking monsters you can’t overcome; you just have to stay alive as long as possible. That’s part and parcel for arcade action games, so it’s fair, but whether the gameplay can hold your attention for that long will depend upon your mastery of the niten’ichi kenjutsu technique.

A brief tutorial explains the controls, which are minimal. Musashi stands in the center of the screen, and he’s attacked from both sides. You move…actually, you don’t move. You jump…no, Musashi has no need for jumping. You kick…please, have some dignity. The only thing you do in the game is swing your swords. Up, left, and down on the D-pad are your high, mid, and low attacks to the left. X, A, and B are the same to the right. You simply thurst your sword in the intended direction.

Small enemies, such as giant maggots, need low swings to connect, obviously. Mutated flying insects require high swings. But what about the monsters that stand tall like Musashi? They have obviously defined weak points that must be targeted. In other words, this game is entirely about aiming and timing. Attacking to the left can leave you vulnerable to attack from the right, so you don’t want to overextend or misjudge who will get to you first.

You also don’t want to miss. That breaks your combo chain and, more drastically, allows the enemies to attack you. That will drain your health, but you do automatically shove all enemies away, allowing you time to refocus for your next move. You can also taunt to raise your shields, but taunting also leaves you temporarily vulnerable, so it needs to be well-timed.

That’s entirely it for the game’s basics, but Miyamoto Musashi didn’t become Japan’s greatest swordsman by simply mastering the basics. Each thrust of your swords shuffles you in that direction, allowing you to pull away from attacks from the opposite side. Learning your enemy’s movement speed becomes key so you’re not attacking an enemy that will fall behind another. Certain enemies also require multiple hits, so you’ll need to grow comfortable with quick strikes in order to take them down efficiently.

Yes, it’s all pretty basic, but Musashi vs. Cthulhu is helped out by a couple important items. First, the gameplay is exceptionally snappy; attacks are responsive and fluid. Second, the graphics are effectively creepy (although some setting variety would’ve been nice). Third, the audio does a solid job of accenting the action.

All of this combines to create a somewhat addictive, visceral experience that manages to entertain longer than you may expect. Still, I can’t help but feel the Switch version is missing one key feature: motion control. Holding a Joy-Con in each hand and snapping your wrist to strike could’ve been really cool, albeit tiring. It may have also made the game too easy if executed well, but I feel like motion control was a lost opportunity.

Musashi vs. Cthulhu is not the deepest game you’re going to play this week, and it doesn’t provide a purpose for those not interested in chasing high scores or leaderboard rankings. But it is fun in short bursts, and it’s instantly accessible. I think it would make more sense as a mobile game, but at only $5.00, it’s priced to serve that time-killing purpose when you have your Switch on the go.

So, let’s have a good, clean fight, and may the best man (or cosmic entity) win.