Let’s begins, as seems appropriate, with a game simply titled Ninja. I wonder if there was a meeting where the creators sat down to think of a name and were delighted to find that every other ninja game was called “ninja this” and “ninja that” but the name Ninja remained unclaimed. That’s serendipity, that it. As for the cover, it’s not bad at all. It’s got a guy who looks like a ninja on it, which is a good start, even if he did get a bit overambitious when designing his ninja claws. Having a two-for-one sale on spikes, were they? Those things must be forever getting tangled up with each other, and I can only imagine the carnage that would ensue if he stored them in the same pocket as his headphones. A closer look reveals a few other quirks: this one’s totally on me, but at first glance I thought the victims in the bottom left were wearing aprons, making me think that the ninja was terminating the staff of his local B&Q. Then there’s the fist at the bottom, positioned in a way that gives the impression that the ninja keeps it tucked in his trousers until the moment is right for it to strike, swiftly and without mercy, from out of his open fly.
Poor old Ninja Commando, his ninja face-mask doesn’t fit quite right and it must be very unpleasant to be running around doing your ninja business with the constant sensation that your mask’s about to slip over the end of your nose. I did try to decipher the writing on his headband, but I only got as far as tentatively identifying the first character as the number seven, so if you’ve got any better suggestions let me know otherwise I’m going to assume he’s been a ninja for seven years and his co-workers got him a special headband to celebrate. Maybe it’ll give him the confidence to defeat that much larger red ninja.
Well, no cover art is ever going to live up to that title, is it? It’s relatively action-packed, I suppose, but I’m not sure I’d describe it as a massacre. A ruckus, possible. Ninja Fracas at the outside. The most interesting thing about it is the relaxed demeanour of the man in the background who’s being stabbed in the face. That’s the unbendable will that martial arts training gives you.
In which Conan the Barbarian meets his most dangerous foe: an out-of-scale ninja who catches him in a deadly ambush. Makes sense to me, if you can take down Conan then you’ve truly earned the title of Ninja Master. He clearly knows what he’s doing, he’s using a flying kick to disarm his opponent while the barbarian’s distracted by Cinderella’s castle.
If that ninja looks familiar to you, it might be because you’ve seen the poster for the “classic” Golan-Globus movie Enter the Ninja. Conan does not appear in that movie, so sadly this cover is as close as we’re ever likely to get to seeing Conan vs. the Ninja Clan.
Hey, I’d recognise that midriff anywhere: that’s RoboCop’s abdomen! Okay, RoboCop’s abdomen with a big scoop taken out of it, but still. I’m not sure how stealthy a mechanical ninja is going to be, but on the plus side he can manufacture his own clouds of disorienting smoke. Oh, and according to the back of the case his name is Ninjabot 1. Make sure you wear your plastic hood when you go out to slay your enemies, Ninjabot 1. It’s forecast rain.
I think I’ve mentioned this before somewhere else on the internet, but that is clearly a samurai and not a ninja. Samurai fight by a code of honour, and would never stoop to knocking a child off a skateboard, not even if that skateboard happens to be the ugliest thing ever crafted by human hands. The full-face helmet, combined with the samurai deelyboppers, (I assume that’s the technical term,) kinda make the BMX Ninja look like a Gundam, don’t you think? I know they put out a new Gundam series every two minutes – gotta keep those shelves stocked with toy robots – so here’s my pitch for the next iteration: Gundams on Bicycles. That’s it, everything else is the same but all the mechs ride around on appropriately-sized bicycles. It might make some of the fight sequences a little awkward, but any problems can be glossed over by having one of the characters pop a wheelie.
Ninja Scooter Simulator
Here’s one I’ve definitely written about before, in the article about the game itself, but I couldn’t not include it on this list because c’mon, it’s called Ninja Scooter Simulator. That’s the kind of thing that just makes you glad humanity bothered to evolve its way out of the primordial ooze. All the salient points about this one are covered in the earlier article, but I’m still bemused that the ninja appears to be wearing loafers and I still have no idea how that back wheel is supposed to be affixed to the scooter. Oh, and the ninja seems to be trying to cast a magical spell on his sword. Look, buddy, I’m sure you have just as many questions as the rest of us but I don’t think you’re going to find the answers in your sword. Did I mention that you don’t actually play as a ninja in this game? Incredible.
One of the problems with wearing the all-concealing black attire of the ninja is that you don’t get much sun. Even I’ve got more of a tan than this ninja, and I shun the daylight like a vampire with meningitis. He has a defiant stance, this ninja, in that he’s defying you not to look at his exposed nipple. That’s his plan, you get hypnotised by the nipple and then bam, he throws his pet snake in your face. The old Sneaky Snake Nip-Whip, the ultimate sure-killing technique.
Time for some not-terrible artwork with the Spectrum port of Sega’s classic Shinobi, and apart from the logo making me crave liquorice there’s nothing wrong with this one. All right, so Joe Musashi looks less like he’s framed by the setting sun and more like he’s about to be turned to paste by an oncoming train, but aside from that it’s good. It’ll give you a sympathetic knee ache if you look at it for too long, though.
Admittedly I’m not a zoologist or anything but that isn’t a hamster. I don’t know what it is, but hamster is right out. A cracked-out Ewok, possibly. Whatever it is, it’s shaved its limbs and is taking a rare pleasure in slapping that mouse. I’m getting conflicting messages about how much the Ninja Hamster’s enemies really want him dead, too: the mouse is wearing boxing gloves, presumably because he thought this was all going to be a bit of harmless exercise, but the crocodile is carrying a mace. Personally, I think the crocodile has the right idea. The Ninja Hamster needs to be dealt with as harshly as possible. Just look at his face, he’s way too into the violence. Sure, he’s knocking people out with unarmed combat now, but give it a few months and he’ll be having all the woodland critters lined up and shot.
International Ninja Rabbits
Having played the Commodore 64 version of Ninja Rabbits, I can assure you that “Microvalue” is a very appropriate label for it to be released on.
There’s nothing that says a ninja can’t also learn karate – everyone should have a hobby, after all – but it’s annoying me more than I’d like to admit that the star of International Ninja Rabbits is wearing a karate gi and not a ninja outfit. Not even a mask! I guess he wants to make damn sure everyone knows he’s a ninja rabbit and not a common-or-garden human ninja. It makes a real mockery of that "ninja combat" blurb, because he's obviously using karate, but more importantly whoever designed this cover managed to make the promise of "ninja combat" look boring. You wouldn't think such a thing could even be possible, but here we are.
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles
The glut of animal-themed ninjas is surely the result of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ runaway success, although ironically the word “ninja” was scrubbed from their name and replaced with “hero” in the UK, as “ninja” was deemed to be inherently violent and liable to drive British kids to silently assassinate their friends in the school playground. Don’t worry, they’re the same four radical turtle bros you know and love. Leonardo still leads, Donatello continues in his suspiciously vague role of “doing machines” and Michelangelo still sits splay-legged with his crotch on full display for all the world to see. What, were you expecting decorum? He grew up in a sewer.
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: The Coin-Op
There’s another TMNT game. It’s a decent approximation of the cartoon’s style, although the turtles’ grimacing faces make it clear that skateboarding through an open sewer pipe is not the tubular thrill-ride they thought it would be, but they can’t lose face by admitting it was a bad idea.
Last Ninja 2
Here’s the grammatically confusing Last Ninja 2, and when you are drawing a large number two for your cover art, at what point do you have to concede that it’s gotten away from you a little and your two is now too big? Okay, okay, so I’ll admit that this is a decent cover for a game about a shogun who travels through time and conquers New York, even if it doesn’t feel particularly ninja-y. Why, those could just as easily be the eyes of a mad wizard, vengeful ghost of a mafia boss or any other entity that might want to take over Manhattan. It needs a headband with some unrelated Japanese symbols on it, maybe a few shurikens. Hey, that’s a good point – all these ninja covers and not a single throwing star between them! It’s probably for the best given the, ahem, unpolished nature of most of this artwork. Any shurikens involved would probably have looked as though they’d been crafted using the same production method we used as kids: cutting rough star shapes out of Coke cans using a pair of rusty tin snips. It's a technique that leaves you with shurikens that don't fly very well and won't stick in things when thrown, but handling them will slice up your fingers like you approached Freddy Krueger for an ill-advised high five.
There are so many ninjas on the Spectrum that we’ve reached a point of ninjas within ninjas. The big ninja seems tense or at least very warm, the sweat pouring down his nose serving as a good example of why you shouldn’t keep your head completely covered all the time. The little ninja in his eye? Not so much. That ninja’s having the time of their life. They’re not doing a flying kick, they’re leaping into the air and clicking their heels together at the sheer joy of being a ninja. My best guess is that they’ve just seen their careers advisor from high school. The shadowy world of espionage in feudal Japan is difficult to break into, is it, Mr. Johnson? Well, who needs a back-up plan now!?
Legend of Kage
It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but the game’s blurb describes Kage as “a young ninja” and besides, there’s no way I was going to let that outfit slide. Who knew they had mankinis back then? Kage is out to rescue a kidnapped princess (as though there’s any other kind of princess) and he must have been given this task when the rest of the royal family saw him and said “look at what this weirdo is wearing, he must be pretty bloody brave.” Technically it’s a pretty good cover, with some dynamic cartoon action and a man in the background who appears to be carrying a carton of french fries on each ear, but I just can’t get past Kage’s clothes. It’s not even the near nudity and prospect for some truly bizarre tan lines, it’s that it looks so damned uncomfortable. You’re a ninja, Kage. Your uniform is essentially pyjamas. I would start seeing that snuggliness as a perk of the job, if I were you.
The Ninja Warriors
The only thing “incredible but true” about that tagline is that it’s truly, incredibly inaccurate. I don’t even understand what part of The Ninja Warriors is supposed to be true. That ninja warriors once existed? Because I think even that is up for debate, or at least the idea that real ninjas did a lot of warrior-ing is. They certainly didn’t fight cyborgs in a futuristic dictatorship, which is what happens in The Ninja Warriors. I feel the composition of this piece is rather unfair on the red ninja, too, especially considering she’s the player one character of Ninja Warriors. For a ninja it’s probably a relief to know your face is obscured, but that’s what the masks are for.
You know, I always thought wolves had necks, but it seems I was mistaken. Apparently they’re all neck. Thanks for clearing that up, Shadow Dancer. Also, it’s nice to see Lawrence of Arabia’s still getting work.
Or Ninja Gaiden to you and me, and here’s a cover included because a) it’s good and b) it’s incredibly “of its time.” There’s no way you could place that artwork at any other period than the late eighties / early nineties. Bright colours, a ruddy great ninja, and even graffiti-style lettering that adorned thousands of market-stall t-shirts during my youth. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, even without checking, those aren’t real Japanese characters. However, the Japanese should definitely adopt them as the pictograms for “gnarly” and “x-treme.”
Finally for today, my absolute favourite ninja cover on the ZX Spectrum with Saboteur, a cover that has most certainly earned that exclamation mark in the title. Where can you start with this masterpiece? The title's sort of accurate, I guess. If you're trying to sabotage something, then murdering everyone in a three-mile radius will probably get the job done. Or how about the fact that the ninja has upgraded from primitive weapons like the sword to a fully-loaded MAC-10? He’s even put a silencer on it, as a gesture towards his ninja heritage. Then there’s his face, an expression of complete sensory overload, the look of a man who was pushed to the limit by the loud noises and flashing lights until he broke and began operating on pure instinct like a puppy during a fireworks show. No, the very best thing about it is that the ninja isn’t even looking at the man he’s kicking in the head. He’s a busy guy, he doesn’t have time to stare deeply into the eyes of each person whose life he snuffs out. I get the impression that the saboteur is very easily distracted, and should probably consult his doctor about potential ADD treatments.
There we go then, a hefty chunk – but not all – of the ninja-related covers of the ZX Spectrum. What did we learn from this look at the ancient shadow arts? That ninjas never use shurikens and they like to stand out in the open and fight, mostly, putting ninjas in the same category as professional boxers and half the clientèle of my hometown’s pubs at kicking out time. What a mysterious breed they are.