The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a lot to answer for. Giving Vanilla Ice a platform to rap from, for starters, as well as spawning a seemingly endless wave of imitators. The Heroes in a Half-Shell ruled the roost, but countless teams of humanoid animals with attitude sprang up to scrabble for a slice of the kid's toy market, like the Street Sharks (they're jawsome) and the Biker Mice From Mars (they're... bikesome?). Then there's the next tier down, mutated martial artists with no toy line or Saturday morning cartoon to their name, filling the toy aisles of pound shops and appearing in budget home computer games. 1991's Ninja Rabbits for the Commodore 64 is one of those games.
Released by a company called Microvalue - a name crying out for me to make a joke about just how "micro" an amount of value this game contains - Ninja Rabbits was, as far as I can tell, written entirely by two people. One bloke did the music, and the other did everything else. For this reason I will cut it some slack. As an example, while the title screen is dull in the extreme I'll admit that the loading music is pretty good. There's a loading screen, too. Let's take a look at that, it has to be more interesting than the screen above.
That is definitely interesting. What are some other words I could use here? How about horrifying. Menacing. Nightmarish. All these words and many more like them, because the ninja rabbit of the title is no cutesy cotton-tailed hoppityflopper, he's a rabid, foam-mouthed, wild-eyed engine of psychotic destruction. Is he a mutant? I should hope so, he's got opposable thumbs and whiskers on only one side of his head. He's also six feet tall, as we'll see soon enough. If you were a mutated cartoon animal in the early Nineties learning a martial art was mandatory, and our hero settled on ninjitsu. Hopefully he's got enough combat skills to keep his quest interesting. There's not much fun to be had if all he can do is dig holes and chew carrots.
Here we go then, our brave ninja rabbit embarks on his quest to... hang on, let me find the manual. Okay, so apparently there's been a gas leak at a nearby chemical plant. Said gas is making the local animals violent and dangerous, and it's your job to stop the leak. At no point is it implied that this gas is what mutated the ninja rabbit in the first place, so let's assume he's been waiting in his burrow for many years now, hoping for an excuse to burst forth from below the Earth and become the avenging warrior his ninja sensei has trained him to be.
The first step on this journey is to beat up your fellow mutant humanoid animal over there. I think it's a mouse. A mouse in baggy trousers. Or a cat, maybe. Whatever it is, the leaking gas has made it mean, and so we must fight. Ninja Rabbits is a single-plane beat-em-up, and it's somehow even more limited than that description makes it sound. The problem of the Commodore 64 only having one fire button is overcome in the usual way, which is that holding the fire button down and then moving the joystick will produce different moves. Hold the button, pull left on the stick and the ninja rabbit throws a punch. Moving to the right lets you flick out the rather feeble-looking kick pictured above. My favourite is moving the stick down and right, because that makes you stamp on your opponent's foot.
Let's get this out of the way early - this game is all about the combat, and unfortunately the combat is about as much fun as performing dentistry on yourself using metalworking tools. There are three major problem areas, and they are speed, collision detection and skillfulness. Ironically, the rabbit moves like a tortoise and the enemies aren't much faster: in fact, the only things with any speed to them at all in this game are the nigh-unavoidable falling traps. Collision detection? There are collisions and sometimes they are detected. Sometimes. Not often. Then there's skillfulness, and what I mean by that is that there's no way to be good at this game. In order to hit your opponent, you have to be standing so close to them that you'll reach the levels of intimacy usually only found between loving couples, and because you both attack at the same speed every single fight devolves into standing on each other's feet and trading blows until one of you falls down dead. That's it, that's the entire game, a supremely pointless bout of stick-waggling where you will die repeatedly because it's impossible to defeat an enemy without taking the same amount of damage as you've dished out.
Still, it looks alright. Nice blue skies, rustic stone walls, that white thing on the right that I think is the ghost of tiny diplodocus. Wait a minute, this place looks familiar...
It's Father Ted's house! This game would be completely redeemed if there was a level where the ninja rabbit kicks Bishop Brennan up the arse, but I already know I'm not that lucky. I suppose I should move on to the second screen, then.
It's a nice, smooth bit of animation, sure - animation being the only thing that Ninja Rabbits pulls off with any competence - but there's something... off about it, something unnatural. More unnatural that a bipedal badger wearing jogging bottoms, I mean. I think it's the arms. The huge, muscular arms of a badger that means me harm held tense against his body, ready to be unleashed in the task of rending the ninja rabbit asunder.
So I had a scrap with the badger, and funnily enough it was extremely similar to the fight against the unidentifiable cat-mouse thing on screen one. I kicked Karate Badger in his midriff until he fell over dead. I shall make sure to pass my findings on the matter over to the people in charge of the badger cull.
I dropped into the rabbit-hole and now I'm underground, kicking badgers while trying to avoid the constant drizzle of health-sapping clods of earth that fall from the tunnel's roof. You'll just have to trust me on the "constant" part of that statement as I somehow managed to take this screenshot during the single nanosecond that there were no falling rocks on the screen.
Sometimes your route above ground is blocked, so you have to travel through these tunnels for a while and then head back to the surface. There's no difference in gameplay besides the falling rocks, but the tunnel sections do provide further evidence that the ninja rabbit has been of human proportions and enhanced intelligence for some time. Rabbits don't usually reinforce their warrens with wooden beams. Now that we've discovered that he's both a master of shadowy assassination arts and a mining engineer, I can't wait to see what other skills the ninja rabbit possesses.
Back above ground, and a farmer is trying to do something to the ninja rabbit's groin. It involves the blunt end of a pitchfork, but that's about all I could figure out. The other two attacks are easy to decipher, but that one's a mystery. Kick, stab, and then sensuously rub the handle of your pitchfork up the inside of your opponent's leg? Okay, time to move on.
That guy with the pitchfork probably isn't a farmer and is instead a groundsman, because the first stage takes place on a golf course. If the subtle background touches like this flag here or the sign that says "GOLF" on it don't clue you in, Ninja Rabbits drives (no pun intended) the point home by having golf balls fly onto any screen that doesn't have an enemy on it. If the golf balls hit you, they hurt you. If only the ninja rabbit didn't move with the fluid and rapid grace of someone whose legs have been replaced by concrete bollards, you might stand a chance of avoiding the golf balls.
There's no chance of avoiding anything in this game; not the golf balls or the groundsmen's pitchforks or the Beefy Badger Brigade, and even after five or six attempts I couldn't make it past the first level. There's just no way to conserve your health and still make progress, and so the ninja rabbit never made it off this golf course that's in remarkably poor condition considering it employs a legion of groundsmen willing to risk their very lives to defend it. With the prospect of never seeing what other delights Ninja Rabbits has to offer hanging heavy above me, I decided to cheat my way through the rest of the game. Please don't think less of me. I'm invested now, I simply must find out how this story ends.
Level two, and the ninja rabbit has traced the source of the gas outbreak to this very British-looking city. That feeling of Britishness only increases when the first person you fight on these mean streets looks like a National Front member from the seventies. I hope he is a National Front member, then I won't have to feel too bad about hopping onto his terraced street and kicking him into a coma. Or hitting him with a stick, even. If you hold fire and move the joystick up and right, the ninja rabbit attacks with the brown thing hanging from his waist. I took it to be a sword, according to the manual it's a stick. I'll take the manual's word for it, because after all, what's brown and sticky? Not a sword.
Here's what it looks like when you hit someone with your stick. Hardly thrilling, but no less or more exciting than any of your other moves. As for the guy I'm hitting, well, who knows what's going on there? The evidence that Ninja Rabbits is set in Britain during the late Seventies continues to grow, because more than anything else this bloke looks a wrestler from that era. He's got something of the Giant Haystacks about him.
Also, frogs. Frogs with oversized needles. Frogs in the middle of the street. What magical town is this, where man and beast-man live side-by-side, united in their common hatred of the rabbit menace? Did the gas make the frogs grow, or were giant frogs a naturally-occurring phenomenon in late-Seventies Britain? Don't ask me, I'm getting on but I'm not quite that old.
There are also frogs lurking in the sewers, which take the place of the rabbit-holes from the first stage. What, just because this is a game about ninja rabbits, you thought there wouldn't be a sewer area? Shame on you, there's always a sewer area. This one forces you to wade through a knee-deep stream of liquid effluent, which seems in keeping with the tone of the game.
Just to clarify, there is nothing else to Ninja Rabbits. I'm not leaving anything out or saving anything for a big reveal at the end, it's just that the whole game is comprised of the same awful combat from start to finish. Sometimes you have to jump onto a box. That's it. There are no end-of-level bosses, no power-ups besides the health-restoring carrots, no extra weapons or ninja magic, just the endless trading of blows with stabby frogs and men who might have been professional wrestlers thirty years ago.
Stage three is set in a factory, a factory that is patrolled by killer robots. These robots look like droids from Star Wars that were too lame to even get an action figure. Ha ha, I'm kidding, there's no Star Wars character too lame for an action figure. They even released figures of the people who run the "Star Tours" theme park ride at Disneyland. Yes, really.
The best part of this level, and quite possibly of the entire game, is that poster in the background. The one that says "PLAN" above a red line. So, the plan is to draw a picture of a mountain? No, that's obviously a graph, don't be silly. The real plan is to buy a bunch of shares on the stock market and wait for them to increase in value. It's foolproof!
Ninja Rabbits does make an effort to mix things up during this stage, but it's a half-hearted effort that really only extends to making you climb up to a slightly higher platform in order to advance. It's hardly Mirror's Edge. You also get to punch a creature that I'm going to assume was created when this poisonous gas seeped into the cupboard where all the brass instruments are stored. This thing's got saxophones for legs and cymbals for a head, but even though it's a creature born from the stress-filled nightmares of someone who's got a really important trombone exam coming up it still fights the same way as everything else: get close enough to violate several workplace safety laws, trade blows that may or may not connect, rejoice when death claims you.
Just in case you think I'm exaggerating the wonkiness of Ninja Rabbits' collision detection, here is a GIF that clearly shows our hero slamming his paws right through this guy's head to no effect. What's even better is that the enemy will just stand there, knowing full well that you can't hurt him unless he moves into the range of the ninja rabbit's punches or the ninja rabbit moves forward himself, and in that case the ninja rabbit's attacks are so slow that the bad guy will get the first hit in for free.
I'm fighting one of the Brassbandoids on top of the spaceship control panel from a low-budget sci-fi movie. I'm guessing that this is the end of stage three, because there's a solid wall to the right and the ninja rabbit has clearly demonstrated that his ninja training did not extend to learning how to punch hard enough to shatter concrete.
Yep, here we go. I wonder what fresh new vistas will be revealed to us as we step into stage four? A mystical Asian temple, perhaps, or the ultra-sleek and modern headquarters of whatever company set up the musical instrument-droids and the PLAN? It's all terribly exciting.
Oh. I see. Gone back to the start of the game, have we? Okay then. Like an idiot, I even played through Ninja Rabbits again to see if anything had changed. It hadn't. I was honestly relieved, because it means I can stop writing about it now.
As I said at the start of this article, to the best of my knowledge Ninja Rabbits was coded entirely by one person. Could I write a better game than this all on my lonesome? Some part of me wants to shout "yes!" because Ninja Rabbits is really bad, but I would have to admit that I couldn't and therefore I feel a bit guilty about slating this game. There are some minor positives, and while I do generally try to see the good in every game I play, the fact that some nice animations and a poster depicting the world's vaguest plan are what I'd consider Ninja Rabbits' "highlights" really is damning with faint praise.
Don't play this game. If you've read this far there's no need to play it, because you've seen it all already. Like an evening spent trying to seduce a lamppost it's dull, frustrating and extremely unrewarding, and yet somehow it managed to spawn a sequel. A sequel. Maybe I'll write about that one some day. Then again, maybe I'll smash both my kneecaps with a sledgehammer. You just never know.