As the NES rose to prominence platformers took over the market with every publisher getting in on it. Even though we got our fair share there were 3 times as many platformers that didn’t come to the US. Of course not all of them are good but there are many gems hidden behind incomprehensible titles. In some cases many are from some of the least likely publishers. Jaleco spent the majority of the 8-bit era releasing sports games in America. Most of them were good but they had a few very good side-scrollers begging for an international release. Youkai Club required no localization as there is only a few words of text (in English to boot) and would fit in nicely alongside Shatterhand and Totally Rad. It has its issues but is still better than crap like the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the Last Ninja.
The game wears its Youkai theme proudly which gives it a slightly distinct look. For a 1987 title this is a pretty detailed world although that doesn’t mean it is all great. The creature designs and some of the backgrounds are interesting but are let down by the ugly color palette. The lack of any unifying “theme” hurts the game as each level is all over the place in terms of art design. There is some decent music here and there but the soundtrack is repetitive which cancels that out. I sound harsh but only because Youkai Club had potential and fairs poorly compared to Castlevania which was released the same year.
Speaking of, if you replace Castlevania’s classic movie monster theme with Japanese demons it would paint a decent picture of Youkai Club. There are substantial differences however. You gain experience which enhances your powers as you progress which helps with the difficulty. The controls are solid as Akira can jump pretty high and still move around when airborne. Instead of a whip you have throwing daggers which are upgraded to larger fireballs at certain experience thresholds. There are an assortment of special weapons, some that are consumed immediately and others that are stocked up. The typical screen clearing bombs are present as well as an item to stop time but there are some really cool ones such as shadow clones, a speed boost and invincibility.
Although it has the appearance of your typical side scrolling action game Youkai Club has a heavier emphasis on platforming. Every level consists of a series of rooms that are usually wide open expanses and long corridors full of platforms that need to be navigated around to find items and reach the exits. While there is a set path in every stage there are numerous rooms that can be explored, time permitting.
The one thing the game does have in common with Castlevania is its unrelenting difficulty. Don’t let that long life bar fool you, it gets drained pretty quickly. Flying bats and other unpredictable annoyances pelt you with cheap hits left and right. Unlike that series however life restoring items are spaced out evenly but you’ll still break out in a nervous sweat hoping to survive. You won’t find any medusa heads but there are still plenty of enemies that can knock you into bottomless pits. In stark contrast most bosses are simple, with easy patterns to exploit. They can still kill you in few hits but it seems tame compared to the rest of the game.
Part of what puts the difficulty over the top is the loss of experience when you die. You need that experience, beyond the strength boost it is mandatory to even reach the end of the game. Grinding is not an option experience either; only bosses and specific enemies in the final level drop it. It basically means you’ll have to play near perfectly to avoid this penalty and that is not happening. The final boss is also gated behind a specific item that only appears in two spots that are easy to miss. That is bullshit of the highest order and I can’t believe that even made it into the game.
Those last few points are pretty damning and while I was willing to deal with it I don’t know if many will. The brave souls that do seek out Youkai Club will find plenty to like but just as much that might make them hate it. That being said though I still think it is a good game with some unfortunate flaws.