It's nice to know that, despite the fact that middle age is bearing down on me like a rhinoceros on a motorcycle, the phrase "robot ninja" still has the power to make me stop and take notice. "Go ahead," my brain whispers, "check it out. Robot ninjas. You can't ignore that, they might have swords hidden in their arms or rocket feet or something. Go on, play it. Girls will like you if you know about these things and you can protect them from cyborg ninjas when the machines inevitably attempt to enslave the human race". So, I'm going to be looking at Taito's 1987 arcade slash-em-up The Ninja Warriors in the desperate hope that doing so will silence the voices in my head.
It's the space-year 1993, and the US President has gone mad and turned the country into a brutal military dictatorship. Some people are understandably not keen on this turn of events, so they create a pair of robot ninjas to go and assassinate the President. Aah, "Robot ninjas assassinate President". It just makes you feel warm inside, don't it?

Of course, getting to the President isn't easy: after all, one of the perks of running a military dictatorship is having a large supply of soldiers at your disposal. And dogs. And ninjas, I guess? There's a lot going on. Say what you like about this new reign of terror, but the army's recruitment policies have never been more fair and open.

That's you on the left, the red-clad ninja with the two chef's knives. Player two controls a male, blue ninja robot, but they both play identically. Now, you might have noticed that these screenshots are, like my beer-filled gut, much wider than the norm. That's because The Ninja Warriors' cabinet had a three-screen gimmick, for a sort of proto-widescreen effect:

The gameplay is fairly standard: get your ninja from one end of the stage to the other, stabbing anything that gets in your way. You've got an attack button for swiping with your ninja knives, and holding it down lets you block. You start each life with 30 shurikens that you can throw with the other button. The stick moves you left and right, and pressing up makes you jump. Easy-peasy ninja squeezy.

Side-scrolling: it's a phrase I've tossed around with wild abandon in the past, applying it to every roaming beat-em-up I can find and to hell with the inaccuracies. Then along comes The Ninja Warriors and forces me to reappraise my use of the phrase, because this is the single most side-scrolling game ever. There's no up-and-down element to the combat, no movement between foreground and background, just left-to-right movement. The graphics, while very nice with some lovely details, feel very flat, giving the whole game a feel that I can only describe as being a bit like a Game-and-Watch. There hasn't been anything with this much flat fighting action since the Bayeux Tapestry.

Your enemies mostly consist of soldiers from the world's most poorly-equipped army: only about one in fifteen soldiers has a gun, and the rest just charge at you with knives. This can lead to the rather amusing situation of being chased by a knife-wielding soldier who, unfortunately for him, has to pause for a second while he stabs. He pauses, you keep walking and he's left forever stabbing thin air, the poor sod. There are also hunchbacked ninjas with metal claws who, with their cardigans and brown slacks, remind me of a cross between the assassins from The Castle of Cagliostro and my grandad.

Gameplay-wise, everything's ticking along quite well. For now, at least, lady-robo-ninja has enough space to jump around, dispatching her foes with style and grace. To go with the gameplay, you've got some very nice graphics for the time. They're well animated, the backgrounds have some interesting little details to them, and your ninja takes visible damage. It's a nice touch, and particularly impressive is the fact that you get damaged depending on where you've been hit - for example, trying to use your shins as some kind of bulletproof shield will result in your ninja's robotic legs becoming visible.
The other thing is the music. Created by Hisayoshi Ogura and Taito's in-house band Zuntata, it's regarded as a classic soundtrack and is held in particularly high regard in Japan. The first track, the bizarrely-titled "Daddy Mulk", is especially famous, and that's because it's really good.

There aren't many videogame tracks that are so good they feature a solo followed by synthesised applause, but I think this just about deserves it. The Mega-CD version is even better, so if check it out on YouTube if you're interested.
That's the first stage, then. What? Is there a boss? Well, sort of...

There's this purple ninja lady who has hair almost as extravagant your character's. Here you can see her just after she's killed me and my robot has exploded. I assume she's a robot too, because otherwise that means she's a human who's strong enough to chop up a metal robot with a sword. To be fair, your ninja does take damage from walking into a human, so she's hardly the fucking Terminator, is she? Anyway, purple ninja lady isn't all that tough, and you can move onto stage two.

It's an airfield, and the folly of lubricating your robot ninja's joints with Pedigree Chum becomes clear as a pack of dogs launch themselves at you. I hope there aren't any animal rights activists watching, because that dog's getting stabbed right in the face. The dogs are tougher than the soldiers, being a lot quicker and all, but at least I don't have to fight a tank or anything.

Oh look, it's a tank. For an evil army that is so clearly underfunded, these guys do not have a shortage of tanks. Unfortunately for them, they don't really know how to use their tanks. The main gun'll shoot at you from a distance, but the main method of attack is a guy who pops out of the hatch and shoots at you with the machine gun. I say "at you", but it'd be more accurate to say he always fires at a spot on the floor about a foot in front of the tank. He's easy enough to deal with, just jump up and shuriken him while he's shooting that patch of floor. The odd thing his, when he's been killed the tank driver says to himself "welp, see ya!" and drives away, completely forgetting that he's in control of an armoured vehicle with a large-caliber cannon and treads that could easily crush something like, I dunno, a robot ninja. Oh well, it's a let-off for our hero, I suppose.

And along you go, stabbing soldiers and dogs until you reach the boss. And the boss is... another tank. One other thing: in the picture above, there's a notice on the wall that says "the official, identified in the court documents as TS, Wham! the final concert and explosivis notified the XP." Colour me bloody confused. Perhaps someone on the development staff just really likes Wham!

Stage three takes place inside the army base. Look at all those tanks! Makes you wonder why hundreds of men wielding nothing more powerful than a Swiss army knife are being sent to their deaths at the hands of a remorseless killer robot when there's a battalion of tanks waiting right fucking there, but I'm not a military strategist so what do I know?
Also of note: flying bat/ninja/old lady things that swoop down from the ceiling and try to kill you with a headbutt, or headbutt no jutsu. Well, they are ninjas after all.

The boss appears, and what a prick he is too. He's got a ball-and-chain and he's wearing a helmet that looks like a silver wig glued to a flat cap. He presents something of a problem, because aside for the fact it's difficult to get close to him because of his swinging balls, it's very difficult to tell if you're actually hurting him. I think there's supposed to be a a sound-effect to let me know if my blows are hitting flesh or armour, but they don't seem all that reliable.
The other problem with fighting this guy is your weapons. If you are planning on killing hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers, dogs and assorted thugs, then please make sure you take a weapon that has a longer reach than a goddamn packet of gum. Ninja lady's knives require you to be so close to your opponent that you could count each individual pubic hair: not really a problem against the knifemen, but more of an issue when fighting this fat bastard who can keep you away with his ball-and-chain. Still, after a prolonged bout of jumping over the boss and stabbing him in the back, the stage is over and it's back out onto the streets.

These are the streets, and for once they don't seem all that mean. They're pleasant, even; nice looking restaurants, good view of the city, a modern-looking library with a statue of a half-Roman-half-conquistador-type fella. Sure, you have to put up with the occasional tank ineffectually trying to kill you, but nowhere's perfect.

The boss is also a tank, and they're still just as useless as before. When a dog is doing a better job at destroying your enemies than a tank, you need to start re-thinking your military strategy.

The next stage is the obligitory sewer stage, and boy is it dull. Your main challenge here? Bats. After you've trudged your way through the (uncharacteristically bland) level, throwing shuriken at the bats and laughing as the soldiers repeatedly jump-kick into a wall because they can't figure out how to duck, you'll reach the boss.

Oh. You again. He's the same as before, except maybe a little tougher. You killed him? Oh good. He'll be back again soon. More than once, too. And you thought you were fed up of him already!

That's a spot of luck: the sewer comes up right outside the villain's palatial mansion. "Daddy Mulk" is playing as the stage theme again, and that's fine by me because I could listen to it all day (and I have been). Like any good ninja, our hero decides to wait until night, grapple up the outside of the compound, run across the rooftops, drop down through an open skylight and poison the villain while he sleeps. No, of course she doesn't, she walks in through the front door. Why was she even built as a ninja? It's not like she's been acting as a shadowy assassin through the game, has she? She fought a tank in the middle of the street in broad daylight for chrissakes. The only reason I can come up with to explain why she's in the form of a ninja and not a combat mech or a bear or some other, more useful form is that she's actually an animatronic puppet from a ninja-themed kid's restaurant that's been reprogrammed... for murder.

The rest of the stage sees you fighting a little of everything from the previous stages, including another version of the ball-and-chain boss, as well as some little laser-firing robots who look like refugees from a TMNT game. You actually have to do something other than just walk to the right on this stage, because there's a series of staircases that you can walk up and down in a Castlevania fashion. Here's a hint: unlike Castlevania, you're invincible when you're standing on the stairs. I suppose you could call it a maze, as there are walls preventing you from going straight to the top-right corner, but it's hardly taxing.

Once you get through to the top-right corner of the palace, the scene is set for a showdown. The guy in blue is your assassination target, the evil President Banglar. He calls for his troops to attack, including yet another version of the ball-and-chain guy, and boy do they attack. Ninja Warriors stops being fun at this point: between the tiny range of your attacks, the fact that your shurikens have all the stopping power of a tissue dipped in caramel and the sheer amount (and size) of the enemies, this fight rapidly becomes an exercise in feeding credits into the machine because there simply isn't enough room for a normal person to play skillfully.
Still, once you've done it you'll never have to see that ball-and-chain guy again.

Straight after that fight, and the President cowers in the corner of the room with no way out. That's what you get for living in a house that's just one long corridor, you scumbag. He doesn't put up a fight, so all that's left is to stab him and complete your mission. Huzzah! He's dead, you've saved the world (I guess?) and now it's time to look forward to a nice, long robot retirement, sitting in a mechanical rocking chair and reminiscing about the time a ninja dressed as a bat tried to kill you by gliding into you. Sounds lovely! Wait, what are you doing?

Turns out it was a suicide mission all along, and our ninja friend has been carrying a bomb in her robot guts. It explodes, the mansion is destroyed, and you're treated to some prime mistranslated English as the epilogue plays.

"A revorution broke out. And everything became to an end. The troubled country seemed to be finished by the death of the wicked machines. But the peace did not came. Because Ninja Warriors, they are immortal murder machines....."
I'd much rather have a nice slab of Engrish that a fancy ending sequence, you know. The odd thing is, this text has an English voiceover, and it gets all the English correct. Strange.
This text does seem to suggest that, despite the fact that I just saw a small nuclear explosion go off on the region of her robot ovaries, our hero isn't dead. In fact, she's "immortal", thus making her the most useful suicide bomber ever.

I must admit, Ninja Warriors has its moments, especially in the earlier levels before every other enemy is a ball-and-chain guy and there's a bit more freedom to move around. Playing as a robot ninja is something that never gets old, even if the only ninja-esque thing about her is her clothes. The music's great, probably the best thing about the game, and the graphics are nice too. It's got its fair share of flaws, though: the repetitiveness of the gameplay, the feeling of restriction due to the very narrow play area and the difficulty spikes towards the end of the game are the major ones.
So would I recommend playing it? On the whole, I think I would. At least give it a quick go, enjoy the music, stop playing as soon as it gets frustrating and move on to the vastly superior SNES sequel, erm The Ninja Warriors.

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