I-Ninja Review

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Publisher: Namco
Developer: Argonaut Games

Platform: Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

The overlord O-Dor has seized control of the land, slaying and imprisoning all the ninja sworn to protect the region and its inhabitants. A young, ninja-in-training (known only as Ninja), along with his undead tutor (known as Sensei), is all that remains to retake the world. Ninja was undertaking a secret mission that hid him from O-Dor's army, but now he must save the planet and free the Ninja Guardians, ultimately to take on O-Dor himself.

Kyle Ackerman

Platformers are becoming the video game equivalent of the variety show. Gamers no longer spend hours solely jumping from ledge to ledge, collecting coins, stars or mushrooms. Instead, we expect a wide assortment of character moves, diverse weapons, 3D levels, and special power-ups. We even expect to be drawn out of jumping, fighting and collecting with races, shooting games and puzzles. For better or worse, many platformers have become easier, eschewing the hardcore difficulty of older jumping games for a game that can be something of everything to everyone.

More Moves Than You Can Shake A Stick At
(Although Ninja Has No Stick)

I-Ninja, led by its tiny (but big-headed) hero, has the varied action we've come to expect, while giving dedicated platformer fans some seriously challenging options. Cynical protagonist Ninja's moves are similar to those of other game heroes: he can jump and swing from grapple points; battle with his sword or spin it like a helicopter blade to glide; grind rails, jump off walls, and even run along vertical faces. Beyond standard navigational challenges, there are mini-games everywhere, often incorporated into levels. Sometimes Ninja runs high-speed tracks, using his grappling chain to round corners quickly. He can grab giant spheres and roll them about, Super-Ninja-Ball style, or even roll atop barrels. There are even stealth portions in which Ninja must evade non-lethal Sentinel 'Mechs that will teleport him back to the latest checkpoint.

That's just the start. Other missions include boss battles such as the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots boxing battle, firing at incoming ships from a stationary turret, or blasting ghosts from a 'Mech with chain-guns. More complicated mini-games come with simple mini-tutorials to ensure that you don't waste time just figuring out the controls. Even minor-boss battles turn into mini games, as you leap into "Manga Space" to battle the captains of the invading evil forces. Never mind that Manga Space is a strange, floating battleground with streaks of light. It's still a battle that uses different moves and requires different strategies.

Cleave Enemies in Twain, With Glowing Green Innards

Ninja's combat skills require care to master. He doesn't just swing his sword wildly, but in a particular direction, and can end combinations by stabbing in a different direction than his previous strokes. Uppercuts and chops are powerful, but leave Ninja open to counter-attack. Despite the seeming cuteness of the big-headed character models, Ninja's overhead chop can slice foes neatly in half, and you can watch the two sections slide apart or fold open like a peeled banana. Ninja has shurikens and explosive darts, and can earn better swords by killing enemies. If his moves aren't enough, Ninja gains rage by landing blows or being struck, and can channel his rage into a berserker rage (for increased damage), a burst of healing power, ride on a giant shuriken to mow down his enemies, or even indulge in an invincible rage that causes damage to everything nearby until his enemies explode or his rage subsides.

Simply put, there's a lot to do in I-Ninja. The game follows a common hub structure, in which you clear missions to gain access to a boss battle, and defeating the regional boss gives access to the next hub area. The missions and environments are nicely varied, ranging from a harbor to a jungle (complete with idols and bamboo obscuring secret areas) to a moon base. Each area has three or four main levels that have to be cleared before facing the regional boss, but the game is really about earning "grades." Every time Ninja completes a mission, he earns a grade, and grades earn Ninja higher degrees of belt, ultimately leading to the coveted black belt. Each belt requires a larger number of grades, and often later missions can't be attempted without earning belts to indicate Ninja's mastery of his skills. This means that doing the basic missions isn't enough to defeat the final boss. Ninja has to do additional missions to gain experience.

Get Good Grades, But Not Under A Time Limit

Such missions can be purchased as tests from Ninja Guardians who are freed once regional bosses are defeated. Or, old missions can be reattempted with new goals such as collecting coins, killing a certain number of enemies or finishing a mission under a time limit. To face Master O-Dor (the final boss), Ninja needs thirty-eight of the sixty-four possible grades, so you'll have to take on some of the optional missions. The only unfortunate aspect of the additional grades is that many of them involve revisiting old levels with new objectives.

Revisiting levels is the point at which I-Ninja becomes truly challenging. Collection tasks can be achieved with methodical patience, but timed missions are well-nigh impossible and require mastery of the platformer genre. Some Ninja Ball levels evoke the most difficult moments in the Super Monkey Ball games. Ninja can earn a black belt without doing a single timed mission, but that dramatically limits a player's choice in optional missions. The only required "timed" mission is one in which Ninja must beat a lit fuse to a stash of explosives. That mission (and its associated challenges) is comfortably doable, so it seems the developer can design realistic timed missions, and intentionally gave the optional timed missions punishing difficulty to challenge hardcore platformer fans.

The boss battles are simple efforts of pattern recognition, but can run very long. While not difficult to figure out, sometimes they can require more stamina than skill. Battling Ventis, a cyborg fish, requires repeated button tapping to the point of pain. Malakai, a vicious shepherd with command of the elements, just requires continuous and precise execution of the necessary moves. They evoke boss battles from earlier games, where figuring out the pattern was secondary to having the patience to exploit it.

I-Ninja is a great title for those who are happy to go a bit light on the plot in exchange for varied, platformer action with challenging optional levels. Despite the game's seeming cuteness, it has a mean streak exemplified by the gruesome, if stylized, combat. There are plenty of grades to earn even once the final boss has been defeated. Players who enjoyed levels can go back, competing against themselves for better scores in each level. Most platformer fans should find something to enjoy in I-Ninja.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 30, 2003 4:57 PM.

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