They’re not turtles or mutants and they’re definitely not teenagers, but they are ninjas. Well, that’s what the game would have me believe, but I’m not sure I buy it. Ninjas don’t tend to carry handbags. Brace yourself for the hip-shattering, pension-collecting pugilism of Clockwize’s ZX Spectrum brawler Ninja Grannies!
Here’s a ninja granny now. Her name’s Mabel, and she’s the particular pensioner you’ll be controlling while you play. As you can see, she’s got some moves. Kicking a walking stick in half is the OAP equivalent of karate chopping through a plank of wood, I guess. I like the use of typical “old people” things like zimmer frames and wheelchairs on those banners, although I’m not sure about the walking stick with a snake wrapped around it. Maybe I’m going to fight a retired doctor at some point.
On Ninja Grannies’ title screen, a scrolling text window gives you some hints about your upcoming battles. “Watch out, there’s a gran about,” it says, and I assume it’s referring to Mabel herself. She’s clearly a violent thug who roams the streets, post offices and bingo halls of the land looking for people to fight. Some foes will use weapons, apparently, and there’s also the ominous promise that your opponents will include “the likes of Edith.” Dear god, not Edith. Hopefully I’ll have had plenty of practise before I go up against Edith the Eliminator.
As you can see, Ninja Grannies is a one-on-one fighting game built around the gag that rather than kung fu masters and villainous dictators, all the fighters are grannies and grandpas. It’s called Ninja Grannies and not Kung Fu Geriatrics presumably because ninjas were big in the eighties, and it fits in nicely with the plethora of other ridiculous “ninja” games of the time like BMX Ninja, Ninja Hamster and Ninja Scooter Simulator.
Anyway, you’ve both got a health bar, you attack each other and whoever runs out of health first loses. You can only play as Mabel, which is a bit of a shame because there’s a fair variety of oldsters in the game. First amongst them is Berty, a cantankerous old geezer who will fight Mabel to the death for the right to occupy the chair nearest the radiator.
Don’t let Berty’s age fool you: he’s got some serious combat skills, as evidenced by the way he roundhouse kicked Mabel halfway across the room. That’ll teach her to call him a “Last of the Summer Wine-looking piece of trash.”
Not to worry, though, Mabel can fight back with her own arsenal of attacks, including a flying kick that belies her advancing years. Sadly you can’t move forward while jump-kicking, Mabel just leaps straight upwards with her leg outstretched, but the power of the falling heel drop is still enough to be a useful tool when the time calls for it.
Mostly, though, I went with the tried-and-true old lady strategy of smashing Berty in the face with my handbag whenever I could. It’s got a decent amount of range, it comes out quickly and it isn’t nearly so rough on poor Mabel’s hips.
If you’ve read any other VGJunk articles about Spectrum or Commodore 64 fighting games, then you’ve probably already got a good idea about how Ninja Grannies’ controls work. The joystick lets you move back and forth or jump, and moving the joystick while pressing the fire button is how you attack. The jumping kick, for instance, is up and fire, while the handbag slap is right and fire. You can also block high or low by holding up or down and back on the stick and pressing fire, and there are a few other moves like a hefty kick in the shin and a powerful but slow-moving roundhouse kick performed by holding back and pressing fire. It’s not the greatest control scheme in the world, just as it wasn’t the greatest control scheme in any of those other home computer fighting games, but it gets the job done and for the most part the moves correspond to sensible directions on the joystick so you won’t forget what motion performs which move.
After smashing Berty in the face with my handbag so many times that his false teeth have been replaced by crumpled tissues and Werther’s Originals, the fight ends with Mabel as the victor. She’s “on the road to ninja stardom” now, apparently. Is this going to be like The X Factor, and Mabel’s the token old person who comes on the show as a “life-affirming” reminder that, like, age is only a number, man? I hope so, because then it might end with Mabel drop-kicking Simon Cowell.
After you’ve waited for it to load, it’s on to Ninja Grannies’ next fight. And then the next, and the next, until all your challengers have been vanquished. Nothing much changes between fights – even the background only changes after every three fights – and there are no bonus rounds to mix up the action so if you were hoping for a minigame where you mash the fire button until Mabel can wrench the lid off her heart pills, you’re out of luck. However, Ninja Grannies does feature quite the cast of sinister septuagenarians, so I’ll make sure you get to see them all.
Next up is Edith herself, and good god what is wrong with her head? She looks like a partially deflated basketball wearing sunglasses.
After the build-up she got in the intro, I was a little worried that Edith was going to wipe the floor with me, and doubly so when she ran at Mabel and tried to stove her head in with a walking stick. It all worked out okay, though – somehow I managed to block most of this ferocious assault entirely by accident. You can block in this game, clearly, but as with pretty much every home computer fighting game I’ve ever played blocking is not something you can rely on. Most enemy attacks come at you too fast for you block in response, and it’s not like a Street Fighter or what-have-you where a successful block will push your opponent away a little and give you some breathing room. No, even if you are managing to block their attacks, the other fighter will right next to you and keep on attacking until you either stop blocking or they kick you in your unguarded feet. In Ninja Grannies, offence is definitely the best form of defence.
Fighter number three is Bessy, a vicious-looking fishwife type with a headscarf and a desire to ram her slippers deep into Mabel’s ear canal. There’s not much else to say about Bessy, because she’s basically the same as Mabel but with a different sprite. In fact, all the characters are the same in terms of moves. They’ve got a jumping “kick,” a sweep, a spinning roundhouse of some variety and so on. What most of them do have, though, are different sprites that at least try to disguise the fact that they’re all the same under the hood.
Moving on, and the next combat arena is the post office. Back when Ninja Grannies was created (some time in the mid-eighties, although I’m not sure on the exact year) the post office was well-known as being a gathering place for the elderly, especially on pension day when they’d all shuffle down there to collect their money. Nowadays your pension generally gets paid straight into your bank account, though, so the post office isn’t quite the local hotbed of OAP activity that it used to be.
Your first opponent in this locale is Ralph. At first glance, Ralph looks like a kindly old man, with his receding hair and his argyle pullover. You know that’s not true, though. He’s here to fight. He’s put his life on the line for the sake of the secret pensioner combat deathmatch. He’s here to win, not to watch cricket and tousle the hair of his grandchildren, and his violent ways were revealed when he ran over to Mabel and showed her his backside with a sly grin on his face, as you can see above. Then he headbutted her right in the face. Ralph is not to be trifled with.
The next challenger is Rosie. She’s very similar to Bessy, except she’s carrying the favoured weaponry of angry matriarchs the world over - a rolling pin. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d hammered a few nails through it, too.
Things get a bit strange with the next fight, because it’s not against a fellow granny. Instead you’re rumbling with Hughy, and Hughy’s a punk. Specifically, he’s a videogame side-scrolling beat-em-up punk: no shirt, hair in a mohawk, attempting to batter Mabel with a chain. I say “attempting” because Hughy could have the biggest chain from the biggest bicycle in the world and it wouldn’t stand up to Mabel’s furious handbag assault. It’s weird that Hughy’s such a change from the other fighters, and he’s the only one that’s not a granny / grandpa. Were they holding auditions for Streets of Rage in the next room and he got lost? Maybe it’s supposed to be implying that Hughy is trying to steal Mabel’s pension, in which case you fucked with the wrong grandma, asshole.
Moving on the high street, and a battle against Molly. Molly’s gimmick is that she’s brought her pet dog with her, and as gimmicks go I’m fully on board with it. The dog even gets involved with the fighting, leaping at Mabel during certain attacks: for instance, where most characters would have a low kick, Molly gets her dog to bite at your ankles. This is Ninja Grannies’ biggest strength. They only had one joke, but by god they stuck to it and made a real effort to make the characters feel unique even if they all fight the same, and there’s a lot of charm to be found in two old ladies fighting outside a launderette, one of them using a terrier as an offensive weapon.
Another example of this is Joe, who fights while riding on a mobility scooter. A bloody good mobility scooter, too, considering it gives him the mobility to a) get down to the shops and b) perform spinning attacks.
Hey, look, there’s another dog in the background. I’m going to assume it’s related to the Bay Area dog from Final Fight.
At this point I’m more than halfway through Ninja Grannies, and I feel like I’ve got a handle on it now. To be fair, I could have said that after the second fight, because nothing really changes – the fights don’t seem to get any more difficult as you progress, even – and every fight will play out the same way. I’m glad that I realised the handbag slap was the best move early on, because that’s how I got through the game. Trying to use all the moves at your disposal and blocking incoming attacks isn’t going to work: the game’s controls are simply not responsive enough for that, coupled with the CPU characters’ ability to pin you in place if you’re blocking. Instead, here are my tactics. Take a swipe with you handbag. If it’s blocked, wait a second or so and try again. If it lands, step forward and handbag again. A lot of the time you opponent will try to react with attack of their own only to feel the force of Mabel’s purse, and often you can catch them in a loop. You hit them, they try to hit back but you’re already using your next attack, repeat. Eventually you’ll knock them all the way across the screen, and when that happens you just walk backwards a bit and start again. It’s not a foolproof method by any means, because sometimes they’ll jump out of it or Mabel herself will lag behind a bit, but on the whole it seems like the most consistent way to win. You get all your health back between fights, too, so you can get away with turning the fights into a war of attrition until you get the loop going.
The last street fighter is Amoss, the dirty old git. I say that because his main attack is to thrust his groin towards Mabel, his trenchcoat bulging as he does so, so I have to assume he’s supposed to be a flasher. The worry here is that he might want Mabel to clobber his unmentionables.
And now, the final stage – the bingo hall. Of course it’s a bingo hall, where else could be a more fitting gladiatorial arena for a senior citizen’s death match? John Wick thinks he’s so tough with his pencil, he should try it with a bingo dabber.
Mabel’s first foe in the bingo hall is Billy. With his full beard and woolly jumper, Billy has the air of a real ale aficionado, an effect that’s increased when he attacks using the bottle he’s carrying.
After that, it’s a battle against Dot, who you can see above getting a kick in the head. Sure, Ninja Grannies’ central joke is a dumb one, but there’s definitely something entertaining about seeing two little old ladies acting like Ryu and Ken. Dot’s most notable feature is that she attacks with, appropriately enough, a granny trolley. At least, that’s what I and the people I know call those shopping baskets on wheels.
Last but by no means least is Annie, Mabel’s final competitor for the coveted crown of Most Ninjaest Granny. Annie’s in a wheelchair, perhaps so she can play the “you wouldn’t hit someone in a wheelchair” card, but Mabel’s not about to fall for that. It’s not just any wheelchair, either: the foot rest can extend to smash Mabel in the shins, something that I’m sure would hurt a lot. As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time pushing wheelchairs around, I can assure you that you wouldn’t want to fight one. Especially those solid, old-fashioned ones they have at the hospital. If one of those things rolls over your foot, you’re going to know about it.
Of course, Annie isn’t any more difficult than all the other combatants and the “fighting” “skills” you’ve honed throughout the game should be enough to see you through to your final triumph.
Here’s your ending. What were you expecting, a montage of Mabel’s sickest flying kicks set to a specially-composed rock-n-roll score? C’mon, this is a ZX Spectrum game, you’re lucky to get this bit of text. “You can now claim to be the world’s best martial arts pensioner,” it says.
Well, you can make that claim for a few more years, at least.
I had fun playing Ninja Grannies. There, I said it. Not because the gameplay is particularly fun or anything – I mean, I’ve definitely played worse 8-bit computer fighting games, but there’s still not much to excite in this one, gameplay-wise. It’s repetitive, blocking is pointless, movement is slow and sometimes Mabel won’t attack when you tell her to. However, the setting and the graphics offer some good, dopey (and very British-feeling) fun, with just about enough entertainment to be gained from clobbering flashers and being attacked by tiny dogs to see you through the game. It’s a shame, then, that Ninja Grannies was never commercially released. That’s right, it never made it onto shop shelves, but if it had I think it would be remembered as something of a cult classic. Now that I’ve played it and put more pensioners in hospital than pneumonia, I shall remember it fondly and probably never play it again.
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