Well, I’m sad to report that it’s that time of year again – the post-Halloween slump. It can be hard to muster the enthusiasm for old videogames when I’m not focussing entirely on pumpkins and Frankensteins, but I’ve got to get back into the groove somehow so I thought hey, let’s get back to the basics. Real fundamental stuff, you know? And what could be more videogame-y than a side-scrolling arcade action-platformer starring ninjas, the most videogame-appropriate of all the semi-mythical assassination warrior castes? Yes, like ham and cheese, Hall and Oates and me realising it’s November and me also realising it’s nearly Christmas and I’ll have to start getting ready for Christmas, ninjas and videogames just go together. With that in mind’s here’s Mitchell’s 1994 arcade shinobi-em-up Charlie Ninja!

Charlie Ninja has a title screen. Nope, I’ve got nothing. Is there a gang of rogue Buddhists roaming the city and spray-painting yin-yang symbols on the walls? Could be, could be. All I know for sure at this point is that this game is called Charlie Ninja, which I’m sure Urban Dictionary defines as “someone who stealthily steals your cocaine while you’re not looking.”

Here are the titular ninjas, and a right pair of charlies they are too. As player one I’ll be controlling the black-clad ninja, who isn’t called Charlie. Neither is the red 2P ninja. Their names are Roy and Lon, respectively. Roy the Ninja. I like it. “Roy the Ninja” sounds like a tough-talking, no-nonsense kind of ninja… although judging by this artwork, this isn’t going to be a serious game about serious ninjas. In fact, with their big round eyes and strange flesh-muzzles, these ninjas look more like Sonic the Hedgehog characters than anything else. Perhaps Robotnik has finally had enough of Sonic and has hired a pair of shadowy hitmen to deal with him permanently.

This being a side-scrolling action platformer, most of the controls are fairly self-explanatory. You can jump and double jump, you can attack by throwing various kinds of shurikens, you can drop through platforms by holding down and jump, that kind of thing. There’s another interesting addition outlined on the “how to play” screen, though, and that’s the defensive move: press jump and attack at the same time and your ninja will hide behind a camouflage sheet that matches the background. While you’re hiding behind the sheet, you’re invulnerable, so I can see it coming in useful.

It looks like Roy and Lon really are the “hired mercenary” kind of ninjas, and each stage in the game involves them chasing down a bounty for a cash reward. In this case, they’re looking to bank a cool ten thousand for bringing in a large cowboy called Blues. The bounty notice does not specify dead or alive, so dead it is.

And so here we are in the Old West. It’s wild, and it’s wacky! Cowboys hide in barrels, Blues sticks his head out of the saloon window to see if the ninjas have found him yet and Roy dishes out cold, merciless death to all those who stand in his way. Charlie Ninja is definitely one of those games where just a glance at a screenshot is enough to give you a very good impression of the gameplay. You scamper around the screen, jumping between levels and throwing shurikens at the various cowboys while avoiding their projectiles and other obstacles like the raging fires. Power-ups are hidden in pink barrels, you can take three hits before you lose a life and if you aren’t constantly muttering to yourself in a “grizzled old prospector” voice while making your way through this stage then you’re a stronger person than me, goldurnit.

Clearly the most striking thing about Charlie Ninja are the graphics, and this feels like the first game in a while that I can describe as “looking like a cartoon,” because it really does. Everything’s big, colourful and packed with exaggerated animations for a strong Looney Tunes vibe. It’s interesting, because Mitchell were a Japanese development company and yet Charlie Ninja is very light on anime influences besides it being a game about cartoon ninjas, and when combined with the flat, line-heavy and rather “Western” art style and the fact that all the stages are America-themed, I suspect Charlie Ninja might have been a purposeful attempt to appeal to an American market. Also, while I was double-checking the history of Mitchell Corporation I noticed that their president was called Roy Ozaki, so that might be where our main character got his name.

As for the gameplay, early impressions are fairly encouraging. It’s a little by-the-numbers, but it’s so bouncy and fast-paced that, at least for now, it’s pretty entertaining. My immediate reaction was “this game would really benefit from letting you attack in other directions beside horizontally,” but at least the evasive sheet-dodging manoeuvre is fun. Perhaps not as useful as it might have been thanks to the delay in both activating and deactivating it, because while you can use it to dodge projectiles, most enemies will just keep firing and when you try to drop your cloth the delay means you’ll probably get hit by the next projectile anyway. I do really like the effect of the sheet making the sprite layer invisible so you can see the background through it, though.

Because the action is so hectic, I’m not getting much of a chance to get to grips with the various kind of shurikens I’ve collected, but there are several varieties. The regular ones travel horizontally, as expected, and they can be powered up into more damaging energy blasts. You can also get a three-way shuriken, although unlike most games where having a spread weapon means you fire in three directions at once, in Charlie Ninja you fire one forward, then one diagonally upwards and followed by one diagonally downwards which frankly makes this weapon a real pain in the arse and potentially quite embarrassing when you’re stood right next to a cowboy, hurling two out of every three projectiles nowhere near them before they gun you down. There are also homing sais (further potential evidence that Raphael is the best turtle) and a huge shuriken that operates as a boomerang: it’s powerful and has a massive hitbox, but you can only have one on screen at a time so if you miss, you’re screwed. Oh, and if you get close enough to an enemy you’ll slash them with your sword instead of throwing a shuriken. See, and you thought I called this a “shinobi-em-up” just because I looked up “ninja” in the thesaurus. The melee strikes seem to do more damage than your projectiles, which is something to bear in mind when fighting a boss.

Here’s Roy, using his camouflage skills to avoid these rolling barrels. The barrels move so quickly during normal gameplay that it’s difficult to see, but in a still screenshot it’s clear that each barrel has a cowboy inside. You really picked the short straw when they were handing out combat assignments, huh, pardner? “The sheriff tells me one of them there neen-jitsu varmints is comin’ for us, dagnabbit. Zeke, Irish Pete, One-Eyed Joe, you climb in these here whiskey barrels and we’ll roll you at the ninja. The rest of you, git your guns and take up sensible firin’ positions!”

And then you have to fight Blues, naturally. I’d love to tell you that this is a classic wild west gunfight, a battle to see who’s the fastest hand in the west, but unfortunately it’s a regular old arcade game boss fight. A real missed opportunity there, Mitchell, but at least I’ve got a good set piece for when I finally get around to making my cinematic magnum opus Cowboys vs. Ninjas. Yes, I checked, there is no movie called Cowboys vs. Ninjas. Yet. I’m sure it won’t be long.
As for the fight, Blues jumps around the screen either firing a spread shot (an actual, sensible spread shot) of projectiles or trying to get on the same vertical level as you and unleashing a rapid fire attack. That’s all well and good, but it’d be easy enough to avoid even if I didn’t have the homing sais equipped. There wasn’t much Blues could do about heat-seeking knives.

GO TO NEXT STAGE, demands Charlie Ninja. Jesus, all right, calm down. I was just taking a moment to enjoy the artwork of Roy and Lon – whose name I now suspect might have been intended to be Ron – having some fun old west adventures, like they’re messing about at a theme park or something. I say fun, that horse is pissed. Lon’s about to get a hoof in the face, and I don’t think they teach you how to avoid that in ninja school.

Stage two is war themed, and as we all know, war never changes. Much as it ever was, the armed conflict in Charlie Ninja involves bendy, rubber-limbed soldiers with toothy grins that even the Joker would think are a bit much, all of them trying to shoot one solitary ninja while also guarding wooden crates full of money so, what, have we got a Three Kings type situation going on here?

Don’t let this screenshot fool you: Charlie Ninja is not nearly as good as a Metal Slug game. But it’s okay for now, at least, and I’d say that this is probably the most enjoyable of the game’s five stages. This lines up with something I’ve noticed in quite a few coin-ops over the years – that the point where you’re two-fifths of the way through the game, usually stages two and / or three, is the sweet spot. You’re past the simple opening stage designed to draw you in, but you haven’t yet reached the brutally difficult areas that so many arcade games include beyond the twenty percent mark.

There are also Rambos to fight. They leap out of trees, they fire arrows at you, they stand around and flex in a way that says “sure, I know my pectoral muscles look more like a giant human arse, but I don’t care!” I think it says a lot about how iconic Rambo’s “headband and archery” look is, because these enemies were immediately recognisable as Rambo without looking anything like Sylvester Stallone.

Naturally, the boss is also a soldier. His name is Sanders and yes, I did check his rank insignia to see whether he’s Colonel Sanders. He isn’t, he’s Corporal Sanders, which is honestly kinda surprising. If there’s one icon of American culture that has really found a foothold in the Japanese popular consciousness it’s Colonel Sanders, and Charlie Ninja really does feel like the kind of game where you would have to fight a thinly-veiled Colonel Sanders parody called something like “Colonel Chicken” who attacks be throwing family-sized buckets of hot grease at the player. Sadly that’s not the case, and instead we get this guy. He’s wearing a tank turret like a life ring, I guess? He can hula-hoop it around to fire projectiles in all directions, and he can even spin it around so fast that it acts like a helicopter rotor and allows Sanders to fly high above the battlefield. While he’s up there, he drops napalm that produces pillars of flame that require careful horizontal positioning to avoid. That’s the fight, then – concentrate on finding the safe spaces between the fire, watch out for projectiles and hey, get back here!

Halfway through the fight, Sanders just… leaves, and you have to chase him through more of the stage, fighting both the boss battle as well as regular enemies and stage hazards at the same time. In a way I suppose it makes sense: if Sanders is a higher rank than these soldiers then you’d think he would call on them for reinforcements. That's how the army works, right? That doesn’t mean it makes the boss battle any more enjoyable, though. The stages in Charlie Ninja are so densely packed with deadly threats already that the addition of a large boss character makes things too cluttered and too hectic to be much fun.

Well, this is unfortunate. The bounty target for stage three is a crude gay caricature, so, you know, ugh. With the moustache and the name this character is obviously inspired by Freddie Mercury, and it’d be great if it was just an evil version of Freddie Mercury that you had to fight but no, we’re stuck with the stereotypical “camp and leather” gay character that you get in Japanese games from time to time. To reiterate – boo.

As for the stage itself, it’s a very “side-scrolling beat-em-up” kind of area, a run-down industrial zone slash junkyard place. I’m sure Mike Haggar will be along any second now to dish out two feet of solid lead justice with a pipe he found under an oil drum. It’s Roy’s turn right now, though, and he’s fighting fat blokes with sleeveless vests just to hammer home that side-scrolling beat-em-up feeling. And also ninjas, there are antagonistic ninjas now. If I had a bounty on my head and was being hunted by ninjas, even one as goofy as Roy, I’d also hire my own ninjas to protect me. It's just good common sense really

There seem to be a lot more environmental hazards to avoid in this stage, most noticeably these falling spiked balls that aren’t much of threat on their own but they do confine Roy’s movements to smaller and smaller sections of the screen, a style of gameplay that’s at odds with the large sprites and sheer volume of enemy attacks. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are a lot of unavoidable attacks, not when you do have the camouflage sheet to hide behind, but the constant feeling of being hemmed in is rather at odds with the concept of wacky double-jumping ninja action, you know?

Now I’ve got to fight against Freddie, unfortunately. He attacks by blowing kisses, because what could be worse than being kissed by another man, am I right? No, you’re not right, Charlie Ninja, and also fuck you.

The American theme continues with the next stage, which is American football themed, and there’s nothing more American than enjoying sports that none of the rest of the world cares about. I like the football-bombs that the players throw at you, and seeing the boss halfway through the stage, sitting in the stands and eating an ice-cream, was also a nice touch, but overall it’s more of the same.

This stage also has you fighting lots of cheerleaders that are actually men in drag. Perhaps they’re just supposed to be villains who are trying to catch Roy unawares by wearing a disguise, but after the way Freddie was depicted I’m not sure Charlie Ninja has earned any leeway when it comes to potentially offensive stereotypes.

It was around this point in the game that I realised Roy actually has a few more moves than I thought. As well as throwing shurikens and hiding behind a blanket like the bogeyman’s about to come out from under his bed and eat his bones, Roy can also perform a rising stab attack and a spin-dash kind of thing… although I only managed to figure out how to do the rising attack, so there might be even more special moves that the game doesn’t tell you about. To do the rising sword attack, you input the traditional “dragon punch” joystick motion and then attack. But is it useful? Erm, not so much. It moves Roy quite a long distance and it doesn’t seem to kill enemies in one hit most of the time, so more often than not rather than dispatching your foes with a powerful strike all the dragon sword does is move you to a more dangerous part of the screen.

The boss is called Bear and he’s, you guessed it, an American football player. Well, he was hardly going to be a Renaissance painter, was he? Unlike most American football players, Bear can fly. He flies a lot, actually, gently drifting back and forth from one side of the screen to the other, with Roy having to duck below or leap over this vast zeppelin of a man while dealing with the minions that occasionally spawn in. Thankfully Bear doesn’t run back into the stage itself after you’ve been fighting him for a while like some of the other bosses, which I put down to laziness on Bear’s part. He’s so lazy, in fact, that his sprite isn’t even animated when it’s flying across the screen, it just moves horizontally and in a game that seems to pride itself on its visuals it gives a weirdly half-arsed impression.

For the fifth and final stage, the theme is, um, indeterminate. On the one hand, much of the level has a vague (and not very “American”) sci-fi feel to it, with mad scientists, ray guns and electric barriers all popping up in some kind of cyber-factory that appears to be making all the robot ninjas I’ve been fighting during the past few stages. I sincerely hope Shredder is somehow behind the ninja robots – he’s got form, after all – but I doubt it.

On the other hand, half of the stage takes place against a rickety wooden background patrolled by bootleg Jason Voorheeses that have realised they can dispatch twice as many inattentive teen counsellors if they carry an axe and a chainsaw. It’s a style completely at odds with the rest of the stage, but if you read the Halloween Spooktacular you’ll know I’m never going to complain about any videogame suddenly turning into Cabin in the Woods.

Halfway through the stage, you’ll run into Dr. Mac, the final bounty target. I think he attended the same “Robotics for Evil and World Domination” course as Dr. Wily, or at the very least his primary-coloured robot implies that they shop at the same hardware stores. It’s a fairly simple battle, with most of it being spent avoiding the death-ray that emanates from the mecha’s dong-cannon. It twitches up and down and everything, it’s all a bit much.

Then Dr. Mac flies away, and you have to battle through another chunk of by-now rather underwhelming half-laboratory-half-teen-slaughering-ground platforming. Dr. Mac pops up again only this time his robot has a big hand on it, so he can grab Roy and shake him around. Then he flies off again.

There’s on last section where you have to once more chase the boss through the stage itself and no, it didn’t get any more enjoyable since last time. However, it does imply that Dr. Mac added the big hand to his mecha not just for offensive purposes but also so he could shake his fist at Roy as our hero lands the final few shurikens to wrap up this game. That's a level of commitment to the "curmudgeonly evil scientist" bit that I can really appreciate.

Oh, so that small bird I’ve been seeing around the place is Charlie. And, what, this is like a Charlie’s Angels kind of situation except it’s gurning cartoon ninjas instead of ladies and Charlie is a parrot? Okay, fine, whatever. I must admit, I’m just glad it’s over.

Well, it turns out that Charlie Ninja wasn’t the ideal game to break me out of my post-Halloween torpor. It’s a shame, too, because I really wanted to like this game, and it’s not like it doesn’t have any strong points. The graphics are the main draw – big, cartoony, and fun for the most part, Charlie Ninja mostly excels on the visual side of things although sometimes the graphics came at the detriment of the gameplay – with the sprites being so big and stretchy, it was often difficult to tell where their hitboxes were, especially when I was trying to use the melee sword attacks. A lot of the action feels woolly and imprecise as a result, and by the end it all becomes a bit too cluttered and overcrowded to be much fun. Add in boss fight against opponents that run into the already densely-packed stage and have ediously inflated health bars and Charlie Ninja wears out its welcome even with a pretty short run time. Plus, you know, the awful gay “jokes.” I mentioned it earlier, but if I want a bit of cartoonish run-n-gun arcade action, I’ll probably just go back to Metal Slug. Metal Slug doesn’t have knock-off versions of classic slasher movie villains, sure, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

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