Oniken is a 2012 PC game made by Danilo Dias of Brazil. It is a platforming hack-em-up that is openly inspired by late-80s games from the Nintendo Entertainment System. Oniken is available for five bucks USD on Desura, a Steam-like platform for distributing games with the added benefit that you can download the games separately; no need to run the games through a proprietary client. You own the game, DRM-free. And it came with an art book and the soundtrack, too.
Oniken obviously wants to be Ninja Gaiden for the NES, so I will not pull punches in comparisons between the two. From the menus, the health bar, the between-level cutscenes, everything reeks of Ninja Gaiden, Vice: Project Doom, Shadow of the Ninja, and other NES games of the sort. This is not a bad thing, as all of those games are well-crafted. Oniken resembles them in a fashion that most phony “retro” indie games can’t even imagine. Oniken at least partially understands what made some the best NES games good.
Level designs are creative and the graphics portray them decently. I was impressed by the variety of levels; there are parts where you ride on a plasma-shooting Ski-doo, frozen mountains with multiple pathways through the thin ice platforms, and lots of laboratories with weird crap in them. Not only that, but you can replay levels any time you want; you don’t have to play the whole game in one sitting, and you’re immediately granted the standard amount of lives upon reaching a new level.
The only real hard part in Oniken is the paths to the bosses. When you die, you have to restart the level from the beginning or the halfway point. This is one of the few elements of the game that actually hearkens back to the era of unfair NES platformers in the way that the creator intended. It forces you to master the level itself before making attempts at the too-easy bosses.
Controlling the generic protagonist Zaku is not frustrating, a fact for which you will be grateful. You can change your direction mid-jump so you won’t be falling into pits unless an enemy knocks you into one. And you get a sword to hack dudes up. Par for the course for an NES hero, right? Well, unlike Ninja Gaiden, your sword is longer than Omar al-Bashir’s rap sheet. This is another element of ease that I actually appreciated. You don’t have to position yourself pixel-perfect to have a chance to damage enemies. You’ll need this extra length, however, since you have few other tools available to you.
Instead of Ninja Gaiden’s various secondary weapon pickups, you get grenades, which do about twice as much damage as a single sword swipe. They’re generally used to attack enemies that are below you or at most of a screen’s length, or to spam against bosses if you don’t have the game-breaking sword power-up.
I like the boss designs. The first one is a big green robot caterpillar that takes up most of the screen, but its patterns are easily recognizable and your lengthy sword makes it trivial to defeat. Another boss later on is a mad scientist piloting a big robot that smashes you with its fists. It required a tiny bit of ingenuity to figure out how to beat it. It actually took me two separate tries to beat that one!
More interesting are the occasional duels with human-sized opponents. They don’t have big hitboxes that make cutting them down so simple; they run and dodge and try to outfight you with skill rather than bulk. The humanoid bosses use their ninja skills to deflect your grenades, which I thought was kind of cool.
Unfortunately, the sword power-up makes beating bosses effortlessly easy. You can try to use finesse and dexterity to dodge enemy attacks and land hits when you get the chance, but why bother when it’s more effective to activate the power-up and go glowing Rambo on bosses and destroy them within seconds?
Most reviews of Oniken I’ve seen rave rambled about its alleged high difficulty. Even the game’s own documentation says not to complain to the creator about the challenge level. Maybe Oniken is challenging to the generation that’s never played an NES game without save states and GameFAQs. Oniken simply gives too many concessions to the player that reward bad play.
Oniken offers the player more health than similar NES games. It’s far too lenient. When I kept getting hit by enemies, it would take off a few specks of my life meter, making it possible and even ideal in some situations to simply take the hit and run through enemies. Ninja Gaiden never tolerated this foolishness, but at least Oniken doesn’t respawn enemies when they get a pixel of their toenail on the screen.
I gotta throw in a few words about the setting plot. The protagonist Zaku is the fifty quadrillionth ripoff of Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. Since most anime game protagonist are eighty-pound pale-skinned hermaphrodites, I enjoyed playing as a scowling steroid guy for a change.
Oniken has a dumb story worthy of the schlocky 1980s anime it is obviously inspired by. You play INVINCIBLE BADASS Zaku who kills tons of dudes. He shocks everybody with his awesomeness. He fights against the GENERIC EVIL EMPIRE and meets an OLD CLANMATE for a rad duel. (Complete with that anime cliché invented to save money on animation, the one where two guys with swords run at each other, slash vaguely in one another’s direction, then stand still for several seconds before one of them suddenly splits in half and falls to the ground.) All punctuated by X-TREME SWEARING… this game must be mature! Sure, for an immature person’s definition of mature. I’ve heard better stories from the hillbillies on the TV show Cops who get pulled over with a screwdriver in the ignition.
Fortunately, every single one of Oniken’s embarrassing cutscenes can be skipped after they wear out their welcome, which they quickly will. They are far too long and slow, with lengthy focuses on static images. For a story this textually and visually dull, I have no interest in paying attention. Ninja Gaiden for the NES got things right with its fast pace and quick motion.
I dug the music. The before-level eyecatch screen music is (Once again) an obvious imitation of Ninja Gaiden’s, but the level and boss soundtracks are decently catchy stuff reminiscent of Natsume NES games. It’s not great but good enough.
I have lots of gripes about Oniken. It’s not a tenth as challenging as advertised and plot is stupid. But I enjoyed running through forests, on top of trucks, and through freaky space laboratories hacking up mutants and ninjas. Oniken does serve its obvious purpose as a playable throwback to NES games of yore, and that makes it worthwhile.