Things that were big in the 1980s: Michael Jackson, Dynasty, shoulder pads... and ninjas. Ninjas were a genuine pop-culture craze, which still strikes me as an odd quirk of fate. Imagine if it had been, say, Aztec warriors who had sparked the world's imaginations during the era of Thatcher and Reagan instead of ninjas: Teenage Mutant Aztec Turtles would have been very different, for starters. Parents who complained about the violence in TMNT might have had a point if each episode ended with Michaelangelo tearing the still-beating heart from his enemy's chest as an offering to the gods.But I digress. Here at VGJunk a pop culture craze can only mean one thing, and that's cash-in games - and boy were there a lot of those. There are around twenty games on the ZX Spectrum alone with "Ninja" in the title, and that doesn't even include ninja-based but not ninja-named games like Shinobi, ranging from (relatively) serious titles such as The Last Ninja to a slew of "wacky" games with no connection to ninjas beyond the name, like BMX Ninja, Ninja Hamster and Ninja Scooter Simulator. Yes, those are all real games.
With that in mind, I set myself the goal of finding the ZX Spectrum's most average ninja game. Something slap-bang in the middle, something pointless in its blandness and, as is usually the case with ninja games, something that has bugger all to do with ninjas. I think I might have found that game. It was released in 1989 by Zeppelin Games, and it's called Ninja Commando.
The loading screen is trying to trick me into thinking it's actually called NINIA OMMAND, but that's just typical shinobi trickery that can safely be ignored.
This is our ninja. The way he's gingerly holding his sword suggests that he's not entirely comfortable with the use of bladed weapons, but that's okay because we won't be using one in this game anyway. He also made his ninja hood by pulling a stocking over a motorcycle helmet. At least the loading screen is colourful, but if you're here because you were drawn, moth-like, to the neon hues of the ZX Spectrum then I suggest you turn back now because things are about to get drab.
Monochrome, even. Two fuzzy grey ninjas squat on a fuzzy grey background, unable to bring themselves to look at each other after a recent argument about which kinds of shuriken are the best.
I assume this dismal screen was purposefully designed this way to encourage the player to start the game as quickly as possible, so let's get on with it.
Of course, Ninja Commando is a side-scrolling platformer. I told you I was looking for the average. I'm also looking for the hero, because I seem to have mislaid him amongst the off-white mist that makes up the levels.
There he is, looking not at all like a ninja. He looks like a jogger with his hood up. Is this entire game a shocking case of mistaken identity, where one man out for an evening run is mistaken for a trained assassin? I don't want to start making wild claims about Zeppelin Games' intentions on this one but yes, that's exactly what's happening.
Your mission is to run from left to right, jumping over holes and avoiding enemies, until you reach the end of the stage. Ninja Commando keeps up its sterling work in the field of blandness by adopting this genre, but it shocked me by being far superior to many of its contemporaries when it comes to the controls. They're much better than many Spectrum games, and given the kind of jerky mess I was expecting from a budget-priced ZX game they damn near blew my mind. Your ninja moves smoothly and reacts with precision to your commands, although he doesn't have many skills to master - move left or right, jump and fire is all you have at your disposal. Still, it's nice that I can generally get my ninja to do what I want him to do with the minimum of fuss.
Being a ninja / unfortunate jogger, you have raised the anger of many men, all of whom have sworn a solemn oath to destroy you and all you hold dear. Their plan for achieving this goal is to mill about the levels, getting in your way. Here we can see a column of crash test dummies advancing upon our hero with murder on their minds. "Marching mannequins shouldn't be a problem for a ninja," I hear you cry, and you're right. Sadly our hero isn't much of a ninja because he forgot to bring a bloody weapon with him. You start Ninja Commando bare-handed, and being a videogame ninja touching your opponents causes you to die instantly. Do ninjas and commandos cancel each other out or something, as though a special forces soldier is the positron to the electron of the ninja? Commandos - tough guys. Ninjas - tough guys. Ninja Commandos? That scrawny kid at school who wore corrective shoes and smelled weird.
You aren't completely defenceless, however - it's just that our hero went to the same dojo as Super Mario. To kill an enemy, you must master the deadly martial art of jumping on their head. Yup, jump on their heads. To kill them. And you're a ninja. It's a good job I read the instructions before I started playing this. I don't think I would have figured that one out.
Once your enemies' weakness has been revealed to you, you can start smashing heads beneath your feet which will lead in turn to Ninja Commando's weapons system. You see, there are weapons in this game, it's just that our ninja pal left them all in his ninja bedside table or wherever it is that he stores his tools of death. Kill an enemy, and there's a chance that they'll drop a shuriken for you to collect.
See? Once collected, you can throw shurikens with the fire button and revel in the one ninja-related aspect of the game. It doesn't stop there, though - once you've got the throwing stars, killing more enemies will cause one to eventually drop a bomb pick up. Collect the bombs and they replace your shurikens as your long-range murder option. Bomb enough enemies and you'll collect a flamethrower.
What, you don't think a flamethrower is a suitable weapon for a ninja? Well then you'll probably hate the last weapon, because it's just a gun.
Okay, maybe not just any gun, because most guns don't fire rounds that look like quivering strips of bacon, but a gun is a gun. Notice that the weapons get less ninja-y as they progress - I was hoping to collect a fifth power-up that'd put me in the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle, but no such luck.
You lose your weapon when you die, (or finish the level,) which sounds harsh but isn't that much of a problem because using your weapons in Ninja Commando turns out to be a fairly pointless exercise.
For one thing, enemies just keep spawning, pouring out of the doorways that litter every level to create an endless stream of crash test dummies, generic men with guns or, in this case, goons whose bubble-shaped heads offer all manner of possible explanations. Are they astronauts, traditionally the fiercest rivals of the ninja clans? Men in hazmat suits? Extremely lost Olympic fencers? It's probably that last one - it's a little-known fact that the final step in the training of an Olympic fencer is that they must take the life of a ninja in order to prove their worth.
So, enemies constantly pour into the battle, making standing still and throwing shurikens at them rather redundant when the only reward is more pointless weaponry.
After a while spent playing Ninja Commando and struggling with the hordes of enemies, it became clear to me that I was playing the game all wrong. I began to think of it this way: Ninja Commando is actually a surprisingly accurate take on the activities of the real ninjas of feudal Japan. Our hero, having slipped into the enemy base to assassinate someone or poison a well or whatever he was paid to do, has been spotted. That's why there are so many enemies everywhere, and what would a ninja do when faced with these overwhelming odds? Run. Run as fast as he could to escape his pursuers and make it back safely to ninja territory (directions to Ninja Territory: go right).
Obviously I just pulled that story out of my arse, but running is definitely the way to go in Ninja Commando. This is because when the enemies first appear on screen, for a few seconds you cannot be harmed by them. If they're flashing when they walk out of their doorway, then you can walk right through them, and if you're quick enough you can get past them and on to the next area before they have a chance to attack. Speed is of the essence, and stopping to actually fight enemies is right off the menu. In fact, sometimes blindly charging forwards is the only reasonable way to progress.
Take the situation pictured above. Having dithered around for too long, our hero has allowed the gun-toting soldier on the platform above to become active, fatal to the touch and armed with one of those wobbly bacon launchers. From this position the Ninja Commando is, to be blunt, fucked. You can't attack while jumping, so even if he had a shuriken, he couldn't take the enemy out via that method. You can't hop over to the next platform, because the arc of your jump will carry you into the enemy and kill you. You could try jumping up to the gunman's platform, but that's a very difficult landing to make without touching him and dying, and even if you did manage it getting past him would still be a challenge because you can only jump straight up or at a set angle. The only other option for our ninja friend is to live out the remainder of his life on that one small platform, ekeing out a living by ploughing the seven square inches of arable land found upon it and building a simple dwelling out of his own clothes.
That's if you hesitated, of course. If you run for it, you can get past the man with the gun before he solidifies, a hearty "see you later, sucker!" on your lips as he struggles to materialise in time to shoot you in the back before you're gone, gone, gone.
In fact, if you're thinking of playing Ninja Commando, then I suggest you cheat to make it a more enjoyable experience all around. There's a POKE you can use to give yourself 255 lives. Use it, and play the game not as a platformer, but as an obstacle course. Run though the levels as quickly as you can, before the enemies can get their acts together. Ninja Commando is surprisingly generous with its in-stage checkpoints, and when combined with a huge amount of lives you'll find that dying is not the punishment it might otherwise feel like. Doing this transforms Ninja Commando from a frustrating, overly difficult and plodding exercise in tedium to a fast-paced test of reflexes and memory where the game's smooth controls and precise-but-not-pixel-perfect tests of jumping can really shine.
The transformation was pretty amazing, and I ended up enjoying Ninja Commando far more than I thought I would. I mean, my expectations were lowered because this is a Spectrum game, after all, but I had fun with it. It does have some flaws, of course: on the whole I actually really liked the monochrome graphics, which at least avoided the colour clashing so prevalent in Spectrum games and gave the game an unusual mood, but it does occasionally get difficult to see what the bloody hell is going on.
At least he's more camouflaged than most videogame ninjas.
There's also the fact that the levels are very samey, and once you've gotten past the first two you've pretty much seen everything that Ninja Commando has to offer. Plus, there are occasional appearances by what I have taken to calling the Bastard Potato.
That's the lumpy thing on the left with the wiggly laser coming out of it. The Bastard Potato is more an environmental hazard than an enemy - it's always active, and it does nothing but sit there, spewing lasers and being fatal to the touch, and it requires some extremely accurate jumping to get past. Of the 255 lives I gave myself, I think these things claimed about two hundred. Luckily they don't appear very often, but now I find myself eyeing the King Edwards in my kitchen with some suspicion.
Oh, and the message you receive for finishing the game is so spartan it feels almost sarcastic. "Well done," say the developers, while clapping slowly. Well, it's a ZX Spectrum game so I was expecting it. Who's the loser now, huh? Hang on, wait, it's still me.
I set out to find the most average ninja game that the Spectrum had to offer, but in the end I stumbled across something which, with a little cheating, managed to exceed my admittedly low expectations and keep me entertained for an hour or so. Would I recommend it to other people? No, of course not. I'm not that cruel. But if you do find yourself wanting to give Ninja Commando a try, I hope this article has helped you understand how to play it for maximum fun yield. And hey, unlike Ninja Gaiden there are no birds to make a mockery of your years of martial arts training and send you plummeting down chasms. It's just got those Bastard Potatoes instead.