The Golden Age of Ninjas
Modojo's resident ninja Philip Jones laments the death of his species and reminisces about the glory days...
You'll often find the words "video arcade", "youth" and "misspent" occurring in the same sentence. I'd like to think that my time spent down in the video arcade wasn't at all a waste of time or money. I say this, as one day, way back in 1987 I was introduced to something so awesome, it would go on to be one of the most popular things ever for quite some time. I'm talking about ninjas. It's hard to describe exactly how it felt at the time, but as a young, impressionable child, there just seemed to be something so exceptionally cool about ninjas and their general...stealthiness.
Over the late 80's to the early 90's, ninjas were everywhere - in the movies, in cartoons, and of course, in videogames. The handhelds of the early 90's were blessed with great adaptations of the popular ninja action games of the time, the Shinobi series on Game Gear and the Ninja Gaiden series, which made appearances on all the major handhelds of the time. The amount of ninja action games dried up during the mid to late 90's, only recently having a resurgence, albeit very differently, in 3D form. Here we're going to take a glance at the most popular ninja games, which you had better enjoy, or it's a quick and silent death for you!
So, masks on, shurikens at the ready...
Shinobi Game Gear - Sega
The Game Gear was visited twice by Sega's homegrown ninja squad in two separate GG Shinobi titles. They carried across the combo of ninja action and platform acrobatics found in the original arcade game, but with a twist in that you were limited in the weapons you carried. You start the game as good ol' Joe Musashi, the hero of the Shinobi series. Your mission is to rescue your (obviously inept) ninja friends from captivity, who after liberation become playable and turn out to have a selection of different weapons and skills. How very handy. Green Shinobi could double jump and throw shuriken, Blue could swing around on a grappling hook, Yellow could walk on water and attack with energy waves. Finally, Pink Shinobi could dangle from ceilings and lob bombs! He might be pink 'n' cuddly, but he's a madman packin' a satchel full o' bombs! The locations in the game were your typical kinds of ninja scenarios, which for some strange reason always seemed to include docks. Now, woodlands I can understand, but what is it with ninjas and ships? Maybe they have to pick up a consignment of shurikens or something.
The second GG Shinobi, titled The Silent Fury can essentially be seen as a continuation of the first, with the silly ninjas getting themselves imprisoned all over again. Only this time you have to rescue the ninjas as well as locate a crystal hidden within each level. Tiring work, this being a ninja. Tiring...and deadly.
That was the last we'd see of handheld Shinobi for a very long time, and if only it could've been the last, as there is one more game in the series. One dirty little game that spreads muck all over the name of Shinobi. You probably haven't heard of it, and believe me. You'll wish you hadn't.
We're all familiar with the legend that is the Genesis game Revenge of Shinobi. Well, in 2002 someone at Sega decided "wouldn't it be great to do an all new Shinobi game on this Game Boy Advance thing eh?" A great idea for sure! Shame things didn't go quite to plan. If you check out the screenshot, you'll be able to see that it just looks wrong. I guess that's what happens when you farm out one of your precious licenses to a developer who doesn't give a damn about giving you a decent game back.
Ninja Gaiden - Tecmo
There was another ninja on the block...a certain Mr Ryu Hayabusa, wearing his rather snazzy blue ninja rags. The series started out in the arcades as a side scrolling beat 'em up in the same vein as Double Dragon, only with added ninja athleticism. The home conversions on the other hand, were more along the lines of an action platformer, employing dash 'n' hack tactics. The Game Boy and Game Gear incarnations followed in the footsteps of the NES home version. Ninja Gaiden Shadow on the Game Boy, was actually the name given to the western release of a conversion of a Japanese Famicom game, Kage (Shadow), released in the U.S. as Shadow of the Ninja. It plays so much like a Ninja Gaiden title, that given the popularity of the series, it was considered an ideal candidate to become a part of the Gaiden family.
The Game Gear Gaiden was a proper ahem...stab, at being a Ninja Gaiden game, but like many Sega games, its development was handled by their own internal teams, hence the "Reprogrammed by Sega" on the title screen. Game Gear Gaiden typifies the early 90's handheld action game. Short, fast and sweet. Mister Hayabusa tears around the levels with great speed, chopping down bad guys as he goes. Which is good, seeing as if you get beaten by the level boss, you'll need the speed to get back to him, as you'll find yourself all the back at the start of the level! (Shakes ninja fist at sky)
The other handheld to be graced by the ninjas of Gaiden was none other than poor old Atari Lynx. Shunned by pretty much all the major game companies of the time, the Lynx amazingly became host to two excellent Ninja Gaiden games - most astonishingly, a conversion of the original arcade game. I can remember the day at school; we were all sat around at breaktime playing on our Boys and Gears. When the one kid who had a Lynx shouted out "I have new game!", we all sauntered on over expecting some rubbish like Uncle Bob's Lazer Golf Cart Quest 2000. Instead, we were all in stunned silence, as the arcade game we knew and loved danced in front of our eyes on the screen of the Lynx. It was a remarkably faithful conversion and quite possibly one of the best games to appear on the neglected Atari machine.
The second Lynx outing, Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, was a port of the NES original. The only real problem with the otherwise excellent game was that the size of the sprites was verging on the ridiculous...tiny little ninjas, running around on minute LCD screens that featured a lot more blur than screens do these days. It becomes hard to tell the items and enemies from the background graphics! Gameplay though, is solid Ninja Gaiden action. So it's still worth picking up if you can find a copy.
ALL NEW NINJA GAIDEN DS!!!
As you're probably well aware, Ninja Gaiden made a comeback on the Xbox, and following on from this renewal of the franchise, we're going to be receiving an all new Ninja Gaiden game! Hell yeah! Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, which should be with us towards the end of the year, looks stunning from the few pictures released so far by Tecmo. The game adopts the "DS as a book" orientation, like Brain Age and Hotel Dusk. It looks like you'll be controlling Hayabusa with the dpad, while slashing away at enemies and casting spells with the stylus. Not that much else has been revealed about the game yet, so just view the screens and drool away!
Ganbare Goemon / Mystical Ninja - Konami
Over at Konami, an entirely different kind of ninja action was taking place. The Legend Of The Mystical Ninja games, known as Ganbare Goemon (literally, Go for it Goemon!). spanned right from the Game Boy all the way to the DS, with a mixture of action RPG, RPG and platform games.
The first two games, for the original Game Boy, Goemon: Saraweta Ebisumaru and Ganbare Goemon: Kurofune Tou no Nazo, were two quite different games. Goemon: Saraweta Ebisumaru was a simpler action game, with Goemon on a quest to free his companion Ebisumaru, who went and got himself kidnapped by Yagyu Jubei (a real-life 17th century Japanese swordsman, I'll have you know). The game itself was graphically excellent for the time, with pleasant backgrounds and detailed characters. It's not a particulary complex game, just a nice romp around feudal Japan, whacking people in the way only Goemon can. The game never received a US release but bizarrely, it did surface in Europe in a colorized form in 2000, a whole 9 years after its original release, as a part of the Konami GB Collection Vol. 3...where it was pretty much ignored. Poor Goemon.
The second Game Boy Goemon came along in 1998 and did make it to the West intact as Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. Problem was, it was far from being a good representation of the fun usually inherent in a Goemon game. I remember looking forward to it so much, then when I finally got my hands on it, being the most disappointed I'd been in an age! They had tried to turn Goemon into an action RPG, but made the game repetitive, frustrating, and awkward to control. BAD Konami... Baaaaad Konami... Maybe some of you out there really enjoyed this, but either way, the game didn't do too well, and after this, Konami decided we wouldn't get to see any more of Mister Goemon and friends in the west.
In Japan there were three more Goemons for the Game Boy Color, a new adventure plus a couple of retro Goemons for the Game Boy Advance and in '05, a beautiful DS appearance.
The Game Boy Color titles consisted of two RPG's, Ganbare Goemon: Tengu-to no Gyuakushu! and the Pokemonesque Ganbare Goemon: Mononoke Douchuu Tobidase Nabe-Bugyou, both of which are impenetrable without knowledge of Japanese. There is however an excellent platform game in the shape of Ganbare Goemon: Hoshizorashi Dynamites Arawaru!! The graphics were bright and bold, taking full advantage of the limited power on offer. Go for it indeed!
Along came the Game Boy Advance, and with it Goemon: New Age Shutsudou! Which, as the name implies, was a re-imagining of Goemon, transplanting him into the present day as a weapon equipped crime-fighter of sorts. As action platformers go, it was fine kiddie fodder. Just not classic Goemon as we knew it. Luckily, the next Goemon releases for the Game Boy Advance happened to be retro re-releases. The original 1986 Famicom title found itself a member of the Famicom Mini retro catalog, followed by Kessakusen! Ganbare Goemon 1+2, which consisted of the first two SNES titles. Excellence in cartridge form! It was a crime against humanity that this cartridge didn't get a western release!
The final portable installment of Goemon came in '05 on the DS. Despite never seeing our shores, it is an artistically outstanding work on Konami's behalf. Taking its cues from traditional Japanese art (a good year before Okami too, I might add). Ganbare Goemon: Toukai Douchuu Daiedo Tenguri, to give it its rather full title, is a return to the game's roots. You meander around, completing sub-quests and stylus-based minigames. After the lack of silliness in Goemon: New Age Shutsudou, the game features the welcome return of classic Goemon humor. Silly costumes and farting, yay! Ninjas are ace, but farting ninjas? Now we're talkin'.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Turtles have had a long history of portable games, seeing releases on the original Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and the more recent TMNT movie tie-ins on the DS and PSP. While the games are indeed fun, they don't really coun't as real ninja games in my opinion, being more of a commercial cash-in on the popularity of the Turtles. The original Game Boy games , Fall of the Foot Clan, Back from the Sewers, and Radical Rescue are simple side-scrolling beat 'em ups, nice and easy for the kids of the day.
With a new series of the Cartoon show on our TV's, it wasn't long before Game Boy Advance games appeared. They were similar to the original Game Boy titles, only with more action, faster pace and much more cartoon-like visuals. After two outings on the Game Boy Advance, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus (which included the original arcade game as an unlockable treat!), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Mutant Nightmare appeared on the DS. More of the same then, yes? But this time with stylus based minigames? You do spoil us.
The latest games are the Movie Tie-in TMNT games, which appear to be nice 3D fighting games. You think you're in for some ninja treats, then as you start to play, everything goes wrong. For some reason it was decided the game would be a series of simple button presses, leaving you awkwardly limited in what you can actually do yourself. Steer well clear of these stinkin' barrels of turd.
Ninja Five 0 - Konami
Out of the blue in 2003 came a little game that received so little coverage it was almost as if it was released at night, in a dark corner somewhere, covered in stickers saying "This game has plague, leave well alone!" The goods concealed within the tiny grey cartridge just happened to be 2D ninja action gold! The graphical style, while basic, reminds one of the classic Elevator Action Returns for the Saturn, but the game couldn't play more differently. It's good old swords and shuriken, Shinobi style. The best feature has to be the ninja grappling hook, which turns the game into an amazing test of your dexterity, as you grapple from one ledge to another. This is what great ninja games are made of, pleeeaaase Konami, this game deserves a sequel!
Tenchu - From Software
The Tenchu games have been a pretty hit and miss affair. Starting out back in 1997, the series has amassed a hardcore fanbase. After all, for a long time it was pretty much the only ninja action going. With the release of the DS and PSP we finally had handhelds with enough guts to realise the 3D ninja action that Tenchu encompasses.
So, you all ready to get your ninja suit on? Well, hold it...it seems that rather than create a thrilling stealth action game, the developers decided an all out attack on your brain and eyes would do the job instead. The DS game, Tenchu: Dark Secret, is an abomination! Just check our review to find out why. Do feel free to buy this game, if you're some kind of masochist who revels in game-pain. Just don't come running to us when your eyes shrivel up.
So, the reputation of the Tenchu series falls to the PSP iteration. Tenchu: Time of the Assassins. Sounds ominous! But where is it? The game came out in Japan mid-2005 and followed in Europe a year later. By the time of its scheduled US release, it's going to be over two years old. The problem is that the game was heavily criticized by the press for being unoriginal and technically pretty poor. The game used art and sound from previous Tenchu games and was lambasted for its poor draw distance. I know ninjas love the dark but they do like to be able to see where they're headed.
I'm hopeful that the reason for the delay is a complete rewrite of the game. If none of the issues have been addressed though, this game will probably end up in the bargain bins alongside its DS brethren.
Shinobido Homura: Soul of the Ninja - Spike
The final piece of ninja action is brought to us by the developers Acquire, who just happen to be the original PSone Tenchu team. So as you would expect, Shinobido Homura: Soul of the Ninja is effectively a reworking of the Tenchu game style but with new characters and plots. Launched last year in Japan, the game hasn't yet been given a US release date. The website of Acquire puts it down to "circumstances beyond their control," which could mean anything! The game will however receive a translation and release in Europe this September. So if you want some sneaky killing action it won't be hard at all to import a copy, what with PSP games being region-free.
Is the game any good? Debate rages within the ninja loving fraternity as to whether or not it's better than the PSP Tenchu offering. Opinion among the ninja fans is that it's certainly a fresher feeling title, but it's over all too quickly. Well, even a ninja can't win 'em all I guess. Being fans of the ninja here, when the game receives its translation and release, we'll take a proper look at it.
While 1987-94 might well have been the golden age of ninjas, and while it's pleasing to have seen a resurgence in prominence for our ninja friends over the last few years, these modern 3D ninja romps just don't quite feel the same. The old games were more fantastical, more action packed, less hiding in the shadows, and more eviscerating masked opponents! What we need is to see a return of 2D ninja action to our hands! Only problem there is that 2D games aren't what the public wants these days. They're too busy running around popping caps in each others asses or trying to level up their own brains. We ninja fans will just have to lie in wait in the shadows, sharpening our shuriken until the day we get our revenge on the 3D usurpers!