Ninja games! One might say there are not enough of them out there, if one were the sort of person who needed a new ninja game every hour of every day for the rest of one's life. It might seem silly that there are so many games featuring them, but like their equally overplayed colleagues, zombies, it's really just because they (or at least the pop culture image of them) fit video games almost perfectly. While zombies are great for letting a player cut loose on a crowd of human-like figures without any of the messy moral implications, ninjas are great shorthand for a nimble character who could potentially have any tools at his or her disposal. If a ninja pulls out a smoke bomb, we don't question it. If a ninja launches a grappling hook at the ceiling Batman-style, hey, it just works. Wall-jumping is really hard in real life, but if anyone can do it, a ninja can. Plus, they look really cool.
So it is that we come to today's game, the confidently-titled Epic Ninja Game [Free]. It's not the first side-scrolling platformer to star a ninja on iOS even in the last couple of months, nor is it the best, but it is pretty fun for those who like challenging platformers along the lines of N or League of Evil [$1.99]. Epic Ninja Game follows the story of a nameless master ninja who is ambushed while chasing down his enemy and wakes up in a laboratory of some sort, stripped of all of his cool ninja magic. He has to make his way through 90 stages jam-packed with lethal hazards with little more to his arsenal than a bottomless bag of shuriken and his bizarre wall-jumping skills. There are two main points of interest in each stage. The most important thing is the exit, of course, and as soon as Bob Ninja touches it, the stage is cleared. The other thing to watch out for in each level is a ki bolt. Collecting these is fully optional for completing the game, but for every five you grab, you'll unlock one of Mr. Ninja's ki powers.
The ki powers are basically cheats you can activate from an options menu, and you can only use them in stages where you've already reached the exit by conventional means. There are lots of fun powers to play with, including a jet pack, invincibility, and laser eyes, so there's an actual tangible incentive for seeking out that bolt icon in each level. You can't use the cheats to help you reach the exit of a level you're stuck on, since you can only use them in cleared levels, but it's perfectly okay to use them to pick up uncollected ki bolts on levels where you missed them. If you're stuck on a level and can't even so much as reach the exit, the game allows you to skip a stage after failing it once, but it doesn't count as cleared. This is a pretty fair balance in my opinion, since there's absolutely nothing stopping you from skipping your way through the game, but if you want to play with the fun toys, you're going to have to legitimately earn them.
Without his fancy-pants ki powers, Ninja Guy Dan can only run, jump, climb walls, and throw shuriken. Running and jumping are handled with virtual controls, while throwing a shuriken is as easy as tapping the screen in the direction you want to toss it. The wall jump is pretty strange, since you kind of have to hold the jump button, and he doesn't so much kick off the wall as ascend vertically. It's really weird to get used to, and in situations where the level design is asking you to kick off to avoid an overhead hazard, things can get pretty dicey, and not in the fun slicey way. Adding to the joy is that Ninja Ninjerton is a very squishy fellow, with almost everything turning him into shinobi jam at the slightest touch. As is usual for this genre, you're going to die a lot in some levels. Your character instantly respawns at the start of the stage upon dying, at least, which makes death less frustrating than it could otherwise be.
Your character moves quite quickly, and the level design is fond of running you into fatal situations with little warning, so success is heavily reliant on memorizing the stage layout. After playing for a while, you start to get a feel for the level designer's particular brand of villainy, and there are a few warnings tossed up in the most unfair situations, which helps stave off at least a few deaths. There's a heavy trial and error element to the game, which I'm not sure is the best way to do things, but certainly leads to some humorous fatalities. The levels get to be on the bigger side of things for a game like this, but they're still not a big hassle to have to play over again, even if you die near the exit. There are three episodes, each containing 30 levels, and while the difficulty curve is kind of erratic, I found most of the levels to be engagingly challenging without reaching the point where I wanted to throw my device against the wall and pour salt on its remains.
The bosses, on the other hand, are kind of rough and really expose issues with the controls. You'll meet the first fellow on level 15, and it's some kind of weird Dalek-esque trashcan robot with a spinning blade on the front and a weak point on the back. It also has a gun-turret mounted on it, just in case you thought you could play keep away. Your ninja can take two or three bullets without dying, but not more than that, and a touch of that blade is instant death. You have to get behind it, launch a shuriken at its weak point, and quickly get out of the way before it turns around and minces you. The problem here is that to launch the shuriken at the weak point accurately, you're probably going to have to take your finger off either the directional controls or the jump button, and either one can quickly lead to your death. While this problem is put in the spotlight in boss battles, it does pop up occasionally in the stages, too, in situations where you have to pop off a shuriken and get out of the way fast. I eventually pushed my way through the later bosses, but as of the writing of this review, I still haven't taken down that stupid Dalek. Skip button to the rescue!
After taking down a boss, or skipping it, you'll be presented with some nicely-drawn black and white comic panels that tell the story. It's pure pulp, but if you remember the somewhat-silly-in-hindsight independent ninja comic boom of the 1980s, you'll get little tinges of nostalgia as these little story snippets are displayed. The art during gameplay itself is closer to the stuff of classic 8- or 16-bit games, and while it's very stiffly animated, it's very functional. Almost everything that needs to stand out does, with the exception of bullets being a bit hard to see on some of the backgrounds. They're so tiny and fast that sometimes it feels like you spontaneously exploded, which would be highly awesome and ninja-like, but is still confusing. The music and sound effects I can honestly take or leave. There's a strong attempt here to create a retro atmosphere, but the decent music gets washed out badly by the sound effects, particulary the somewhat out-of-place jumping sound.
With 90 levels and decent reasons to play the levels at least a couple of times, Epic Ninja Game has decent replay value. The game keeps track of your best times on each level, which is cool until you use ki powers to obliterate your best dry run, taking away some of the thrill of shooting for the shortest time. I wish it kept track of time separately for dry runs and runs with poewrs. There's also no Game Center support, which is unfortunate because with a few tweaks I could see this being a really fun game to compete on leaderboards for. As it is, though, I think there's a fair amount of content offered here for the price, and there's absolutely no IAP at all, so what you see is what you get, something that I know appeals to many people out there.
Epic Ninja Game is a rough game in a lot of ways, from the odd way wall-jumping works to the stiff animations and strange difficulty spikes, but it is a considerably more fun game than I was expecting at first glance. You might not need another game of this type, with the League of Evil games, 14px [$0.99], and many others representing this genre well already on iOS, but if you enjoy that style of fast, difficult action and are seeking some under-the-radar rough gems, you might dig Epic Ninja Game. It's without question flawed and occasionally aggravating, but I still enjoyed playing through it, and the chance to go back to some of the more irritating stages armed with a bucketload of cheats was a satisfying cherry on top of the sundae.
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