Debuting on the Master System in late 1986, just after the console launched in North America, The Ninja is a fantastic port of Ninja Princess, a little-known arcade game Sega released the year prior. Gameplay is of the run and gun shoot ‘em up variety, akin to subgenre classics like Commando and Ikari Warriors, although Ninja Princess predates both; as does its setting, the main differentiating factor between this and many early entries within the subgenre. Despite a run time of about ten minutes, it took me hours and days to complete, resulting in a very rewarding finish! More importantly, I thought it was well designed, enjoyable, and worth my time. It’s the first game I’ve played on the Master System whose quality surprised me, a true hidden gem.
An arcade game at heart, narrative was not the primary focus of The Ninja. That said, I thought it featured a surprising amount of depth, in that it had a couple of paragraphs explaining the backstory and motives for Hazamaru, the player character. Taking place in a fictional region of Japan circa 1630, Hazamaru aimed to restore peace to the once tranquil province by storming Ohkami Castle, rescuing the princess, and defeating Gyokuro, her warlord captor. Beyond the exposition of the attract mode and manual, the level progression was used as a storytelling mechanic as well, artfully conveying Hazamaru’s advancement on Ohkami Castle.
Beginning in barren fields and farmland far away from Ohkami Castle, Hazamaru grew closer to his destination with each level I completed. Along the way, I dodged falling boulders, imitated Frogger by hopping log to log across a fast-moving river, skirted stampeding horses in the streets of an empty town, and survived a variety of other stumbling blocks. After passing through a dozen or so levels of farmland, towns, and the aforementioned obstacles, I ultimately breached the castle gardens and inner chambers where Gyokuro’s tyrannical rule ended with his defeat. Of course, this was easier said than done.
Naturally, Gyokuro wouldn’t be a warlord if he didn’t have a force to command and it was his ninja and samurai that were the biggest hindrance on Hazamaru’s journey. Preset waves of enemies populated each stage, spawning once I crossed an invisible threshold. Using Hazamaru’s endless supply of ninja darts, or shuriken if I had located a weapon power up, I eliminated the foes standing in his way. Enemy variety was abundant and almost each level brought with it a new ninja type. Learning how to avoid and defeat each one involved quick reflexes, trial and error, and memorization.
Gameplay was fast-paced but instead of rushing through, I took my time. I could throw weapons two ways: using the 1 button allowed me to aim the projectiles while the 2 button always threw them straight ahead, letting me to strafe. I used the latter method, often retreating backwards once a wave of enemies had spawned. In their pursuit, they’d eventually align themselves directly in front of Hazamaru, at which point I could effortlessly dispatch them. This technique worked against Ninniku as well, the boomerang-chunking boss that capped off nearly every stage.
I appreciate video games of every genre but I’m especially partial towards shoot ‘em ups, often times in spite of their egregious difficulty. This game in particular, which runs about ten minutes all the way through, was very tough to beat, taking me many hours over the course of days to reach the end. However, I never felt that completing it was an insurmountable task. With each playthrough, I improved my knowledge of a stage, developed better reflexes, or did something that aided in Hazamaru’s quest. Needless to say, it was extremely rewarding to see the end! That wouldn’t mean a lot if I didn’t have fun playing the game and that’s truly where The Ninja shines. Within the run and gun subgenre, this game is an early highlight, rivaling the NES ports of Ikari Warriors and Guerrilla War, two fantastic contemporaries that I have many great memories with. If you were like me and had never heard of this game, I’m glad to have rectified that. Now do yourself a favor and play it!
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