It's 2014 - a new year with new horizons and new opportunities to reflect on the history of computer and video games. To get the year off to a flying start, here are three words to set your pulse racing. Ninja. Scooter. Simulator. Such majesty, such endless promise, such mystery! To think, the chance to experience what it's like to be a scooter with the power of ninjutsu, albeit only as a simulation. I can hardly wait to experience Probe Software's 1988 home computer game Ninja Scooter Simulator. No, I wasn't kidding, the game really is called Ninja Scooter Simulator. Behold!
Immediately I'm brought back down to Earth. No fancy loading screen or title animation for the Commodore 64 version, which I'll be playing first. There is an animated rainbow effect on the text, which does little to dispel the overall gloom. A blocky policeman shuffles awkwardly across the bottom of the screen, as though wearily returning to his beat after attending a serious traffic accident. Or being involved in one, given his walking animation.
Things don't improve much once you start the game, either. Your character is at least recognisably riding a scooter. Beyond that, I think he's wearing a sleeveless vest and a baseball cap, so he looks like a bit of a dork. That's okay, though. Scootering was the dorkiest mode of personal transportation until the Segway came along. I think the hierarchy was skateboard, BMX, rollerblades, your own legs and then scooters. Space hoppers are discounted from this list until a full assessment of whether they're transportation or a toy can be made. Whatever the decision, they'll still be cooler than a scooter.
Okay, so we're scootering along, and the aim of the game is clear - reach the goal before the time runs out. Right and left on the joystick speed you up and down respectively, up and down move you (you guessed it) up and down and fire makes you jump. In order to reach the finish line in time, you'll have to not crash into things. Some things slow you down, like the ridged sections of the road. I'm not sure where there are so many cattle grids on what is clearly an urban road, but I'll do my best to avoid them. Other obstacles cause you to fall off your scooter and lose valuable seconds when you hit them, like the two policemen in the screenshot above. They don't arrest you or anything, so they must just be knocking kids off their scooters for the fun of it. Pricks.
Other things that can knock you to the ground include brick walls. There are many brick walls in this game, all built right across the middle of the road in direct opposition to the very purpose of a road. I crashed into them a lot, which is frustrating because if I wanted to bang my head against a brick wall I could have spent my time trying to get YouTube commenter to be nice to each other or explaining to people that "addicting" does not mean the same thing as "addictive".
On the plus side, there are speed-boosting floor panels and ramps. True story: for a moment there, I forgot that the word "ramp" existed. The best my brain could manage was "up-slope". Welcome to my website where I write words. 2014 may be a struggle.
Here I have used a ramp to fly into the air. Ramp. R-A-M-P. I think I've got it now. The ramps are useful for getting over obstacles, especially if you've hit a speed-boost beforehand because then you'll fly for ages and for a brief but shining moment your problems with walls will be forgotten. The instructions also imply that you can do stunts once you've got some sick air from an up-slope, but for the life of me I couldn't get them to work. Sometimes I seemed to get extra points when I landed, but I'd feel embarrassed to call just jumping and landing a "trick".
Those amongst you who know your arcade history will have realised that Ninja Scooter Simulator looks a lot like a cheap copy of Namco's 1985 arcade game Metro-Cross, the two games being almost identical in gameplay except you're on a scooter in Probe's version instead of being on foot. That's because it is a cheap copy of Metro-Cross, and as such it's nothing special. The gameplay is competent enough, aside from the difficulty in getting your scooterer to do a trick and the occasional collision issue, and for a Commodore 64 game it's surprisingly easy - I'm so used to home computer games treating the player as a feeble blob of pond-scum whose will must be quickly and brutally broken that I was shocked to discover I could finish the game without cheating. That made a nice change, and the two other plus points for Ninja Scooter Simulator are that the music's pretty good and the scrolling is really smooth, which is always impressive to see on a C64. There are some other things, too. Small things, but things worth mentioning.
For example, here I am being accosted by a wall of flying skulls. Everything else has been relatively normal so far, but here are some floating man-sized headbones lazily drifting down the high street. Between the dull, grey palette, the night-time setting, the empty streets and the occasional squadron of kamikaze craniums, Ninja Scooter Simulator's early stages have a rather morose vibe to them. This is purgatory, where you must ride a scooter for a thousand years until your penance is over and you can move onto the Heaven of Skateboards
Things cheer up a bit in round three, which has enough of a beachside theme that I can pretend I'm playing some kind of OutRun spin-off. I find this improves many games, so I can only imagine how much better all games would be if they had a similar setting. If the Call of Duty games took place on a white sand beach with a bright blue sky overhead and "Magical Sound Shower" playing in the background, I'd be more inclined to give them a go. "Last Wave" could play when one of your squadmates is killed by an insurgent's IED.
Back to the morbid stuff as I encounter a skeleton skater. I'm fairly sure it's a skeleton, at least - I would also accept that it could be an extremely slender knight in skin-tight plate armour. A skeleton seems more likely, what with the skulls from earlier, and I know I keep banging on about how uncool our hero is but he can't hold a candle to Mr. Bones here. We've already established that skateboards are cooler than scooters, and living skeletons are clearly far superior to ordinary humans, so once again this ends up being another VGJunk article where I end up ruing my inability to play as a skateboarding skeleton.
Stage four has a winter theme, complete with adorable snowmen. The arctic setting doesn't affect the gameplay any - no icy patches on the road or council gritters to get stuck behind - but that snowman makes the whole endeavour worth it. If I hadn't made an eternal contract with the infernal forces of Hell to ensure his continued appearance, I could see that snowman replacing Satan Goat in the VGJunk header image.
That's the Commodore 64 version of Ninja Scooter Simulator pretty thoroughly examined, then. It's not a long game and as I've mentioned it's not a hard game game, either - I actually didn't notice that I'd blown through the twenty unique stages and rolled back around to the start of the game until I reached round four for the second time, and it's not as though I was putting my every ounce of concentration into the game. It's not a game that needs or even deserves that much concentration, but it is better than I thought it was going to be. It controls okay, there's a clear goal and opportunities for getting high scores, the graphics aren't great but they do feature that snowman and for a budget title I gotta say it's mission accomplished on this one. It's about as good a clone of Metro-Cross as you'd expect to get for £1.99.
This is ZX Spectrum version of Ninja Scooter Simulator. Unlike the C64 version, it has a loading screen, and a pretty interesting one at that. How can that young man operate a scooter without any arms? Well, he can't, obviously. That's why he's fallen over. At least any passing cars will be able to see his mangled body thanks to his plasma-pink, leopard-print shirt. I don't think that face mask is going to do much to protect your identity, either. There can only be so many scooter riders out there with no arms and size twenty feet.
Ninja Scooter Simulator is brought to you by McDonalds. It might look a bit of a mess thanks to the Spectrum's limited colour output, but when it's in motion things are much clearer. The gameplay is much the same as the Commodore version, only with slightly different backgrounds and a more cartoony art style that fits the gameplay much better. In fact, I have to say that the Spectrum edition is just better in general than it's C64 counterpart, something which doesn't seem to happen often with these home computer conversions. The Spectrum version is a little smoother to control, the collision detect is a hair more accurate and it's just more charming, lack of snowmen aside.
It still features marauding skulls, so any goths amongst you who are looking for a scooter simulator need not fret.
Skeleton Skater, distant cousin of Ghost Rider and necromantic X Games enthusiast, also makes an appearance. He looks more relaxed, more laid-back in this iteration, making him even cooler than before. Even the player character looks cooler. He's wearing his baseball cap backwards now. Any young 'uns reading this may be astounded to learn this but yes, once upon a time wearing your baseball cap backwards was considered cool. Throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, napes of necks the world over went untroubled by sunburn.
Best of all, I figured out how to do tricks in the Spectrum version. Okay, so it doesn't look like much, but that's because you're concentrating on the aerial part of the move. When scooterman lands, he can make a dust cloud pop up in the shape of the word "RAD". You have to agree that's some next-level scooter shit right there. Also, it's rad. Rad to the max.
The ability to pull off gnarly tricks adds more to the gameplay than you might think, the option to go for extra points at the risk of crashing when you land giving just enough extra spice to the game to keep it interesting. I'd say that the ZX Spectrum version is elevated above "competent" and into "pretty decent" territory by this and its other advantages over the Commodore version, and, yes, it's fun. Fun for a short period of time, fun in a way you've probably seen before but definitely fun, and it's nice to play a Spectrum game where I know what I'm supposed to be doing and I don't feel like I'm being punished for doing it.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned ninjas at all while talking about Ninja Scooter Simulator. Well, if the game's not going to mention ninjas, why the hell should I? Oh, alright then, here's the cover art:
That's all the ninja action you're going to get out of this one. This game contains scooters and floating skulls, so the cover's not as inaccurate as you might think, but you certainly don't play as a ninja and especially not one who wears loafers. I'm more interested in that ninja in the background. A giant egg, possibly one that represents the resurrection and new life that comes with the rising of the sun, has a ninja head perched on top. A winding path leads toward this ninja egg. What does it all mean? Am I scooting towards this ninja egg, or does that path in fact lead away from it and I'm escaping a nurturing, formative ninja environment to seek my own future as the world's most radical ninja who isn't a mutant turtle? I have no answers to these questions. The answers must come from within yourself. I will leave you with one final mystery, however: what the hell is going on with the geometry of that sword's blade?