With a lot of big games checked off the list already, it feels like Hamster is circling back around and filling out the ACA NEOGEO line with titles from the earliest era of the console’s life. This week saw the release of yet another one of those games, this time the ninja-flavored beat-em-up Ninja Combat ($3.99). It’s one many of you have likely played at some point, but is it any good? Was it ever? Shaun investigates.
Honestly speaking, there isn’t a whole lot to say about Ninja Combat as a game. It’s not very good, especially in the sober light of retrospect. It has a few interesting ideas, some good and some bad. Having your characters toss shuriken instead of using their fists or feet as a basic attack was unusual, and it accidentally robs the game of those nice oomphs and thwacks that drive a lot of the satisfaction in brawlers. It has unlockable additional characters that you’ll get access to as you play the game, which helps keep it fresh all the way through even if those other characters aren’t very cool. In general it tries to be different, and I think that’s where it often trips over its feet.
Hamster has done its usual job here, with the same extra modes and options we’ve seen in all of the ACA NEOGEO line. That means you get external controller support, which isn’t a bad idea at all here. You’ll need external controllers to play in two-player mode, which is local only. Online leaderboards are here, even if this isn’t really the sort of game where score attacking is much fun. If you’re stuck with touch controls it isn’t the worst thing in the world. You can credit feed your way all the way through after all, and it doesn’t take a lot of finger wizardry to play a beat-em-up this basic.
Well, let’s digress a little. Ninja Combat, as it turns out, was not a launch title for the NEOGEO console in Japan. It was very close. Close enough that it made it for the North American launch a few months later. And that’s why I tend to think of it as a launch title. When the NEOGEO launched in the West, I was about eleven years old. I was spending a lot of time at arcades with my friends, and I remember the first time we entered our usual arcade and heard those booming speakers on the NEOGEO MVS. I don’t remember all four of the games loaded on there, but I do know that Ninja Combat was one of them.
Like most kids born in the era I was born in, I thought ninjas were just about the coolest thing ever. Not real ninjas, of course. But the silly superhero-ish ninjas that pervaded pop culture in the 1980s. So the twin protagonists of Ninja Combat, with their Day-Glo outfits and complete lack of stealth, appealed greatly to me. I thought it was cool that they threw shuriken instead of punching. There was a button that made them do backflips! There are so many weapons they can pick up, too. And heck, look at the way they walk. Carefully putting one foot in front of the other, as ninjas do.
Perhaps because I didn’t have access to NEOGEO games at home, a couple of these early games really stuck in my brain, and Ninja Combat and Cyber-Lip were probably the two biggest. I would daydream about them. I would draw the characters on the back of school worksheets. To me, these games were among the very best one could find anywhere. When they were shuffled out of the MVS’s rotation for keeps, I mourned them. I waited for ports to the Super NES or Genesis. I mean, we got Fatal Fury. We got Art of Fighting. We got World Heroes. Surely those ports of Ninja Combat and Cyber-Lip are coming. But they didn’t. At that time, I really couldn’t figure out why. Eventually they faded considerably from my brain. Street Fighter II, you understand. Mortal Kombat. Easy to move on.
I didn’t get the chance to play these games again for well over a decade. Ah, time to play Cyber-Lip and Ninja Combat again, those fantastic arcade classics of my youth. It didn’t take long with either title for me to realize why they hadn’t been ported. Why almost no one else talked about them. Why no other kid around me had been obsessed with their characters and gameplay mechanics like I was. These games were not good. They were not good at all. They weren’t memorably bad, either. They were plain toast. An unsalted cracker. As consequential to the NEOGEO as half the songs on the average pop music album were to the person who bought it. They filled the slots, grabbed a few coins from people gawking at the new cabinet, and faded away when it became clear they weren’t catching as much attention as other games.
Why on Earth would anyone play Cyber-Lip instead of Metal Slug? Who in their right mind would play Ninja Combat instead of Sengoku 3? The lies that nostalgia likes to tell were laid bare once I had fired up those games again and memory clashed with reality. Bad games. Boring games. Boo. Another one for the pile with Bubsy the Bobcat, Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally, and The Rocketeer for the NES. The fool loves of a fool child whose imagination could fill in any gaps left by an over-worked development team.
And yet, and yet. And yet I still buy Ninja Combat and Cyber-Lip when they are made newly available on a console or device that I own. I know exactly what kinds of games these are now, and I know I’m not going to have an overly good time playing them again. But I buy them, and I play them, not exactly fully sure as to why. Probably chasing my childhood, like many of us do. Perhaps hoping to find something good to latch on to, so that I might tout them as a hidden gem in some sort of fancy list of games where I’m trying to look like an iconoclast. But there just isn’t that sort of thing in Ninja Combat. Nothing but a pair of Day-Glo ninjas awkwardly swinging clubs at considerably less snazzily-dressed opponents, their hair flapping in a perfect rhythm as their bodies heave with each breath.
I buy, I play. And so I have again. And it’s here in this meandering essay that I say the only reason you should pick up Ninja Combat ACA NEOGEO is if you, too, are affiliated with this particular shade of times gone by. I can’t imagine most other people getting much out of it, as it may well be the blandest NEOGEO beat-em-up of them all. So yes, this one is only for Shaun and people who have read all of these words and nodded their heads to at least half of them. The rest should simply wait and see what next Wednesday brings instead. Maybe Cyber-Lip?