Ninja: Shadow of Darkness

There are loads of new and exciting games out, but instead I’m going to bumble back down memory lane and look at Ninja.

A rather curious old game from the Playstation 1 era, it quietly appeared on shelves in 1998 and caught my eye because of its snazzy logo, and kept my attention because I noticed that it was by the same people as the Tomb Raider series (unlike the US version of the game, my UK copy didn’t proclaim this on the front).

Now, I’ve gone on a lot about expectations in my series on Final Fantasy XIII, and things were no different here. My teenage self believed that, as the Tomb Raider creators had made this game, it would therefore be the same thing, but featuring more melee-based ninja combat than gun-toting Lara Croft. Unsurprisingly, that was not the case.

Ninja doesn’t really like players. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that it actively hates them. Don’t believe me? Just look at the opening few seconds of the game. A curious player running straight for the first chest is likely to get attacked by bees that take off roughly half their health bar, and if they’re even unluckier, the chest can potentially also be trapped, removing another huge chunk of hit points unless they move fast enough.

Of course, the player should have acted to avoid such obvious traps. The only problem is that the game is littered with them, and invariably your attention will wander at least once. Almost every chest in the game has the potential to be trapped, not to mention all the environmental obstacles. Moving platforms, laser beams, spikes, and much, much more are all in abundance throughout the game.

But what’s the problem? Traps are common fare in games. The issue really lies in just how damaging the traps are, and how few lives and continues you have. You see, the game is one of those punishing affairs that likes to restrict how much you can die before it boots you out and tells you to start over.

You only get the one save file when playing, so you’d better make the most of it. Saved on the final level with about 10% hp and one life remaining? Forget it. You’ve saved yourself into a corner, and you’re probably going to have to return to the Forest at the start of the game, and try a bit harder this time.

Of course, the traps are only part of the game. Most of it is taken up by fights and ambushes around every turn. Enemies start off relatively polite; in the early game, even when faced with groups, you’ll usually fight one at a time, while the others run in random circles nearby before deciding to join in. Not too far in, though, you’ll find yourself attacked by two samurai and a monk who no longer take turns, while strange demons bombard you with fireballs.

The game isn’t entirely unkind about health items. Some enemies can drop them, while chests can also contain a source of nutrition, but it’s hard to predict at times. I often find myself going for long stretches with no health, while at others, running on full hp, I’ll open two chests with food items, and enemies nearby will drop some as well, leaving me to forlornly watch them despawn seconds later. This is one of the reasons I came to appreciate the original Tomb Raider’s medipack system, where you could save health for when you actually need it.

That’s another of Ninja’s punishing aspects – enemies drop a variety of items, such as treasure that improves your score, or coins that allow you to make valuable purchases from the end-of-level shops. However, these items disappear shortly afterwards, which can often lead to a desperate rush to grab them all while goblins are sticking spears in your back.

You could argue that ignoring these items would be better, but they’re all sources of survival – certain points thresholds award extra lives, while lives and continues can be purchased from the later-level shops, amongst other things. If you’re really set on reaching the end of the game, then you really can’t afford to let too many of these items disappear.

And the end is quite a distance away. Ninja isn’t an ungenerous game. There are around eleven regular and four boss stages, along with boss fights in many of the normal levels, and so many ways to die.

I didn’t touch on the platforming sections much, did I? Well, the game will often require you to hop from platform to platform over giant pits, and mucking any jumps up will, in most cases, mean an instant death. Not to mention that Kurosawa, our titular ninja, is so muscular that he’ll instantly sink and die in water that’s more than ankle-deep. The game’s mostly played from an isometric perspective, which can be a little awkward with the d-pad, and some of the collapsing platforms are just plain mean.

Also worth noting is the secrets system, where throwing daggers at certain locations in the game might reveal hidden items. These are usually indicated by little sparkles that appear every now and then, but I’m sure I’ve found a few that had no markers at all. Woe betide you if you toss a dagger and uncover an extra life far away, though – all you can do then is watch it fly away and despawn overhead.

Weapons are sprinkled throughout the game too, either in chests around the levels, or available for purchase at the shop. It’s not worth getting too attached, unless you’re a good player, as you’ll lose your weapon when you die. They’re quite a considerable damage increase too, so it can be rough to see them disappear.

In a similar vein, you can pick up scrolls that make you more powerful, up to a total of four. At four scrolls, you’ll not only be dealing a lot more damage, but you’ll throw three daggers at a time in a fan, which makes killing crowds of smaller enemies much easier. Dying will cause you to lose a scroll rank each time, which is at least better than losing all four ranks at once.

In terms of combat, you can punch, kick, toss daggers, drop smoke bombs (that damage enemies), or cast magic spells. The latter two are limited items that are often better to save for burning down bosses, while daggers are handy for cheesing various encounters, though without giving much in the way of points. You can also block, which I’ve never been very good at, and pulling back on the d-pad while attacking allows you to attack enemies behind you with a useful backswing, or do a backflip.

As for story, it’s only really there to give you a purpose. The opening cutscene introduces the central conflict: two rival warlords were at an endless stalemate, so one of them, Katasaki, made a deal with the demon lord Batanaka, trading his soul (and a bunch of maidens) for a vast army of demons. The game’s manual notes that Katasaki lost control of the demons and they destroyed Japan, rather than simply defeating his enemy and letting him take over. However, this doesn’t really come up in the game.

There are cutscenes throughout the game that are quite nicely characterised, usually to introduce the latest boss, but there are no plot developments and that’s fine. It’s a bit like Streets of Rage, there for the action rather than focusing on story.

So what’s actually fun about the game? Well, I would argue, probably all of it. It’s satisfying when you do succeed, and I’ve had a good time running around in it again before writing this article. However, it’s certainly clunky, and I imagine it would be a hard sell to anyone who doesn’t have nostalgia to fall back on, but it’s a decent challenge and surprisingly varied.

Each level has its own art style (except, perhaps, for the two Cloud levels, which are set in the same overall location), and even far into the game, there are new enemies and set pieces. One thing I noted in particular this time around was the moving platform on the lava river in the final level, where hands of lava come out and slam the platform periodically. Given how punishing the earlier parts of the game are, I wonder how many people ever made it that far? But it’s still there, waiting for anyone who dares push through Katasaki’s demon hordes.

The soundtrack is decent too. They’re not really tunes I’d be able to hum to myself, but they’re atmospheric and memorable. The Monastery Exterior theme is tense and a little eerie, while the Cloud theme always struck me as grand and cinematic (at least, the latter part).

The combat’s certainly basic, but it does its job, and there are enough enemy types to keep things interesting. I particularly like the skeleton enemies, where you punch/cut off their upper bodies, then deal with their still-animated legs, before jumping on their crawling torsos to finish them off. Learning the quirks of each enemy type is crucial to survival, and is basically the bread-and-butter of Ninja.

Which is its greatest strength and flaw at the same time. Ninja is very similar to games like Streets of Rage or Golden Axe, where you are given a basic goal, and then proceed through each stage fighting enemies and making do with limited lives and continues. Where it differs is partly in its abundance of traps and platforming sections, but most notably in its size, which makes its trial-and-error style a bit of a problem.

Losing on Stage 6 of Golden Axe is a lot less heartbreaking when you only have about 20-45 minutes of gameplay to catch up on. In Ninja, however, you’re looking at several hours. This is mitigated somewhat by the ability to save, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s entirely possible to save yourself in an unfavourable position, without enough lives/money to clear the later, more punishing stages. Unless you’re willing to bash yourself against these levels enough to really perfect them and get through without a scratch, it’s often wiser to redo the earlier stages several times until you can clear them with as many supplies as possible.

I’ve heard many other opinions about Ninja over the years. Not firsthand, mind you; I don’t think I know a single other person who’s played Ninja. I remember being irked by one online review of Ninja (I hope they kicked up a fuss about Thief’s “generic” name too), but at the same time they made a lot of good points. One person’s challenge is another’s inconvenience, and it’s certainly the case that I get put off casually playing Ninja because I don’t really feel I can relax.

Some people appreciated the challenge. Others remember suffering through it with friends and family members. As with that one review, many just thought it was lacklustre, and hated it for its limitations. I can appreciate all of these standpoints. Like a lot of my favourite games, I battle with Ninja just as much as I play with it.

Still, there’s something special about Ninja’s world, and I can’t say whether it’s just that it was one of my first few 3D games I played, whether it was from A Better Time, or because I think it’s actually a well-designed game with a few questionable difficulty choices. Maybe it’s a bit from each category.

Either way, I’d recommend playing it, but not only is it difficult to get a legal copy, but you’ll want to play it on an original Playstation as well. I tried it on my PS3 recently, but the emulator doesn’t actually play the music tracks, which play off the CD, and it completely breaks on the cutscene before the first boss, probably since the audio clips for cutscenes are also music tracks. So not only is the game itself a constant struggle, but getting it started is also a trial, unless you use an original Playstation.

Normally I ask for remakes at this point, but I think this is the most futile one of the bunch. All the same, I think Ninja deserves some love from time to time too.

Even if it doesn’t love the player in return…

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