Ninjas kick ass. Thereís no doubt about it. Mysteriously garbed from head to toe with the exception of the eyes, they slink about the night like shadowy specters, armed with deadly weapons like the katana, blowgun and shuriken. Whether itís due to the mastery of stealth and weapons of assassination, knowledge of the ancient martial art form of ninjitsu or just the really cool outfit, ninjas have a certain irresistible appeal. Naturally, this makes them ideal protagonists in videogames, the most famous being Rikimaru and Ayame from Tenchu and Ninja Gaidenís Ryu Hayabusa. Looking to capitalize on this curious love for all things ninja, developer Argonaut and publisher Namco have teamed up to create I-Ninja, a lighthearted and comical, yet totally enjoyable gem that does great justice to the action/platforming genre.
Never once taking itself too seriously, I-Ninja is not a game that will draw you in with its deep or moving story. In fact, to say the game has any kind of plot at all might be a bit too generous. The hero of the game is super deformed (i.e. short, big headed character made famous from old school Japanese RPGs) ninja whose goal is to find five rage stones and stop the evil Master O-Dor and his army of Ranx from taking over the land. There are a few bland cut scenes sprinkled throughout that attempt to propel the story, but they are generally ineffectual in this task. Thankfully, I-Ninja makes up for this lack of plot with highly polished, imaginative environments and addictive gameplay.
Taking bits and pieces from games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Fur Fighters, Prince of Persia, and even Super Punch Out, I-Ninja is a rare title that combines a variety of gameplay types to form an enjoyable, cohesive whole. The main meat of the game consists of taking control of Ninja (yes, thatís actually the main characterís name) and using his many skills to earn the ìgradeî at the end of each level. Stages are broken up similar to how they are in Fur Fighters, with a main overworld level containing numerous doors to individual stages. The five different overworld levels in the game each contain four to five individual stages, with overall themes ranging from a Japanese bamboo forest to a precipitous, Mount Doom-like mountainside.
Ninja is a highly versatile little fellow, with quite a few weapons and maneuvers at his disposal. Like in the great Prince of Persia, he can run up and across walls and hang and climb up from ledges. Ninja also has a trusty chain that can be used, Indiana Jones style, to latch onto rings in the ceiling and swing across pits. Other maneuvers include: spinning your sword to slow down falling, grinding on rails and using half pipes to access out of reach areas (Tony Hawk eat your heart out). There are even some Sonic-like portions which have you speeding down tracks, either on foot or balancing on top of a large rolling ball. Whatís most impressive about all this is the way the levels challenge you to use these many skills in new and interesting ways. Never once while playing through I-Ninja did I feel the developers were lazy when it came to level design.
The main goal in each of the gameís stages is to get the ìgradeî at the end, but there are a few other things that can be collected. Coins are liberally strewn about and are used to purchase challenge trails for the opportunity to earn even more grades. So what exactly is a grade you ask? Well, when the game starts Ninja is a lowly white belt, but as grades are earned he moves up until reaching the coveted black belt rank (sort of like belt degrees in real life Tai Kwon Do and Karate). Moving up in belt color is necessary because many doors are locked until a certain rank is achieved. Shuriken and darts can also be found within the levels, both of which can be used as projectile weapons (by auto aiming in the 3rd person mode or manual aiming in 1st person) against the gameís many baddies.
The majority of fighting is done with Ninjaís trusty katana sword (which can be upgraded as you slay more and more and baddies) and is quite reminiscent of Ubi Softís Prince of Persia. Wicked looking combos can be unleashed on enemies just by flicking the analog stick in the direction of your assailants and pounding the two attack buttons. This may sound simplistic, but it is quite intuitive and fun due to the large number of enemies often swarming at once. Most of the bad guys you face are sword-wielding Ranx foot soldiers of varying degrees of difficulty, but there are quite a few other enemies to keep you on your toes. Ranx armed with rocket launchers, mines, helicopter packs and buzz saws, as well as mechanical dragons, wolves, insects and more all attack you in large numbers, keeping the combat feeling fresh all the way through. There are even larger enemies scattered throughout that must be fought in what the developers refer to as Manga Space. This is kind of an ode to Dragon Ball Z, as Ninja and his adversary leap up into the air and engage in a battle carried out entirely while flying at what appears to be insanely high speeds.
And then there are the boss battles. Wow. Argonaut really outdid themselves when designing these great boss confrontations. Take Kyza, the first boss for example. He is 150-foot tall mechanical robot that can only be faced after Ninja finds the two eyes and heart of Tekayama, the defunct giant robot lying on the beach of the first overworld stage. After Tekayama is powered on, Ninja climbs inside and walks out to meet Kyza who rises from the ocean to attack. This whole battle is seen from behind a huge monitor inside Tekayama and plays out like a fight from Super Punch Out. Dodges, ducks, left and right hooks and uppercuts are all employed in the fight, and Tekayamaís eye lasers can even be used after powering up from extended combos. Not wanting to reveal too much, Iíll just say that every boss fight in the game is equally as inspired and original as this one and will undoubtedly have you smiling despite yourself. Good work Argonaut.
I-Ninjaís visual presentation is surprisingly polished, even without the use of high texture resolution or a lofty polygon count. The environments all look remarkably clean and sharp and offer a number of details like fluttering cloth, scurrying rodents (and other wildlife) and spiffy reflective texturing. The backgrounds in the overworld levels are quite remarkable and had me gaping in awe on more than one occasion. Especially notable is the night sky of the Bomb Bay overworld, which has a beautiful crescent moon casting a stunning, undulating reflection on the bayís waters. Because the game doesnít put too much strain on the Xboxís hardware, the framerate is always locked in at full speed no matter what is happening on screen.
The animations for Ninja are all very fluid, whether he is unleashing his katana on large groups of Ranx soldiers or performing a simple knuckle crack while the controller is idle. When carving through enemies, a hefty amount of green blood is sent spraying in all directions, actually splattering on the television screen and dripping from Ninjaís sword even after the confrontation has ended. Another cool touch is when Ninja brings his sword straight down through a baddie and they slowly split in half and peel apart. The bosses and bad guys in the game are full of personality, but somewhat simplistic, though I feel that was a deliberate choice by the developers rather than actual laziness. The biggest problem with visuals in I-Ninja is a camera that can get hung up a bit too often, but itís never more than a nagging annoyance.
Like all other aspects of the game, the music in I-Ninja is surprisingly good. During the overworld levels, extremely catchy bass lines thump along in conjunction with some great synthesized tunes to create music that frequently compels you to just leave the game idle and listen. During individual levels the tunes are more energized, fusing heavy guitar riffs marvelously with hip-hop and inspiring you to kick some Ranx butt. The voice acting for Ninja himself is good, but some of the other characters sound a trifle annoying; especially Aria of the Bomb Bay overworld (thankfully, she only has a few lines). Other general sound effects are of great quality overall and supplement the gameplay competently.
I-Ninja may not be as ìrealisticî a take on the ninja theme as Tecmoís Ninja Gaiden or Activisionís Tenchu, but it is certainly a fun game that is absolutely worthy of your attention. It does an impeccable job combining numerous different gameplay elements into a unified whole without feeling lost or spread out too thin. If you are craving an enjoyable platforming romp, then I-Ninja will happily provide a good 20 hours of gameplay time for your gaming cash. Besides, another ninja videogame canít possibly be a bad thing, right?