It's a videogame about ninjas. I am contractually obligated to write about a videogame starring ninjas at least once every couple of months. If I do not fill this obligation, my Internet Blogging (Pointless Nostalgia Division) Permit is taken away. So, here's Sega's 1986 Master System game The Ninja. It's got ninjas in it.
That's right, I'm not just a ninja, I'm the ninja. I am the pinnacle, the apogee, the very essence of ninja combat and none may stand against the shadowy martial arts that I possess. Or, as plurals in Japanese don't have a suffix attached, "The Ninja" refers to ninjakind as a whole. Given that this is an 8-bit action game, which do you think is more likely: that the player controls the only shuriken-tossing master of assassination in town or that this game features lots and lots of ninjas?
Before you get thrown into the action, there's a bit of story waffle. It's nothing particularly interesholy shit stop the presses! The princess... has been kidnapped!! Well, that's a shocker. Only Kazamaru (that's you) can save her from her imprisonment in the basement of Ohkami Castle. It's a good job Kazamaru is a ninja and not a farmer or a travelling peddler then, isn't it?
It's interesting that The Ninja's plot is a standard "rescue-the-princess" affair, because it's actually a reworking of a 1985 arcade game called Ninja Princess, AKA Sega Ninja.
It starred a female ninja called Princess Kurumi, and while it's basically the same game it certainly looked a lot cutesier than the Master System version. The owners of the eight-bit home consoles were naturally ruggedly, manly types and thus the game was given a fresh coat of slightly drab paint and Princess Kurumi was replaced with Mr. Kazamaru to appeal to the masculine sensibilities of whoever was buying Master System games in 1986.
Here we go, then, off to save the princess in our ploofy cyan trousers and sleeveless denim jacket. Yes, that guy is the hero of The Ninja, not the other bloke who looks like, well, a ninja. He's your enemy, and to defeat him you must throw a knife into him. The Ninja is a run-n-gun game, or at least a run-n-shuriken game, and the basic gameplay doesn't take much explaining: advance up the screen, killing any ninjas you encounter. One fire button makes Kazamaru throw a knife in whichever of the eight directions he's facing, while the other makes you throw knives directly up the screen no matter what direction you're facing. At first this sounds rather redundant, but it is in fact extremely useful, and if you're like me you'll end up using the "fire straight ahead" button far more than the other one.
One-hit kills are the order of the day, both for you and every non-boss enemy, so advancing carefully is generally preferable to charging off ahead and bellowing like a maniac. That's what these sword-wielding ninjas are doing. They have no ranged attack, but Kazamaru does. Remember these ninjas for their bravery, but pity them for their stupidity.
By the way, this is not a rock. It's a ninja pretending to be a rock. All the other ninjas laughed at him when he skipped Advanced Poisoned Darts and Teleportation 101 during his time at Ninja University in order to devote his time to becoming the best boulder-mimic of the Edo period, but who's laughing now? That's right, no-one. Okay, so maybe Kazamaru is laughing a little, because these rock-ninjas are extremely obvious and take far too long to transform, allowing you to stand nearby and casually whip shurikens at them until their transformation is complete, killing them the instant they reveal themselves.
After killing a few ninjas, the boss appears. He appears to have a tagine for a head, so I'm going to call him Tagenie the Ninja Enforcer. He's wearing a hi-vis fluorescent tabard, but his otherwise admirable commitment to health and safety is undermined by his insistence on throwing a deadly weapon around. It's that thing next to Kazamaru's head, the one that looks like two lumps of metal connected by a spring. I have no idea what it's supposed to be, and even if I wanted to ask Tagenie what it was, he wouldn't be able to hear me because his head's stuck in a north African cooking utensil. So I just threw shurikens at him until he died, which didn't take long.
These really are rocks. Stage two has you running from right to left, avoiding the rolling boulders and the occasional ninja who pops up from the dirt. The boulders are by far the bigger threat. These aren't very good ninjas we're dealing with.
The boss is Tagenie again, and that's also the case for the next, ooh, eight stages or so. The evil daimyo of Ohkami Castle has a lot of faith in this guy. Tagenie can throw shurikens now, which makes him a little tougher, but if you throw your projectile into an enemy projectile, you knock it out of the air with a strangely satisfying "tink!" sound effect.
Stage three is like stage one, but with added dogs. Or possibly ninjas pretending to be dogs, because they briefly leave a human-shaped outline when you kill them. Other than the dogs, it's essentially the same as the first stage, so I'll take this opportunity to talk about The Ninja's power-ups. There are two types of scroll to collect that make you a better ninja: blue ones that increase your running speed to make you faster than even the most finely-honed ninja dogs, and red ones that change your throwing knives into shurikens. The shurikens are vastly superior to the knives because they travel through multiple enemies, making them almost mandatory for the later stages. If you lose a life you also lose your power-ups until you can find another scroll, so obviously the best course of action is to not die.
Neat, a new background and a new enemy. These are lady ninjas, and here you can see one of them leaping from her hiding spot behind that building with the intention of sticking her katana down Kazamaru's ear. I like the lady ninjas, they've got a bit more panache, and their battle plan of cautious observation is more effective than the usual "run towards our target like a gaggle of angry yet impotent geese" or "pretend to be a rock". I mean come on, look at these clowns:
Do I even need to include a link to Yakety Sax? I can't imagine many people could see this embarrassing display of ninja ineptitude without the Benny Hill theme popping into their heads.
You might also notice that you can walk backwards and return to parts of the stage that you already progressed from. This allows Kazamaru to execute the most powerful attack in his arsenal: running the hell away. Yep, because many of the enemies simply charge at you, the best way to defeat them is to get close enough to annoy them and them walk backward, firing shurikens upward using the "fire shurikens upwards" button when they bunch together. I told you that button was more useful than it sounds.
For stage five, Kazamaru floats down the river on a log, and due to the lack of a jump button you can only move onto a different log when it drifts next to the one you're currently standing on. It's a pretty fun stage, and all credit to Sega for mixing up the gameplay a little bit because the same walk-backwards-and-throw-shurikens gameplay could get a little stale after ten-plus stages.
This is also where you'll start getting some real use out of Kazamaru's other defensive ninja technique: if you press both buttons together, you'll momentarily vanish in a puff of smoke, turn invisible and become completely immune to enemy attacks. You can even move while you're invisible, and as you can imagine it gets you out of some hairy situations, like being trapped on a log while ninjas throw sharp bits of metal at you.
In the next stage, the river become shallow enough for our hero to hop off his log and explore the tranquil streets of Ohkami castle's town. It'd be more peaceful if it wasn't packed with rowdy ninja teens, hanging around outside the local shops and hurling shurikens at passers-by, but I suppose that's where I come in. While I may not have rescued the princess yet, I've already done the populace a favour by eliminating the delinquent element.
Things in town don't stay peaceful for long, and the next stage sees Kazamaru running the gauntlet against a herd of horses. Herd's the right word for a group of horses, right? For a second there I thought it was "flock". A noble flock of horses, sailing through the blue skies. Look, it's late, alright? Give me a break.
The guy at the top-right of the screen is an enemy. He breathes fire. Extremely short-ranged fire, and as such he really has to put his all into chasing the hero down. Sadly, this does not leave him out of breath and unable to expel fiery death from his lungs once he catches up with you, but it's such an amusing thought that I'm going to pretend that's what happens.
Further into the town, and Kazamaru gets a chance to relax in the gardens. I mean he can relax now, because I've killed all the ninjas. Pay no mind to that ninja buried up to his neck in the dirt. He's only doing it for the attention.
We're up to stage nine now, and there's a wall that must be climbed. It's okay, our hero can still throw shurikens and become intangible even when he's hanging from a rock face by one hand. Having realised that their previous tactics weren't really working, the ninjas on this stage try to surround Kazamaru at any opportunity. All this means is that you feel extra smug when they all throw shurikens at you at once and you simply vanish and let them fly through you. If only those shurikens could hurt other ninjas, it'd be perfect.
It's a long climb, but I've just about reached the top and it's be a real shame if anything were to kill me now.
Okay, so I might have let myself get killed just so I could show off this animation, but I honestly thought it was kind of a neat thing to have in the game. Sega could easily have just made Kazamaru disappear or explode or something when he gets hit, but instead they bothered to show him falling all the way down past all that progress he just made. It's a little thing, but in a game this basic it's the little things that make the difference.
Tagenie is waiting for you up here, too, protected by some stray ninjas and these brown lumps that are falling out of what I can only hope aren't the castle's garderobes. Unluckily for him, Tagenie isn't any more effective when perched on a castle wall than he was on more solid ground and he's fairly easy to get rid of. It's the last time we'll be seeing him too. God speed, my stew-cooking friend.
Okay, so now that I've entered the castle itself I'll admit that I'm kinda running out of things to say about The Ninja. Throw shurikens at bad guys, that's about it. Happily, while The Ninja might be basic it does what it does rather well. Movement is fluid and responsive, the action is fast-paced enough and the stages are short enough that their repetitiveness never really becomes an issue, and Kazamaru has enough tricks up his sleeves that he always feels capable despite the hovering spectre of one-hit deaths.
There's a new boss! He's got two pistols, John Woo style. You'd think this would make him a more threatening prospect than Tagenie, what with the firearms and all, but his choice of weapons actually makes him easier to beat. Simply stand directly below the boss and throw shurikens upwards - your projectiles will destroy the boss' bullets, and enough of them will sneak through to kill him. It's all a little underwhelming, really.
The final two stages are pretty much identical - short corridors packed with brightly-coloured samurai and the same pistol-packing boss at the end of each. They're also the easiest stages of the game: as mentioned, the bosses pose no real threat and the standard enemies can easily be dealt with by teleporting backwards. It's all a bit of an anticlimax, really, and as the last boss falls I hope the princess didn't see any of it because it'll devalue my heroics if she realises she could have just walked out almost unopposed at any time.
But wait, what's this? I'm not allowed to enter the castle's basement? Well, I don't know who's planning to stop me, given that I've murdered everyone in a ten-mile radius, but okay. Oh, secret scrolls, you say? Well, I'm terribly sorry I didn't interrupt my princess-rescuing mission to hunt around for some rolled-up bits of paper. I suppose I'll have to go back to the start of the game and find them, then.
Okay, to give some credit to The Ninja, it does actually mention that you must find all the secret scrolls to see the true ending during the intro crawl, and the game is kind enough to only send you back to the last stage that you didn't find the scroll on, but that doesn't stop finding the scrolls themselves from being the kind of frustrating, opaque bullshit that 8-bit games seemed to revel in.
The first one is easy enough to locate because it's dropped by an enemy, but the other four are hidden in that deeply infuriating "stand in this specific spot and face up" or "shoot this otherwise unremarkable statue five times" manner that I has to be my most hated aspect of retro gaming. There's a difference between exploration and standing on every square inch of the gameplay area and throwing knives around like a tornado passing through the cutlery district.
I eventually found all the scrolls. Did I use a guide? Of course I did, I've yet to reach quite the levels of idiocy require to do it blind. Give me time, though. I'm sure I'll get there.
Once you've collected all the scrolls, you are told the secret method required to enter the real final stage, which of course is some daft "stand here, face right, fire and vanish" nonsense. This gets you into Ohkami castle's basement, which they apparently use to store both their kidnapped princesses and that winter's supply of firewood.
A maze, just what I was looking forward to. Well, it's not really a maze as such, you just have to choose the right path when heading forward or you'll reach a dead end and have to backtrack, and this is the only stage in which the enemies respawn so it can get fairly difficult. If only Kazamaru's ninja skills extending to climbing over these not particularly tall logs.
In the end, I gambled on the final boss being a guy with two pistols, and my risk paid off as I charged ahead, teleported my way past all the enemies and filled the final boss with shurikens before they could catch me. Not the most exciting way to end my quest, but it'll do for me.
That's your lot for The Ninja. Peace is restored, the princess is rescued and probably won't be kidnapped for another, ooh, three weeks. Good job, Kazamaru.
I suppose "they lived happily ever after" doesn't mean they lived happily together, but I sort of assume they do, mainly because I think Kazamaru has killed anyone who might have been a rival for the princess' affections.
I think I've said enough about The Ninja for you to make up your mind as to whether you'd like to play it, but I will say that I definitely enjoyed it. It's simple but fun, hard without ever being cruel, and playing it with a guide to the location of those bloody scrolls on hand immediately removes the game's biggest flaw. My only regret is that I never found out what Tagenie was cooking up in that head of his.