Friday 6 September 2019

Switch Review - The Ninja Saviors

At a time when scrolling beat em ups are often called monotonous button mashers, this remake of a remake may come as a breath of fresh air.

Developed by Natsume Atari/Tengo Project
Out in Europe/UK Now
USA/South America 15th October 

Increasingly the movie industry seems to be a try-again culture. If studios mess something up they don’t seem to worry too much, they know they can give it another go. How many times does poor Mr and Mrs Wayne need to die before we accept that Bruce is justified in becoming a street vigilante who dresses up like a Bat; enacting punishment without appropriate judicial procedure?  ‘A Christmas Carol‘ has been adapted into a film seven different times. Comic book fans have even seen Bruce Banner turn into the Incredible Hulk four different ways over the last 15 years, and I’ve seen so many ‘Dracula’ films that I’ve lost all perspective.

While the silver screen is in its second century, people have only been waggling joysticks for 40 years. But despite a 60 year delay, the video games industry is probably more accustomed to churning out the same product with a new lick of paint. Nearly 30 years ago Nintendo released ‘Super Mario All Stars’, a compilation of NES ‘Mario’ games identical except for a visual overhaul. They have since repackaged and remade these same games with every new console generation. ‘Mario’ isn’t the only franchise to be milked in this way. ‘Metroid: Zero Mission’ was a remake of ‘Metroid’, ‘Lylat Wars’ was essentially just an expanded ‘Star Fox’. In fact some even argue that the ‘Zelda’ games are really just remakes of the original over and over again. But it’s not just Nintendo. Capcom are infamous for continually remaking their most popular games: be it ‘Resident Evil’, ‘Street Fighter’ or even their 16bit Mickey Mouse games. Likewise, EA have frequently been criticised for making minor tweaks to a game and packaging it as a new title. Even huge AAA series like ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Doom’ have enjoyed rejuvenated success following a complete franchise reboot.

While it’s easy to sneer and see re-makes, re-boots and re-imaginings as cynical, minimal-effort cash grabs, there are lots of reasons why they are actually a very good thing. We tend to remember games as we wish they were, rather than how they actually are. So disappointment often sets in when we return to a favourite title and the rose tinted glasses come off. A good modern remake will remind a player of the original but will address issues that blighted the experience of yesteryear. It should be familiar yet improved; all the best bits of our memories with the flaws glossed over. A remake of an older game also means new younger audiences will be attracted to something that would otherwise have passed them by. While the game could have existed for potentially decades before, a refreshed modern interpretation of an ageing series shines a light on something forgotten.  ‘Ninja Saviors’ ticks both of these boxes.

Inspired by a Super Nintendo game (which was itself a remake of an arcade game) it’s possibly the perfect modern remake of a remake. True to the source material, yet updated and subtly modernised. Fans of ‘The Ninja Warriors’ series will adore it, but more crucially new players oblivious to earlier games will likely love it too.

The first ‘Ninja Warriors’ was an arcade game, specifically a one or two player side-scrolling beat-em-up. The Taito developed coin-op was actually best known for having a display akin to a modern widescreen TV. “It created a stir when it first appeared because it was the first to use a system of three monitors giving a massive 45 Inch play area” recalls critic Andy Smith.  In the game you control brightly coloured ninjas, who battle their way through levels taking down hoards of minions using shuriken and knives. Perpetually walking, for the most part your playable character remains in the centre of the screen and action is limited to a single plane. Unlike games like ‘Streets of Rage’ or ‘Golden Axe’, the levels have no depth to them, which would initially suggest limited gameplay.  However what this does is make ‘The Ninja Warriors’ feel more like a 2D fighting game, where blocking, managing combos and reacting to enemy attacks is the focus. Most side scrolling beat 'em ups quickly become monotonous as you repeatedly press a single button. ‘The Ninja Warriors’ instead focuses on timing, countering and taking appropriate action. As critic James Leach once said. “At first you’d think that it’s the sort of game that calls for repeated hammering of the punch button, because this tactic is vastly effective against the legions of naughty henchmen which attack you. But no. Do this a lot and you’ll lose. There’s only one way to be good at ‘Ninja Warriors’ and that’s to master all the moves each card to perform” Leach says. “Of course there is nothing tricky about these moves; most are combination of two buttons, or one button and a direction. But using the right one, at the right time in the middle of a ruck is vital“. While on the surface your protagonist appears to be wearing traditional ninja-yoroi, as they take damage fabric is torn away to reveal their robotic limbs, body and head. Advertising pointed out that “they have no human emotions to weaken them, and only one mission: To destroy all enemies”. As robotic ninjas they have a vast range of moves, making them more than capable of taking down the hundreds of enemies that will stand in their way.

Since the first ‘The Ninja Warriors” is an arcade game, there’s little in the way of story but we do know it’s set in the dystopian future of 1993. Banglar, a repulsive corrupt and power hungry US President intends to use his vast brain washed followers to achieve World domination. It’s a tragically relevant story for today’s players!

‘The Ninja Warriors’ was a critically adored cabinet game that got ported to many different consoles and computers. According to Game Fan magazine it was “one of Taito's most popular arcade games and set a standard for beat 'em ups”. The home ports also impressed critics. “A first class conversion” Amiga Format noted. “The best looking coin-op conversion to date and a truly great game”.

However, it was the Super Nintendo remake that really caught the public’s imagination.

Developed by Natsume, the SNES‘s ‘The Ninja Warriors’ was suitably called ‘The Ninja Warriors Again’ in Japan - probably the most unsubtle name ever given to a remake. Some reviewers claim that this game is a sequel, but for that to be true you’d have to ignore the prequel’s ending where the Ninja Warriors are used as walking bombs to destroy the White House. Instead, the story is very much as it was before. The tyrant Banglar (now a mutant ruling over an unspecified nation) is seeking world domination and a resistance group are forced to use untested ninja robots to put a stop to his plans.

Like its very familiar story, the SNES game shares similar gameplay, to its arcade predecessor; however the player can now choose between playing as one of three different robots. No longer identical, each has their own attributes and unique move-sets. There’s the ponderous but powerful Ninja armed with a nunchuck, the agile but weak Kamaitachi with arm mounted sickles and the balanced Kunoichi who wields knives and swords.

As before, a player moves along a single plane, with stages typically going in a linear direction and ending with a big boss fight. Occasionally stages will momentarily pause, but once you’ve dealt with a set amount of foes or activated an environmental element, “GO!” appears on screen and play continues as before. Along with using dashes, jumps, grabs, blocks, and a variety of attack moves to dispose of the non-stop flood of enemies, there is also a power meter that increases slowly over time.  When full, the player can trigger a powerful attack that damages all enemies on the screen. However, using character specific attacks (like Kunoichi’s throwing stars) will deplete the meter and it will drain completely if the player is knocked to the ground. You can interact with the backgrounds to a certain degree and some objects such as motorcycles, barrels and large safes, can be picked up and tossed at enemies.
But equally the environments are peppered with hazards that can hurt the player as well as enemies. These include fire, mine fields, huge propellers and attack helicopters. However all the opposition isn’t enough to make the game difficult. In normal mode ‘The Ninja Warriors’ doesn’t presents much of a challenge as it offers unlimited continues.  The lack of challenge was something many reviewers noted. “‘Ninja Warriors’ is great, but it falls one difficulty level short of GREAT” said GamePro at the time. A bigger failing though was that the game was solo play only.  “The only bad part" about this game [is] the lack of the two-player cooperative mode” suggested Electronic Gaming Monthly.

But appreciation for the game’s graphics was overwhelmingly positive; critics loved the large sprites and detailed environments. Some even compared it to coin-ops or games only available on the console powerhouse that was the Neo Geo. “It looks like an arcade game” noted Super Play magazine. “These are the best graphics you’ll see in any SNES beat ‘em up” claimed Super Pro, perhaps forgetting ‘Street FighterII’ existed.

It’s this SNES remake that serves as the basis for ‘Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors’ on the Switch. Due to the popularity of the Ninja Warrior TV show, a name change was required in the West, but once again the Japanese title aptly summarises the true nature of the game. ‘The Ninja Warriors Once Again’ makes it clear this is a remake of a remake. Perhaps this is the game the developers intended all along, and technology has only just caught up with their ambition. Returning to the franchise some 25 years since the last entry, game designer Shunichi Taniguchi and director Toshiyasu Miyabe have created the perfect update of ‘The Ninja Warriors’. In fact to emphasise the similarities an early playable demo was showcased alongside the SNES original at Tokyo Game Show in 2018. Accordingly, If we were to continue the cinema comparisons, the game would initially seem like a shot-for-shot tribute. The introduction sequence is even identical to the SNES version, albeit with slightly corrected text.

The familiar story of a megalomaniac dictator is as ridiculous and over the top as it ever was but that works in the game’s favour. The whole package feels like homage to the nineties and to the 16bit genre. It’s an appreciation for what worked and a celebration of beat ‘em up games during their peak popularity. At a time where so many modern interpretations of classic games favour the 2.5D look, ‘Ninja Saviors’ embraces pixelated graphics. Refreshingly, there are no clever lighting effects, the only reason why you wouldn’t think this was a SNES game is the higher resolution and the widescreen display. The latter of course reminds us of the original arcade game with its three monitors. Shunning modern graphical gimmicks might seem half-arsed if the end result wasn’t so glorious. The characters are never static; they may be robots but they feel alive, always swaying and bracing for battle. The bosses are detailed and suitably imposing, the standard level grunts are wonderfully generic but varied and it’s nice to see a return of the female enemies that had previously been censored in the West. Given that ‘The Ninja Saviors’ is a side scrolling brawler built around combos and timing, thankfully the animation is fluid and yet also short. The attacks visually flow into one and other but should the situation change you’re not forced to watch a lengthy combo chain play-out before being able to perform a more appropriate assault. The backgrounds depicting an urban wasteland, the underground, snowy mountains, presidential suites are emotive and detailed yet not distracting. The interactive elements still pop though, and it’s obvious which huge environmental elements can be plucked from the scenery and flung at an opponent.

Many criticised The Super Nintendo game for being too short and with 8 levels this Switch game won’t take too long to finish either. But this is where ‘The Ninja Saviours’ actually feels like an enhanced directors cut, with additional content that prolongs the experience. Alongside the original three playable characters are two new robots, unlocked when the game is finished on normal and hard modes. Yaksha is a petite yet somewhat busty female ninja with extending arms. Additionally there’s a colossal screen filling mechanised shinobi known as Raiden. While they sit perfectly alongside the 16bit originals it feels like these two additions show off the greater graphical resolution of this remake. Without smaller pixels Yaksha would be unreadable and Raiden would vanish off the screen. You’ll unlock both fairly quickly as ‘The Ninja Saviours’ is still not a challenging game even on hard. The regular check points and infinite continues make this accessible to even those who spam one attack button (failing to understand the nuance and subtlety of the game). Persistence will lead to success. The accessibility works though, as with the introduction of a much needed co-op mode it’s an ideal choice for nostalgic 16 bit players to sit down and causally play together.

The longevity of the game really comes from trying to master the combos, as this means you can get through the game quicker. Provided you don’t lose a life, this clear time can be shared globally allowing you to compare your abilities with the rest of the world. Even a week after release there’s some incredible online times already; perhaps many players are using the skills they learnt playing the SNES original.

There are other inclusions in ‘The Ninja Saviours’ that will perhaps only be appreciated by long term fans of the series. The sound options are certainly aren’t aimed at new comers. ‘The Ninja Saviors’ embraces the genus of the previous games’ soundtracks, while adding new tracks to the mix. The jewel in the thumping oh-so-nineties synth rock soundtrack is “Daddy Mulk”. The arcades 1987 anthem was created by Taito’s in-house band Zuntata. Originally the background music to the first stage, it features a medley of old-fashioned oriental sounds with fantastically eighties computerised choirs and voice samples. In many ways it sounds like an experimental Daft Punk song and has garnered a cult following. The Zuntata band became almost game music celebrities overseas, performing live in front of audiences of thousands. The Sega CD version of the original ‘The Ninja Warriors’ actually included a music video with members of the band acting out a bizarre prelude story. A quarter-century later, Daddy Mulk remains incredibly popular with fans still remixing it. It’s inclusion in ‘The Ninja Saviors’ is a good example of the approach Taito have taken. There’s no need to change and forget what has bean, old doesn’t always mean dated and unwanted.

Electronic Gaming Monthly called the SNES game "the best side-scrolling fighting game yet." I’d be inclined to say this remake is the best side scrolling beat ‘em up on the Switch. Usually I get bored of these types of games, where a limited number of moves make the game monotonous. ‘The Ninja Saviors’ is deceptively deep, wonderfully nostalgic and terrific fun. Sometimes it may take three attempts to get things right, but as this remake remake shows, maybe it’s worth persevering.

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher. This article has not been seen or changed by them prior to publication.

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