14/07/2011

THE NINJA WARRIORS AGAIN (SNES)

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Taito's 1987 arcade slashathon The Ninja Warriors, on the basis that nothing that includes robot ninjas fighting tanks could possibly be a waste of time. It turned out that, while it certainly wasn't something I regretted playing, The Ninja Warriors had its share of problems. I also mentioned the superior sequel, released for the SNES in 1994, and that's what I'll be looking today. Let's find out if the joy of playing as a cyborg assassin has worn off with The Ninja Warriors Again!

Yes, it's called The Ninja Warriors Again, or at least it is in Japan - the name was changed to the in-no-way-confusing The Ninja Warriors for the Western markets. I can see why they did it; to a native English speaker, The Ninja Warriors Again just sounds like a letdown. "Awww, Mom, Ninja Warriors again? We had Ninja Warriors last week", a non-existent yet petulant child might say.

Rather than a straight sequel to the arcade game, NW Again is more of a reboot, albeit one with a lot of changes. The story of the game is the same as the original: a tyrant named Banglar has risen to power, enslaving the people and brainwashing them into doing, you know, brainwashed stuff. Exalting their glorious leader, not complaining when the police murder their families, that kind of thing. However, a rebel group, led by the mysterious Mulk, are fighting back by sending out robot ninja assassins to kill Banglar. You play as one of the robots, and here's where the first big difference between NW Again and the original comes into play.

Unlike the original, which had you controlling Kunoichi (or the identical Ninja if you were P2), NW Again gives you three very different characters to chose from. On the left is Ninja, the powerhouse of the team who looks like Colossus had he joined the Japanese branch of the X-Men. In the middle is Kunoichi, star of the first game. She's the balance-type character. Finally there's Kamaitachi, the speedster of the team whose speed is probably down to him not being encumbered with clothes or skin or nothin'. He's a robot ninja skeleton, and for this his place at the top table of robot coolness is assured. All three characters play differently, probably a lot more differently than you might have expected from a side-scrolling SNES beat-em-up.

Pictured above is Kunoichi. On the left is her sprite from the original Ninja Warriors, and on the right her sprite from NW Again. Not too much change in her general appearance, although the SNES sprite does look a lot nicer. Anyway, Kunoichi fights with two small kunai daggers, just like in the first game. Unlike the first game, however, she's got a lot more in her arsenal than stabbing with a dagger or throwing a shuriken. Each character has a large repertoire of moves; there's a standard combo, crouching moves, three different throws, a dashing attack, different jumping attacks, and evasive dodges. Each character also has some kind of special ability: in Kunoichi's case, she can wall-jump off her opponent's face once she's jump-kicked them. It's... pretty great, I have to say.

That's Ninja's original sprite on the left. Far too generic-looking for this enhanced SNES version, I'm sure you'll agree, so he gets a major overhaul and becomes a giant steel badass. No kunais here, as Ninja prefers to use a clobbering left hook, or a pair of nunchaku if his opponent is particularly stubborn. Because of his weight, Ninja doesn't jump like the others; pressing jump and a direction makes him dash along the ground and shoulder-tackle his foes. Not being able to jump does make his play-style feel a lot different to the rest, which is a nice change.

Lastly there's Kamaitachi. He dashes around like weasel on speed, which is appropriate because he's named after a Japanese ghost/demon thing called a "sickle weasel" that supposedly flies around, slicing up people's legs. Slicing people's legs is something you'll be doing a lot as Kamaitachi, so the crazed demon weasel / robot assassin comparison seems reasonable enough.

So, three very different characters and a whole slew of moves. Luckily, there are plenty of goons for you to practice your ancient killing techniques upon. The first stage starts, as missions to assassinate the corrupt president so often do, with a ninja jump-kicking out of a window. Much like the first game, NW Again is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, and it's side-scrolling in the strictest sense. There's no movement along the Z-axis here: it's all as 2D as Super Mario Brothers.

The controls are simple, and I'm sure you won't be surprised when I tell you there's one button to jump and one to attack. More unusual is that there's no health-draining special move that you can activate by pressing jump and attack together; instead, NWA has a separate "blaster" bar underneath your health. As long as you're not getting hit this bar slowly fills up, and once it reaches the top you can press X to unleash a screen-clearing smartbomb attack. If you get knocked down, your blaster bar is reset to zero, and the game gains a nice element of risk and reward - do you try and save your blaster for a bigger group or tougher enemies and risk losing it all to a stray bullet? It might not sound like much, but it's these touches that make NWA shine a little brighter.

This is the Japanese version, so I get the dubious pleasure of fighting the acrobatic female ninjas; in the Western releases, these nice young ladies are replaced with claw-wielding ninjas that we shall meet later. Aside from the female ninjas, you'll also be fighting a lot of grunts in overalls and little hats, much like in the original NW. They are no better equipped than last time; in fact, their knives seem even less useful this time round, the poor buggers. Banglar's brainwashing must be bloody strong stuff, because if someone told me to try and destroy a ninja cyborg with what seems to be a butterknife and I wasn't under their complete control, I'm pretty sure I'd just go and find a cupboard to hide in until it was all over.

Oh, and there's a boss. Big ol' robot boss. Yep. Not much to say about him, other than he looks like Jack from Tekken. Lumpy and Russian, I mean. A jumpkick to the face followed by a frenzied kunai attack to the knees is probably your best strategy. His head explodes, and stage two beckons.

Huh, in the picture above Kunoichi looks like she's about to get attacked by a paramilitary version of the Super Mario Brothers. Eets-a me, a member of a government death squad!
Stage two features more industrial architecture, with a bridge, a train and a vent filled with fans enemies will blindly wander into if you stand near them. You also get the chance to throw a control panel around.

Luigi looking a bit worried there. Now seems like a good time to say that I absolutely love the graphics in this game - it's full of big, bold, well-animated sprites and nice backgrounds in a style which I don't really have a name for but which is completely evocative of the 16-bit era. I don't think it's a stretch to say I would much rather see a game in this style than any amount of photorealistic FPS games. The quality graphics are put to good use here, as we meet stage two's boss - and boy is he a humdinger.

After he carves his way through the background, you stand toe-to-toe with a chainsaw-carrying samurai fireman. Niiiiice. He looks like the spokesman for the world's most insane butter company, and it's your job to take him down. Luckily, his chainsaw can be blocked with your tiny kunai, which I'm sure isn't how the Butteriest Lumberjack here saw the fight going down. Again, stab him in the knees a lot; he'll fall over eventually.

Stage three starts in the subway. I don't know if the subway is abandoned or merely decrepit. New enemies abound, including masked ninjas and robots that can only be hurt from behind. Leading on from the abandoned subway is the abandoned mall:

Now a personal kingdom for former actors in John Woo films, it seems. Hey, look, they're wearing sunglasses indoors - they deserve to get punched. Are deserted shopping centres usually considered areas of great strategic value? Because there sure are a lot of enemies guarding the place.

The boss is a skull-faced, pyjama-bottoms-wearing Power Rangers villain. Man, those pyjama bottoms sure look comfy. Where was I? Oh yeah, he can turn invisible, complete with a nice fade effect, and he also likes to scuttle along the wall and throw grenades at you. He's an odd duck, this one, but a kunai to the knees doesn't discriminate.

The first Ninja Warriors' obsession with heavy ordnance is not forgotten, and the start of stage four sees you under bombardment from a row of tanks, possibly sitting on a Miami beach in the sunset. And if you don't like tanks, how about a nice helicopter?

That's a damn fine lookin' helicopter. Like so many of the enemy's traps in NWA, you can use it to your advantage by luring your enemies into the stream of molten death it spews out, saving you time and energy and making for some very awkward conversations back at the villain's lair as the gunner travels the wards, apologising to his comrades for turning their legs into mincemeat.

Colonel Sanders, is that you? No, but the boss certainly is a dapper gentlemen. Instead of fighting, we sat down, drank a mint julep and calmly and rationally discussed our plans. No, not really, he tried to kill me by firing an orbital death-laser at my head. Presumably he could have done this at any time; I'd like to thank him for waiting until I was close enough to stab him before he decided to use his ultimate weapon.

An opulent skyscraper is the setting for stage five, complete with elevators that, shockingly, cannot be entered. Neither do enemies pour out of them. I must admit, it left me feeling a little disorientated. Luckily, the excellent music soothed me, and I resumed my murderous journey up the tower. At the top, there's some kind of dojo, complete with its own kung-fu master.

No, I don't know what happened to his trousers. For a master of the martial arts, he sure fights like a dishonourable prick, constantly calling in hordes of enemies to fight you while he prances around in the background, trying to impress the ladies with his flying kicks.

A short stage follows. You catch sight of Banglar, but he runs away and makes you fight the stage one boss again, twice. They've been upgraded, but as their upgrades seem to consist of wearing a cycling helmet, you'll excuse me for not being too worried.

We're nearing the end now, as Kunoichi storms Banglar's base in the snowy mountains. Well, once she's got past the swarms of monkey-like ninjas and Andre the Giant's distant relatives anyway. I realised that a lot of the challenge, and therefore fun, of NWA comes from correctly prioritising your attacks; knowing which enemy to hit, when and what moves to use becomes increasingly important as the game goes on, especially when you're trying to avoid getting hit to fill your blaster bar. Plus, there's a great feeling of satisfaction if your moves pan out the way you hoped. For instance, jumpkicking a goon in the face, walljumping away, grabbing an enemy and smashing into the first guy who is just getting to his feet is fun, pure and simple, and NWA offers it by the bucketload.

Inside the base, I finally get to ride a lift. The lift is full of ninjas, and I mean full; it's like a student prank in there, and much like an out-of-hand student prank, many hundreds will die. Your trip in the lift is cut short by the boss, who severs the cables and drops you into his lair.

I'm fairly sure he was a villain in Captain Planet, wasn't he? Whoever he is, he appears to be wearing the evil mutant version of Borat's mankini. He's got stretchy limbs and hundreds of minions, but I'm sure you expect that kind of thing by now. Once he's dead, it's time for the final stage.

It's mostly a mop-up job until you reach the final confrontation. Still, nice to see the Super Paramilitary Brothers again. Make your way through the various aeroplane hangars, and soon enough it's time for the last fight...

...and this time, it's against Banglar himself! In the previous NW game, Banglar was cowering in a corner and you simply had to stab him in the chest as he begged for mercy, but in NWA he's grown a pair and decided to fight you. Well, sort of: he sits in the cockpit of his machine there and fires laser beams at you from the ceiling while an endless stream of enemies pour in, try to kill you and get clobbered by said laser beams. It's an odd strategy, and one that is made even worse by the fact that the only way to hurt Banglar is by throwing enemies into his cockpit, much like the fight against Shredder in Turtles in Time. So, Banglar's fate is sealed by his insistence on having hundreds of his minions around. If he'd told all his troops to wait outside, he could have at least reached a stalemate, because apparently my steel robot fists aren't powerful enough to punch through his capsule. Once you've thrown enough bad guys at him, the game is complete and Banglar's evil tyranny is ended. Huzzah!

So, is Banglar a mutant? An alien? I don't know, but he's definitely dead. And, in the same way as the original game, our ninja hero is dead too. A bomb goes off in Kunoichi's chest, taking Banglar's base with her. Still, I think the ending to NWA manages to be even more depressing than the first one, describing as it does Mulk's rise to power and his increasing use of advanced robots, with the implication he's going to be just as bad as Banglar.

One day there'll by a Ninja Warriors Again Again, which is just the same game but with Banglar's sprite replaced with Mulk's. And you know what? I'd be fine with that.

Ninja Warriors Again is a real gem, and I can't recommend it enough. The purely 2D action might put you off if you're a fan of beat-em-ups like Final Fight, but the gameplay is different enough that it doesn't just feel as though it has a dimension missing. In fact, I can't really think of anything bad to say about NWA. The gameplay is great fun, with three very distinct and different characters. I love the graphics, and the music (by Hiroyuki Iwatsuki and N. Tate) is excellent:



The only real downside I can think of is that there isn't a two-player co-op mode. Apart from that, NWA is something of a lost treasure that deserves to be remembered much more fondly than it already is, as an example of how to take a not-so-great arcade game and adapt it for the home consoles, if nothing else. So please, give Ninja Warriors Again a go. Unless not acting like a ninja is a condition of your parole or something.

5 comments:

  1. I remember as a young lad reading the review of NWA in CVG over and over again.
    The lack of an SNES prevented me sampling its charms til the rise of the emulator. It turned out to be one of the few games to meet my usually overinflated childhood expectations.

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  2. Yeah, NWA has definitely aged a lot better than many of its contempories (I'm looking at you, Maximum Carnage). I don't remember seeing it in CVG though, which is odd because I read CVG pretty religiously when I was a kid.

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    Replies
    1. Great review. But how could you first play as the kunoichi in pink pajamas, when you had a hulking cyborg available? What abominable taste you have, Mr. VGJUNK.

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  3. I played this game pretty recently for the first time... and it's actually really good! There aren't many single plane beat-em-ups that I like, but this is definitely one of them. Also, Kunoichi looks hot and sassy.

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  4. Great review for a great game!
    I've been looking for the game's manual unsuccessfully... I'd like to write a short story based on that "lost manual".

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