The Legend of Kage
Once upon a time, a princess was kidnapped. The very premise of it was cliched beyond belief – damsels in distress and retro gaming are woefully intertwined, after all – but at least it was given the dignity of a little cut scene depicting the moment when the everything went wrong. At least, what passed for a cut scene; it was just a few jumbles of pixels that vaguely resembled the human form, but hey, it was the 1980’s. You had to use a little imagination to make it entertaining. You never got to see the evil ninjas stealthily tracking the princess’s caravan, and how they administered an involuntary seppuku to each of her guards. How they just carried her away, leaving the blood and guts of her slain comrades to congeal amongst the fallen cherry blossom petals. No, all you got was the basic idea: save the girl. From ninjas.
Ooh, how daunting. Unoriginal, but daunting.
Enter Kage, the generic ninja protagonist. He’s so bland and uninspired that he offers almost nothing to make the game more interesting. Maybe that’s a little unfair, though. This is pre-Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi, so it’s not like the standards were very high. But there’s just nothing to him. No characterization, no personality, no charisma. Even for mid-eighties standards, Kage is pretty pathetic. He can barely waggle his sword, and his accuracy is terrible. The royal family must not be too concerned with the fate of their daughter if they’re sending some loser like this to rescue her. Or maybe he’s supposed to be some random heroic bystander doing a good deed. Regardless of his motivation, he doesn’t look or seem up to the task. He’s practically a stick figure wrapped in a shroud, easily forgettable and hardly likeable…
But he can break the laws of physics.
No, seriously. Kage’s entire design may be half-assed, but the dude can soar. Just hit the jump button and watch him leap around like a wannabe superhero. Underneath that underachieving style and bland presentation lies one of the most agile ninjas on the NES. Depending on how hard you mash the controls, he’ll either prance along the stage, or he’ll go flying up into the nearest treetop. While this sounds awesome (and it is, given how no other protagonist between this game and The Matrix has ever mustered the same level of jumping skill), it is flawed. Badly, ridiculously flawed. The problem is that the controls don’t translate your commands very well, which means that your most well-intentioned button tap could send Kage flying into the path of an enemy or off a nearby ledge. That can be a real pain in the ass, even if the level designs are pathetically simplistic. There’s only one remotely challenging area due to its design (ascending a rock wall is kind of tough when one mistake forces you start all the way at the bottom), and the rest involve little more than killing enough foes, climbing stairs, and running off in the correct direction. But the worst part is how you can’t control the jumps at all once you’ve executed them; you’ll just go careening in a given direction, awkwardly struggling to find some semblance of control before you get riddled with throwing stars.
Such inconsistency (and that’s using the word lightly) severely hinders the combat as well. Each stage is infested with a seemingly endless supply of throwaway foot soldiers for you to kill. In fact, you’ll have to tear through a set number of them before you’re allowed to advance to the next stage. While that’s all well and good, actually getting the job done is a chore and a half. It’s not because these guys are tough to kill – aside from a handful of baddies that seem to magically read your every attack command and block accordingly, most of your foes can go down in one hit – but because the controls and hit detection are so unreliable. Maybe it’s just the limited pixels or animation frames or something, but you’ll come across enemies that can let your shurikens fly right through them, or somehow manage to miss getting shredded by your katana despite being right next to you. Since many of these guys are leaping around the stages as much as Kage, getting those one-hit kills can be a tedious venture. The same broken laws apply to you too, though; you can narrowly dodge a seemingly unavoidable attack, or get struck down by some weapon that’s nowhere near Kage’s little stick of a body. You can also deflect oncoming attacks with a well-time swing of your sword, but given the ridiculously inaccurate hit detection, that’s probably a risk you won’t want to take.
The game tries to balance its lack of substance with sheer style. There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing here, even if you take its age into consideration. A good portion of your ninja foes are just palette swaps of each other, and their projectiles range from little star-shaped blips to reddish blobs that vaguely resemble fireballs. Kage gets a new toga/shroud/whatever the Hell that thing is if he gets a power-up, thus forcing his stealthy garb morph into a fashionably impractical lime green ensemble. The death animation involves little more than a given stick figure abruptly doing a face-plant (which looks slightly disturbing if done in midair) and not bothering to get back up again. It makes Kage’s super-move mildly amusing, since it literally causes corpses to rain down and sends every onscreen enemy face-planting to their doom. But if you’re masochistic enough to get through this poorly designed gauntlet and save the princess, you’ll be awarded with the most memorable thing of all: the season change. The game loops back upon itself, meaning that you’ll go through the same levels again…but with different colors. Those trees and grassy hills in the forest stage might look familiar, but everything will have a tinge of red and have tougher enemies to take down. Not exactly the most imaginative way to keep things interesting, but it works well enough.
If there’s one thing worth liking about The Legend of Kage, it’s the ambition that came with it. The game is supposed to be an epic (if not utterly cliched) tale of a lone ninja tracking down a kidnapped princess and cutting up whoever gets in his way. The guy could jump with superhuman agility, sling shurikens and parry projectiles with his sword, and basically embody everything that kids dig about ninjas. But even the best premise can be ruined by its execution, and this game demonstrates it in the worst way. The hit detection, jumping controls, and combat mechanics are so horribly, horribly mangled that it ruins any potential fun whatsoever. The game isn’t challenging because of its half-assed level designs, but because of its flaws. Killing evil ninjas should be fun, not a tedious chore in which you can’t even maneuver your character properly. The designs lack almost any kind of imagination or creativity; aside from the colors used to represent the change of the seasons, the game looks more like a forgotten Atari game. Some legend this turned out to be.