The Legend of Kage 2
Once upon a time, Taito created The Legend of Kage. Ironically, the game was anything but legendary. It featured a horribly bland story about a kidnapped princess and the generic ninja that set out to save her. While chopping up countless enemy ninjas and performing physics-defying platforming might have sounded like a good premise on paper, the actual gameplay was laughable at best. The awkward controls, the brevity, the level design, and everything else was so horribly executed that the game was left to rot in the inner recesses of Taito’s dated gaming library. Thus The Legend of Kage fell to obscurity, only to be briefly revisited in a game anthology and an overpriced Virtual Console port. Most recently, however, the game has received the treatment that a handful of other Taito titles have enjoyed: a remake on the DS. After over 20 years, the series has somewhat redeemed itself.
The Legend of Kage 2 begins by looking back at the basics of the original: the kidnapping. Those unfortunate enough to remember the first game will be hit with a wave of nostalgia as evil ninja flunkies assault Princess Kirihime’s entourage and take her away. This is one of the few scenes in the game that echo the original; the rest of the story is told via conversations between each stage. You’re eventually told why Kirihime gets kidnapped – apparently even generic action game villains need motives these days – and little bit more exploration of the other characters involved. The original Kage has evolved from a tunic-wearing stick figure into a buff, half-naked warrior armed with a pair of flaming swords. It’s a shame that his personality is still as one-dimensional as ever, though. The game tries to make things more appealing by introducing Chihiro, a female playable character with her own slightly different storyline. A couple of predictable plot twists aside, there’s nothing particularly interesting about either of these characters at all.
It’s not like they’re completely interchangeable, though; despite sharing the same basic mechanics, Kage and Chihiro play quite differently from the other. The former is all about the old school method of ninja ass-kicking: slicing with a sword and flinging shurikens in different directions. Kage’s got a lot of power backing up his swordplay, but his range is pathetic. Chihiro is designed to balance these out; she wields a close-range scythe and a Kusari Fundo, which is a long-range chain weapon capable of racking multiple hits with a single attack. The problem is that she has relatively little health and has somewhat lesser attack strength. Also, their basic skills will be upgraded throughout the adventure; they’ll be able to jump higher, summon multiple versions of themselves, perform long attack combos, and sling more effective projectiles. While you’ll have to take the characters’ inherent strengths and weaknesses into consideration when starting, their developing powers make them equally deadly by the end of the game.
Regardless of their differences, Kage and Chihiro will have undertake the same journey. The Legend of Kage 2 builds upon the essentials of the first game: you have to get from one end of a given level to the next, while performing tons of aerobatic insanity and murdering the countless ninjas stupid enough to get in your way. The levels are lengthy exercises in the basics of plaforming; there are several ledges to leap onto, walls to run up and kick off, jumps that span both screens, and enemies in just about every nook and cranny. The problem is that few of these levels are well designed; most of them just involve running in a straight line and occasionally dicing up a couple of minions to progress to the next area. Most of the areas don’t require any serious or challenging platforming, aside from a well-placed enemy or necessary timed jump. Despite having shurikens, fireballs, rabid attack dogs, killer birds, and an army of inept ninjas standing in your way, the majority of the game is ridiculously easy. The simplistic level design is considerably more forgiving than most games of a similar genre. That’s a good thing, considering how the jumping mechanics tend to awkward; the poor handling means that you’re going to be in for plenty of missed jumps.
While the game lets you speed through most of the areas without a second glance, there is are a few reasons for you to revisit them. The game keeps track of your kills and attack combos, which means you can always go back and try to top your high scores and earn better ranks. More importantly, each level comes with a handful of hidden gems that, if enough are collected, can grant Kage and Chihiro additional powers. After you’ve netted enough of the jewels, you can try mixing and matching them in a special menu with the touch screen. The right blends can grant you temporary raises to your stats, elemental projectile attacks, better defensive capabilities, and other handy powers. It’s not like you’ll ever actually need any of them; it’s just a way to make the combat more interesting. The gem collecting concept is nothing more than a shallow excuse to prolong the game; without it, you’ll be able to clear both storylines in a single afternoon. It’s a shame that the mixing menu feels like an obligatory and tacked on touch screen feature; the game could have easily utilized the system without the need of a stylus.
In fact, The Legend of Kage 2 could have passed for a glorified GBA game, or even some forgotten SNES title. Considering how other action-oriented adventures like Dawn of Sorrow pulled off their presentations, it’s obvious that this game doesn’t utilize the DS’s graphical capabilities very well. Kage’s swords might be on fire, but they give off little more than pixilated flames. He’s definitely more fleshed out than his original version, but he lacks details and fluid attack animation. Such lacking is also apparent in the levels; while you’ll be battling through thick forests, caves, and castles, many of the areas use practically identical features and sprites. The latter half of the game is made up of mostly recycled scenery. The only notable exceptions come with the boss fights; the game not only delivers in terms of presentation, but of gameplay as well. You’ll have a showdown with your arch-nemesis in the middle of a snowy field, complete with dramatic music and fast-paced combat to back it up. You’ll have to bound over castle rooftops as you dodge fireballs, laser beams, and even demonic pigeons. While such high points are few and far between, they almost make up for the blandness of the rest of the game.
Besides, you’ll be rewarded for your patience. The Legend of Kage 2 offers a considerable amount of unlockables, many of which involve quite a bit of effort to obtain. If you’ve breezed through the game on the default setting, you might find the higher difficulty modes a bit more challenging. For those who loved the boss fights the first time around, the Boss Rush mode ought to keep you busy for a while. Diehard completionists, on the other hand, will have their hands full with the art gallery, which sports four dozen works of concept sketches and other bonus stuff. Unlocking most of these pictures involves getting a high ranking on a certain number of levels, racking up tons of hits, beating the other modes, killing tons of enemies…the list goes on and on. If you’re the kind of gamer that needs to unlock every single last feature of a given game, you’re going to playing this over and over again.
That doesn’t save the game from its own mediocrity, though. Despite having so much going for it, Kage’s latest legend stumbles in several areas. Despite adding more characters and a more developed plot, the story is boring and predictable. The level designs are too simplistic, allowing you to breeze through them easily and not focus on the platforming elements. The jumping mechanics can be difficult to manage. Many of the areas are just recycled copies of each other, which is a detriment to an already graphically unimpressive game. The only things this has going for it are the different gameplay styles of the two characters, the great boss fights, and a considerable amount of bonus content. While it’s great that Taito has decided to revive its classic titles on a new platform, it didn’t put enough effort into making this into something truly memorable. The Legend of Kage 2 may have missed its mark, but we can always hope for something better next time.