Today, I crave adventure. Will I get it from Datasoft’s 1987 Commodore 64 game Dark Lord? Well, it features rat endangerment and if that doesn’t scream adventure to you then I dunno what to tell you.

Here we go with Dark Lord, then – an “animated adventure,” as it styles itself, created by Kyle Freeman with music by Gary Wilens. So far, it looks very “computer adventure game”-like, with a castle, a volcano and an ancient monument that I’m going to call Stonehenge Junior. One interesting feature of Dark Lord is that as well as the main quest, you’re also offered a "mini adventure" that doesn’t really tie in to the main story but which lets you get accustomed to the game’s quirks. It’s been a while since I played one of these, so I think I’d better begin with the mini adventure.

I am in a forest, hundreds of years in the past, apparently. We’ve got trees, we’ve got grass, we’ve got another bit of text that says I arrived here by reading from my grandfather’s secret book and that I should look for the Temple of the Orb. Time to start exploring, then.

Well, that didn’t take long. I typed “NORTH,” hit enter and moved forward to the Temple of the Orb. So, that’s the kind of game Dark Lord is, then: a graphic adventure with the familiar text parser control scheme.  You enter things like LOOK TEMPLE or GET SLIME or DRINK SLIME and hopefully those things will happen – okay, maybe not the slime drinking one – and if not then that’s either not what you’re supposed to be doing or the parser hasn’t understood what you’re trying to get it to do. Normally those two outcomes would cover the vast majority of your commands, but obviously I have a walkthrough for Dark Lord at hand. Did you really think I’d go into a C64 graphic adventure without a solution, especially after the madness of those Marvel adventures or He-Man’s murderous rampage? Don’t be silly. I will be trying to figure things out for myself before I turn to the guide, though.

One thing I learned early on is that LOOK GROUND is a very important command. Unlike many adventures of this type, Dark Lord offers you neither a list of possible exits from the screen you’re on or an overview of any items that might be nearby. However, looking at the ground will almost always reveal any interesting objects in the vicinity – for example, here it revealed that there’s a bowl on the floor. I could see that there was something down there, but for the life of me I couldn’t get my brain to register that it was a bowl. I don’t know what I thought it was. A large peanut, perhaps. Whatever it is, I added it to my inventory before I tried to head into the temple. Unfortunately, the temple’s door is locked and USE BOWL ON DOOR was not the correct solution, partly because Dark Lord doesn’t recognise USE as a command. That seems like something of an oversight, but I guess I’ll just have to be more specific.

After a little exploration, I found a cave entrance hidden within an old tree. Unfortunately the cave is blocked by this worm. The game offers a stinging appraisal of the worm’s appearance, and after close examination of the worm itself I’d have to say it’s a description that’s harsh but fair. Just look at the thing’s face, it knows full well that it looks like a plaster cast of an elephant’s lower intestine.
To progress, I tried talking to the worm, but there was no response. I tried hitting the worm, but that didn’t work either. I assume my character refused to touch the worm with their bare hands, which is understandable. So, I looked through my inventory for a solution, which didn’t take long because all I’m carrying is a bowl I found on the ground. And hey, there was a pit of bubbling slime just outside the temple, and that seems like something you’d definitely want to be carrying around in a bowl. I went back to the slime and sure enough, into the bowl it went. At first I thought it might be worm food, but the creature was remained uninterested until I dumped the bowl of foul goop all over it.

“Sliming the worm” sounds like euphemism for something too horrible to contemplate, but if you’ll get your mind out of the gutter for one goddamn minute you’ll see that all the slime has done is kill the worm and cause it to melt into a bloody puddle, a visual that was a little more hardcore than I was expecting. Still, the puzzle is solved, the dead worm left behind a torch and now I can get into the temple itself.

The Temple of the Orb might not look like much, but at some point it must have been a happenin’ party joint, because the altar is singed and smells of alcohol so the priests have obviously been doing flaming Sambucas off it. This leads to another simple puzzle involving setting the altar aflame with your newly acquired torch, and that’s it, the mini adventure is over. It was a rather good idea, I thought. A decent way to gently introduce players to Dark Lord’s gameplay and an early indicator that making a map might be a good idea because the locations of the exits on each screen feels a bit vague. Best of all, I figured out the puzzles by myself. Yes, I know they were all very easy but it gives me hope that I won’t have to turn to the walkthrough too often. Anyway, let’s get on with the main adventure, shall we?

Dark Lord’s big quest begins with the player “wandering into a hidden room beneath your house.” You know, as you do. Finding a hidden lair tucked away in the basement of your own house is an interesting starting point on its own, and if I’m being one hundred percent honest I think I’d have preferred an adventure game about figuring out why there’s a secret room underneath your house. However, this is a game about alternate worlds, magical kingdoms and the titular Dark Lord, so your first task is to escape from this now-locked room. The path forward seemed fairly obvious to me, and an examination of the mirror revealed that there was indeed something strange about it, so of course walking into the mirror was enough to transport me to the mysterious realm of Alterworld.

A man with a bushy beard and some fairly major hip problems was waiting for me, sitting on his box and waiting for me to speak. I engaged him in polite conversation, and he told me that the Evil One now rules the land and that he’d be grateful if I helped out. Then he gave me a stick and told me to find some bloke called Krin. The stick has writing on it, so I assume it’s a magical stick. I agreed to find Krin, because it was the only way to progress, but I’m not sure about this whole kingdom-saving lark. I’ve only been here for five minutes, I know nothing about the Evil One and this grizzled stick-giver isn’t exactly forthcoming with further information. Fortunately, there is somewhere I can turn for more information: my grandfather’s journal, which is a fancy way of saying “Dark Lord’s instruction manual.”

Luckily, I managed to find the manual online. As well as all the usual information you’d expect to find in a manual, like the game’s basic commands and how to save your game (plus a full solution to the mini adventure) there’s also some story in the form of your grandfather’s memories of the time he travelled to Alterworld. Back then, the land was under the rule of the malevolent Nequam, a sorcerer who killed his brother (the previous king) and used the power of an ancient amulet to become immortal and invulnerable. However, Nequam got cocky. Rather than commanding legions of vicious creatures to do his evil bidding, he decided to terrorise the villagers himself, only for your grandfather to shoot the amulet out of his hands with a crossbow bolt. Suddenly powerless and surrounded by a village full of people he was intent on killing moments before, Nequam suffers what was once described in Red Dwarf as “a cock-up in the bravado department” and is promptly beaten to death by the assembled villagers. It’s a damn shame that scene isn’t shown in the game itself, because it sounds hilarious. Nequam didn’t stay dead, though, and now he’s terrorising the populace once again and it’s up to you to stop him. I assume the amulet is going to be important somehow, but for now I’d better get to exploring and trying to find Krin.

For the early part of the game, I spend most of my time wandering around Dark Lord’s environments, trying to get a mental map of the place. Sadly, I never really managed said cartography, and if I have one problem with Dark Lord it’s that I kept losing my bearings. I’m not sure if that’s down to the game or my lack of brainpower, although I suspect it’s both. I certainly didn’t struggle with Shadowgate, which had every exit from the screen clearly marked for you. Part of the problem is that the visuals in this game don’t always make it clear which directions you can travel in, so there’s a lot of trial-and-error as you enter every single compass direction to see if it takes you somewhere new.

On the plus side, Dark Lord’s world is rather nice to look at while you’re mooching about. Lots of green fields and crystal-blue waters, quaint villages and sandy beaches. The game calling itself “an animated adventure” was no idle boast, and while they’re not, like, small animated films or anything, most screens have at least some animated element to them. In this case it’s the fish, which was happily splashing around in the water until I entered GET FISH and scooped it out of the water with my bare hands. That was… easier than I expected. What kind of adventure game is this? Shouldn’t I have had to find string and wood to make a fishing rod or something? Maybe the main character is a trout tickler back on their home world.
That’s basically all I did for the first half-hour or so: I visited as many screens as possible, picking up any inventory items I could find and trying to remember the places where those items might prove helpful. I became a Womble, essentially, ready to make good use of the things that I find.

This seafront shack contains a rope, which will surely come in handy at some point and a rat, whose usefulness is less immediately obvious but by ‘eck I’m not leaving it behind. I tried talking to it first, just in case it was actually a person trapped by a wizard’s curse or something, but there was no response. So I picked it up, and the game told me “he is warm and friendly in your hands.” Aww, isn’t that nice? I’ve made a friend, and he didn’t even order me to carry a stick around.

I am standing on a dock. There is a strong breeze. I suspect this will be important later, because there’s an island over there.

A little further on, a man is repairing his boat. He told me to stay away from that island, so I look forward to visiting that island in the near future. It felt like there should have been more to this encounter, however, so I checked the walkthrough and indeed there was. This man is a fisherman, and a very lazy one at that, because he wants me to give him a fish. I didn’t tell him about the river so full of fish that you can just reach in and grab them because I didn’t want him to feel bad about all the time he’s wasted repairing his boat, but I did give him a fish. He devoured the fish, uncooked, right in front of me, the absolute weirdo. As a reward, he presented me with a scroll with a message about Nequam, which read “the signs of one’s own mortality can be a destructive thing,” which sounds like a) a first draft of the lyrics to a high-school metal band’s set opener and b) a clue. Thank you, boat-repairing sushi fan.

Having earlier seen a castle in the distance, and working on the assumption that a mysterious castle would be a good place to look for a dark sorcerer, I tried to make my way over there. Unfortunately, the “something circling overhead” is an unseen (for now) guard-creature that picks you up and deposits you on a random screen should you try to head up the castle steps. Okay, so that’s another objective, then: get rid of this creature. It’s also good to know that Dark Lord isn’t in the business of cruelly killing off the player at a moment’s notice, and in fact I don’t think there’s any way to get stuck in this game. You can always backtrack and find items you missed, and even messing up and falling into a position where you should die simply sends you back to the first screen.

After finding a tree on the edge of a canyon and realising I could tie the rope I found to a branch, I managed to descend into the crevasse where I found Krin, the shiftiest-looking alchemist in all the land. It makes sense that he couldn’t come and get his own bloody stick now, because he’s trapped down here. At first he’s hostile, threatening to turn you into a toad, but once he’s been reunited with his precious stick he’s all smiles and rainbows, offering you special powers if you find a “pearl blossom.” I don’t have a pearl blossom, even though I’m certain I checked every screen before I came down here. Oh well, back to the guide, then.

Here’s the blossom. I feel I can be forgiven for missing it, as it really does look like part of the scenery. This must have been the one screen where I forgot to type LOOK GROUND, huh? Oh well, I’ve got the blossom now, which means I can eat it and be granted the power of… flight? God damn, that’s a lot more impressive than I thought it'd be. I’m sure the ability to fly will come in helpful in a great many situations during this adventure. Filled with visions of soaring into the castle and punching Nequam right in his undead face, I entered FLY and… nothing happened. There are no “favourable winds” here, apparently, and without the extra updraught I can’t achieve lift-off. Time to head back to that windy pier!

Here I go, soaring across the vast ocean while fish poke their heads out of the water, rubbing their eyes with their fins and saying “Dave, get up here, you have got to see this."

This gets you to the island, upon which rests the tomb of Nequam himself! It was easy enough to figure out how to open the door. I just tried every item I’ve picked up so far on the keyhole, and the right item was a statue of a scarab I’d picked up on the very first screen. However, that wasn’t enough to progress because the door closes again straight away, and to get in you have to quickly enter the command to move north. I’m not sure this is a great direction to take your adventure game, chaps. Having to rely on reactions and quick typing speed adds nothing to the game besides the potential for frustration, even with the brief flicker of entertainment you can get from imagining your character not moving fast enough and running face-first into the rapidly closing door. Happily there are only a couple of places where you have to move fast, but their removal would surely only benefit the game.

Nequam’s tomb is guarded by one of Garfield’s distant ancestors, and he’s a vicious little shit who will not let me grab that skull. If you’re carrying the rat at this point, you get a short message saying that the rat is nervous and cuddles closer to you, which is a really nice little touch. Did I try to offer the rat to the cat as a distraction? Of course I did, I have a kingdom to save and this is no time for sentiment. I was relieved when it didn’t work, though. It turns out that the cat wants a fish, so it’s a bloody good job I picked another one out of the river the second time I went past. I’m doing so much feeding with fish and performing miracles that Dark Lord is starting to feel like a Jesus simulator, but with the cat sated I can take the skull.

Also in the grave is… the amulet? Okay, fine, but why didn’t Nequam take it with him when he was revived? Unless it’s not Nequam I’m fighting against but rather some generic evil spirit birthed from his corpse, which would make sense because Nequam’s bones are still here and even as a zombie you’d think he’d need those. I consulted the manual and in the story it does say that the villagers were warned against burying the amulet with Nequam, so now we know who's to blame. I’ll have some stern words for them once I get back to the mainland, let me tell you!

Oh. Erm, never mind. And after that poor guy spent all that time repairing his boat, too.

The next major segment of the game involves traversing a series of volcanic caves. You can get into the caves now because the destruction of the village revealed an oil lamp, a lamp that you can use to burn down a bush blocking the cave while also doing your best Moses impression. Once you’re in the cave, the test is “how can I get across this river of lava,” and I thought “Hey, those trees are growing in the lava so maybe it’s not actually lava at all and this is all a trick by Nequam.” So, I walked into the lava, was consumed by “searing pain” and woke up back at the first screen of the game. It’s definitely lava. Duly noted.

I grabbed a leaf from one of the lava-proof trees and rubbed it on my feet, which helped me to get across. Now, this might seem like a completely out-of-nowhere solution to the problem, especially when the gap looks small enough to jump over and also you can fly for pity’s sake. However, the waxy leaves and their heat-resistant powers are mentioned in your grandfather’s journal, so it doesn’t come completely out of nowhere. I did have to consult the walkthrough when it came to figuring out exactly how to use the leaf, mind you. My first instinct was to eat the leaf. Gain its powers that way, become the tree, you know? Thankfull the leaves aren't toxic. Podiatry would have been my second choice, probably.

Deep inside the volcano lies the dragon, the creature that sweeps you up if you venture too close to the castle. Earlier I found an axe on the floor in plain sight, which did feel a bit lazy on the developer’s part. I mean, who leaves a perfectly good dragon-slaying axe just laying on the ground? It should be sticking out of a rock, at the very least. However I got it, it was enough to kill this dragon, although upon seeing this image I’m not sure how it killed the dragon. It’s just sticking out of its shoulder. Sure, I snuck up on the dragon and attacked it while it was asleep like the mighty warrior I am, and there’s a decent amount of blood, but it still doesn’t seem grievous enough to be a dragon-slaying wound. My best theory is that the dragon is just looking for an excuse to get out of work for a couple of days. “Oh nooo! Sir knight, you have bested me! Oh, woe, now I’ll have to die, cough cough… tell the Dark Lord I won’t be in until next Monday, okay?”

With the dragon out of the way, you can head to the foreboding castle of ultimate evil, which is… surprisingly empty. I was expecting a riddle or something to get past the front gate, but instead I simply had to crawl through the sewers. Once inside I could poke around at my leisure, which sounds like it might be boring but honestly? I thought it had a really nice mood to it, the sinister stronghold of the villain standing almost empty because he’s killed most of the nearby population and he doesn’t need an army when he’s an immortal, undead wizard. It had a good level of spook to it.

The castle isn’t totally empty, of course. This guard is protecting a key that I need, and if I reach for it he slices at my hand and takes sadistic pleasure in seeing my hand bleed. Otherwise he’s perfectly content for me to wander around the castle unopposed. I imagine he was told to “guard this key” and he took his orders very seriously and far too literally. He doesn’t look the type to be much for using his initiative, does he? A zombie with ET’s head, that’s what he looks like.
Now, I really need that key, but for the life of me I could not think of a way to get rid the guard. I tried every single item in my inventory on him. I read him the scroll, I tried to burn him with the oil lamp, I even offered him the rat and nothing worked. That last one makes sense, he looks like the kind of person who has plenty of his own rats. So, with a heavy heart I had to turn to the guide and the solution is, apparently, to RUB AMULET. This causes magic to burst from the amulet and reduce the guard to a skeleton in mere seconds, and I have no idea how I was supposed to figure that out. There had been no previous indication that the amulet contained the wizarding equivalent of napalm, and it was especially aggravating because I did try USE AMULET but, as mentioned, “USE” isn’t a valid command. It’s a shame, because until this point Dark Lord had mostly avoided puzzles that I didn’t think I’d ever solve, with most of them being trial-and-error affairs involving inventory items.

Having collected the key, I opened the door and stepped through, where I came face-to-face – face-to-shadowed-visage, anyway – with Nequam himself! And then I was dragged out of the room by a mysterious force and dropped into a prison cell. Bye, Nequam. It was nice to meet you, albeit briefly. Looks like there’s something else I have to do before the final encounter. I don’t mean “escape from this cell,” either, because there was a secret exit opened by pulling a hinged wall sconce. That’s, like, Secret Passage 101, that’s going to be the first place anyone looks for a secret passage.

Aha, the Power Room. Turning off the power seems like it would probably be a good idea. Maybe it’s how Nequam is keeping me out of his inner sanctum. All the highly technical power equipment is hidden behind this metal grate, where I can’t reach it. If only I’d kept hold of that stick instead of giving it to the alchemist, I could jam it in there, but alas, all I’ve got is… my rat! Okay buddy, it’s your time to shine, he says as he shoves the rat through the grille. There’s the sound of breaking machinery, a flash of light, and the power is turned off. Right, now I can go and deal with Nequam.

You didn’t think I’d move on without tell you what happened to the rat, did you? Of course I wouldn’t, he’s been my loyal travelling companion for ninety percent of the game and I’m happy to report that his trip into the castle’s electrical subsystems have left the rat a little dazed but otherwise unharmed. What a hero, once all this is over I’m making him Duke Rat and he shall have all the cheese and peanut butter his little heart desires.

Now I’m back in Nequam’s throne room, except this time he can’t kick me out. The encounter is rather a strange one: rather than the magical battle or verbal sparring I was expecting, Nequam basically says “you’ll live out a normal human lifespan and then die while I’m immortal, so ner-ner-ner, I win.” And then you both just kind of stand there, awkwardly shuffling your feet. Hardly the climactic battle of good and evil I was expecting, but I can’t just leave, can I? Nequam’s still here, after all. There must be something I can do… and then I remembered that scroll from before. You know, the “signs of one’s own mortality can be a destructive thing” scroll? Yeah, I knew that was a clue.

I threw Nequam’s own skull at him, and he exploded. It’s definitely an attack with the element of surprise on its side. No-one expects to be killed by their own skull, after all. I’m not entirely sure how the logistics of being killed by your own skull work, either. If you examine the skull it does say that there’s a lead weight inside it, but I can’t imagine that I’ve destroyed the evil wizard with blunt force trauma alone. I suppose it’s one of those things that will forever remain a mystery.

Thus Dark Lord comes to a close. The villagers return from hiding and have a beach party in a final scene that reminds me of the ending to every Asterix book. Krin the Alchemist has found love, and carves their names into a tree. Duke Rat proves to be a wise and benevolent ruler, rebuilding the kingdom before passing away peacefully at the ripe old age of two and a half.

Well, that was a fun little adventure, wasn’t it? The mini adventure was a nice touch, there’s not much that feels too ridiculous on the puzzle front (as long as you’ve read the manual,) and it features a fantasy world that might be a little over-familiar but that looks rather nice thanks to the animated backdrops and which is further enhanced by the musical flourishes that accompany most events. The thing is, while I would say it’s certainly a better game than the Questprobe releases or He-Man, I had less fun playing it because it’s nowhere near as bonkers as those games and while it’s well put-together Dark Lord is just a bit too generic. That’s all down to my own personal preferences, of course, as well as thirty years of adventure game refinement, but if Dark Lord was any longer I think I’d have started to get bored of it. I enjoyed what was there, but I don’t think it’s going to stick with me for a long time. Except for that rat, obviously. I’ll never forget him.



Before I even got past the title screen, today’s game has taught me something: namely, that I can’t see the word “crusaders” without mentally recreating the theme tune from the nineties Toxic Crusaders cartoon. It’s a good job I didn’t study the medieval history of the Middle East at university, huh? Anyway, here’s NMK and Sammy’s 1990 NES adventure Ninja Crusaders!

Or Ninja Crusaders Ryuga, if you prefer the Japanese title. I don’t think there’s much difference between the two versions, although the Famicom release does come on a rather fetching turquoise cartridge. This is the title screen for the US version, which features a strangely wispy-looking font that in no way makes me think of ninjas. The “you must be this high to ride” message from a run-down carnival ghost train, perhaps, but not ninjas.

The impetus for Ninja Crusaders’ action is that old familiar story: aliens from outer space have attacked the Earth. The ninjas, being the natural enemies of space monsters, rose up to defeat them but failed, and the aliens have conquered the planet. However, small pockets of ninja resistance remain, and two of these shadow warriors – named Talon and Blade in the western version – are ready to take the fight to the invaders and free the Earth. Quite how these ninjas think they’re going to save the world when the combined efforts of all the other ninjas didn’t pan out is not revealed. Maybe the aliens’ only weakness is unwarranted self-confidence.

Okay, so maybe we’re not fighting to save the world but simply for good old-fashioned revenge. I’m fine with that, although I kinda wish the game was called Ninja Revengers.

Here we go, then, with all the elements promised by the game’s introduction. We’ve got a ruined civilisation as a backdrop, we’ve got an angry ninja as the player character and we’ve got the footsoldier of an invading alien force. That’s the green robot at the bottom. One look at this screenshot is enough to clue you in on the basics of Ninja Crusaders’ gameplay: it’s a pretty traditional NES action game. One button to jump and one to attack, plenty of platforms to leap between and a host of vicious aliens standing between you and the stage’s exit, which is over on the right somewhere. So far, so familiar.

Your start out with a supply of shurikens with which to defend yourself. Most of the enemies you’ll be fighting are robots, and attacking the alien robo-hordes by flinging small pieces of metal at them is about as effective as it sounds. Okay, so that’s a bit harsh on the shurikens, because they do at least travel the length of the screen and you can throw them pretty fast. However, if you don’t think the shurikens are up to the job then fear not, because our ninja hero (who I presume is the Talon mentioned in the intro) can collect three other weapons to use as well, although sadly you can only have one equipped at a time. As well as the shurikens, there’s a kusarigama, (you know, the sickle-and-chain weapon,) a bo staff for all you Donatello lovers out there and a sword. You switch weapons by collecting the corresponding icons, and they all sit on a scale of being long-ranged but weak at the shuriken end up to the sword, which has a range of about four nanometres but destroys everything in one hit.

There’s a sword icon now, and after flinging shurikens for most of this stage and coming to the conclusion that I’d be better off using rude language, I’m more than ready to swap to the other traditional weapon of the ninja. There’s just one problem: how the bloody hell am I supposed to get up there? Your ninja is nimble and agile, but it’s not like he has go-go-gadget legs. I pondered this predicament for a while, but then the obvious answer hit me: I’ll turn into a tiger and use my enhanced animal abilities to jump up there.

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner.
This is Ninja Crusaders’ main gimmick, then, and it’s one I rather enjoy: each weapon you can hold gives you the ability to turn into a different animal, thus granting the powers of tiger, scorpion, hawk and dragon like a Japanese version of Bravestarr.  The transformations are activated by holding up and attack and you can change back and forth (mostly) whenever you like, although I must say I’m glad I knew about them before I started playing Ninja Crusaders. You have to hold the buttons for quite a while and there’s no on-screen indicator telling the player that they can turn into a tiger so if someone, say, downloaded the game and played it blind via emulation there’s a good chance that they could play through the game without ever realising the animal transformations even existed.

After going to the effort of collecting the sword, I didn’t even end up using it. I was having too much fun as the tiger, and also the end of the stage is right there so there didn’t seem much point in turning back. The reach of the tiger’s attacks is very short – I’d guess about ten centimetres, if the Google search I just did for “how long tiger claws” is accurate – but that doesn’t matter because the tiger is very fast and can jump ridiculously high. I didn’t have to fight anything. I can just jump around as a tiger, see his stripes and know he’s clean, etcetera. This teaches the player a valuable lesson about Ninja Crusaders, which is that a lot of the time it’s better and more expedient to avoid the enemies and make a run for the exit.

Onward to the second stage, which the title card refers to as “Watery Grave.” I feel like you’re being unduly harsh on my gameplay skills, Ninja Crusaders. I’m sure I can make it past the second stage, even if it is a water level. At least Talon can swim fairly well, and even if he couldn’t you can avoid a lot of the damper parts of the stage by climbing around on the platforms. However, if you’ve managed to collect the kusarigama weapon then there’s an even easier way to get through the stage.

You can turn into a scorpion. The scorpion is very good at swimming, although I have no idea why – you’d think the developers would have picked some kind of aquatic animal to be good at swimming, maybe a crab or what-have-you, but a scorpion is what you get. Maybe it’s suppose to be an extinct sea scorpion like a eurypterus. It’s very quick in the water but on land it’s slow enough to be a liability, although it can attack from a decent distance by shooting out its tail stinger. The most notable thing about it is that NES games where characters unexpectedly transform into a scorpion will always remind me of that bonkers Star Wars Famicom game, so that’s nice.

There’s a boss at the end of this stage. It’s a biomechanical dragon-snake with the head of the Alien Queen from Aliens… or at least it did have the Alien Queen’s head, but I hit it once with the staff weapon I’d collected and its head fell off. It’s a fight of many surprises, this one: I was surprised to see the Alien Queen, I was surprised when the boss’ head fell off after one hit, I was surprised that being decapitated didn’t kill the boss but the biggest surprise of them all was that it only took three hits total for the boss to die. I guess the stick is a more powerful weapon than I anticipated.

I think I’ll stick with the stick for stage 2-1 – the Canyon Trap. I’m not sure what the “trap” portion of the stage entails. Is it all these green cyber-gorillas wandering around? They don’t really feel like a “trap,” though. I think they just live here, or they did until Talon dashed into action and beat them all to death with a big stick.

Having the staff means I get to try out the staff’s special power, which transforms Talon into a hawk and lets him fly high above all the bullshit of this alien invasion. You can’t attack when you’re in bird mode, but that doesn’t matter when you can ignore all the enemies. The aliens might have deployed an army of bipedal gun turrets, but those turrets can’t fire upwards. Honestly, it feels a bit broken, as though the developers forgot to include something that would impede the hawk’s progress.

The bird’s not nearly as useful in this stage – the Lake of Chaos – so I went back to the swimmin’ scorpion for a while. You can see the extending stinger attack in the screenshot above. It’s… not all that exciting, is it? I know, I know. It’s not an especially exciting stage. Maybe the boss at the end will liven things up?

Another boss, another alien creature with the head of a xenomorph from the Alien movies. It’s a rather nice sprite, actually, and because it seems to be riding on some sort of anti-gravity hover-palanquin I’m going to assume that it’s a spoiled, sybaritic member of the aliens’ aristocracy. Its tail appears to be a gun. I cannot confirm this, however, because the boss only took a couple of hits with the stick to defeat. It had time to roll towards me slightly. That’s all it had time to do.

Stage 3-1 is the Devil’s Forest, which feels like it should be the name of a cake. Anyway, it’s more of the same platform-hopping, monster-bopping action that we’ve seen throughout the rest of the game, except with more trees and a greater density of enemy forces. The latter of those two things can cause a problem because, and here’s the thing that might well be the deciding factor on whether you get any enjoyment out of Ninja Crusaders, you die in one hit. No health bars here, oh no. Get touched by a monster or grazed by a bullet and that’s it, you lose a life. Obviously this has the potential to become extremely frustrating, especially on your first playthrough of the game, but in the early stages it’s not quite as demoralising as it could be.

It helps that your ninja is fun to control. Talon moves responsively, and even better his movement speed and jumping abilities are fast enough and springy enough to give you a good chance of avoiding your foes, but they’re not so extreme or twitchy that you’ll end up accidentally running or leaping into the bad guys. It allows for a calm, measured approach that’ll come in helpful when the levels start getting tougher, but you’ve got enough athleticism to escape from tricky situations. Add in the potential benefits of the animal transformations and the unlimited continues you’re given, and Ninja Crusaders isn’t quite as daunting as it could have been.

It certainly feels less punishing than Ninja Gaiden, even though that game had a health bar. Ninja Gaiden is an obvious point of comparison with Ninja Crusaders, with both of them being side-scrolling NES ninja action games, and I’d say Ninja Crusaders comes out of the comparison rather well. The main difference is that Crusaders doesn’t feel quite as “rich” as Gaiden: the graphics are a little plainer, the music is okay but not nearly as good as Ninja Gaiden’s and the lack of presentational touches like Ninja Gaiden’s famed cutscenes means that Ninja Crusaders gives the impression of being the supermarket own-brand version of Tecmo’s game. The Sugar Coated Breakfast Flakes to Ninja Gaiden’s Frosties, if you like. However, in terms of gameplay they’re both quick, engaging and responsive, and the animal powers give Ninja Crusaders its own unique selling point.

The boss of stage 3-2 and presumably the lord of the wonderfully named Ironfist Castle is this insectoid pugilist, a spiky, scrappy character who wants nothing more that to punch Talon in the head with his crab claws. Maybe the boss is part pistol shrimp, that’d be a cool basis for a videogame boss. He’s good at what he does, too, and I had trouble defeating this chap because the range of its punches was greater than the length of Talon’s sword and, as I mentioned, you die in one hit. Hang on, sword? Oh yeah, I haven’t tried that transformation yet, let’s give it a go.

Well, that’s helpful: Talon is now a honking great dragon. A dragon that can fire energy blasts from its mouth. An invincible dragon. You don’t see Ryu Hayabusa doing that shit. Guess it’s time to move on to stage 4-1, then.

It’s a surprising change of location as the Hurricane Cruser (sic) stage takes place atop an aircraft carrier. A robot carrier, anyway. I didn’t see many aircraft. Lots of robots, though, and one thing I do very much like about Ninja Crusaders is the enemy designs. There are a good mixture of weirdo aliens and pleasantly chunky robots that look like they’re straight from a late-eighties cyberpunk anime, which is an aesthetic I’m sure we can all enjoy. However, they are taking quite a long time to kill, which unfortunately is the first hint that the latter half of Ninja Crusaders isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as the first. The problem is that you’re stuck using the shurikens or kusarigama, because from this point onwards there are no staffs or swords to collect at all. I suspect what happened is this: the developers realised that the hawk and dragon powers were simply too bloody useful, and you could negate most of the threats in the last few stages by simply flying over them, so they removed them entirely. It feels like a crappy solution to a problem of the developer’s own making, especially when you’re ineffectually flicking shurikens at SlaughterBot X-5000 for what feels like three weeks.

The other problem is that the difficulty that comes from one-hit deaths really starts to bite at this point. The action is getting faster and faster, and so are the enemies. Now they’ll pour onto the screen from seemingly random angles at lighting speed while also firing projectiles in a manner that‘s unpredictable enough for even Talon’s ninja reflexes to struggle against. Unfortunately, it turns Ninja Crusaders from a fast-paced romp into a test of memorisation, slowly inching forwards and trying to make a mental map of the enemy spawn points before taking a hit and having to do the stage all over again.

I had an especially troublesome time with these flying pink… tubes? Capsules? They look a bit like punchbags, which is ironic given that they kept kicking my arse. Eventually I managed to get through by advancing carefully enough to make sure I only fought one at a time wherever possible. I demand the name of this game be changed to Ninja Trepidation forthwith.

This stage has the first boss that puts up much of a challenge, although that’s down to Talon’s shortcomings rather than the boss itself. I’ve only got the kusarigama to hit it with and I can’t transform into a dragon, so I have to whittle away at the UFO’s health while avoiding the spray of insta-death projectiles its spits out. It’s an all-or-nothing fight, with one mistake forcing you to try again, but fortunately I figured out the trick to it early on. The UFO’s gun will aim towards you before it fires, but there’s a delay before it does shoot, so you can bait it into firing in one direction but then run underneath it to the other side before the gun goes off. Once you’ve got that down, it’s a test of not getting greedy with your attacks, because otherwise you’ll end up jumping into the side of the UFO and you don’t want to make it easy for the space monsters, do you?

Stage 5-1 is the Shadow Village, where all Sonic the Hedgehog’s annoying friends and sidekicks will be sent to live out a quiet retirement once they’re purged from all future Sonic games after the success of Sonic Mania. No, not really, it’s a village in the forest created by an ancient tribe that don’t know how to make doors. Seriously, what’s going on with that door? Is it actually eight tiny doors built for the wee forest folk? Look, I’m fixating on the door because there’s not much else to say about this stage that I haven’t already covered. It’s the just the regular “poke monsters with your kusarigama” gameplay. It’s still pretty good fun. And hey, because I keep mentioning kusarigamas it’s reminded me of Nioh, which is up there on my list of the best games of 2017, check it out if you like Dark Souls or the later Ninja Gaiden games.

Another boss, so soon after the last? The alien invaders are bricking it, clearly, and they'll do anything to stop Talon. This one’s a plant(?) monster that moves in a curious side-to-side manner, waving its tendrils at right angles. Imagine if the soundtrack to Little Shop of Horrors was “Walk Like an Egyptian” and not doo-wop, this is what Audrey II would look like. Like the UFO, it attacks with projectiles fired in a spread pattern, but there are bigger gaps between the bullets so you can avoid pretty much all of them by crouching in the bottom left corner.

The final stage is the Temple of the Cursed, and I’ve got to say that Ninja Crusaders has been killing it with these stage names. Anyway, I’m not sure what god this is a temple to, but whatever it is they really like turquoise platforms and... columns? Damn, they’re big into columns. “Building me a temple, huh?” the mysterious deity said, “make sure it’s got plenty of columns! No, more columns than that. Even more. Tell you what just, build the walls out of columns. Perfect!”

Oh, I get it. I’m the cursed one – cursed to have to see the background of this boss fight. Good god that’s ugly. Thinking about undergoing experimental surgery to replace your corneas with blocks of instant noodles? Why go through the hassle and expense of that procedure when you could just gaze upon Ninja Crusaders’ final boss battle?
That’s right, it’s the ultimate encounter with the alien’s leader. Actually, I have no evidence it’s the alien leader. It could be Frank from the xenomorph IT department for all I know, but he’s here and we’re going to fight. It’s a two-stage fight, as you might have expected, and in phase one the boss walks forwards and slashes at you with its big claw. Jump over the boss and get your hits in where you can. It’s not a complicated fight, and like so many boss encounters in this game the key is to not get greedy.

Then the boss’ exoskeleton falls off to reveal its, erm, skeleton. Now the fight swings from simple to annoyingly difficult, because the alien has remembered that projectiles are a thing, your weapons are crap, it takes a thousand hits to kill and, one more time, it’s instant death should you mess up for even a split-second. My top tip is that the boss fires its bone lance high then low, so duck under the first one and jump over the second. It’ll probably take you a fair amount of practise, but I believe in you, you’ll get there in the end.

The reward for your perseverance is an underwhelming ending consisting of some text on a black screen. Yep, Ninja Gaiden definitely wins out on the presentation front. Talon and, you know, the other ninja that was mentioned… Blade? Yeah, Blade, they return to the mysterious world of the ninja and that’s it. I suppose it makes sense. I know a ninja craves not glory and all that. Still, a picture of them or even just a “congratulations” message might have been nice.

Once Ninja Crusaders is over, you’re sent back to the beginning of the game, except all the aliens have more health now. Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough of Ninja Crusaders for now – but what I did play, I enjoyed. It’s a fun, solid game with an interesting transmogrification element that sadly gets left at the wayside in the final few stages. It’s not as big or flashy as some of the real superstars of the genre, but it scrapped its way to a place in my heart, and I might have enjoyed it even more if I’d played the simultaneous two-player mode that you can see pictured above. That’s a fairly rare feature for a NES action game! But you know the drill by now: I’m lonely, so very lonely, etc. At least I had a pink ninja scorpion with uncharacteristically strong swimming abilities to keep me company for today.

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