The Ninja Warriors – The Best Beat-Em-Up
Beat-em-ups were in vogue in the early 1990s. Capcom’s 1989 Final Fight is responsible for legions of imitators (many by Capcom themselves) and they introduced a surprising amount of variety for a genre that consists largely of walking in one direction and punching street thugs. It’s true that beat-em-ups had more than their share of excellent entries in the late 1980s (Double Dragon II: The Revenge for NES, for example, is just superb) but arcades and home consoles in the 1991-1994 time period were in my opinion the best for the genre.
But do they even make beat-em-ups anymore? Even the wacky “retro” “8-bit” indie games nowadays are almost all just platformers or arthouse trash. (Yes, I know the game I reviewed last week was basically a beat-em-up. I’m being rhetorical here.) They tried to update the genre for the fifth video game generation, but games like Fighting Force and Dynamite Deka were nowhere near as popular as the PlayStation and Nintendo 64’s attempts to do the same with platformers. Then there was 2006’s God Hand, which everyone on the Internet now loves but everyone hated at the time, preventing it from ever getting the hordes of sequels it deserved. And the Dynasty Warriors series is just mediocre. Fortunately, there is still a near-unlimited supply of early-mid 1990s beat-em-ups to experience. Every time I dip into the genre, I see something new. But 1994’s The Ninja Warriors for the Super Nintendo remains my favorite.
The Ninja Warriors (called The Ninja Warriors Again in its home country, glorious Nippon) is the most pleasurable 2D beat-em-up I’ve ever played. This is a result of the character and enemy variety, the larger-than-life bosses, the strategies you need concoct to succeed (button mashers will get killed by level 2). You’ll have to make use of all of your moves and the objects in your environment, and that alone makes it rise above the crowd.
Let me give a specific example. The Ninja (a gargantuan behemoth who is so heavy that he needs the help of rockets to get an inch off the ground) deals heavy amounts of damage with his attacks (even bosses get seriously hurt from just a few hits), and the third hit of his basic combo hits enemies on both sides. But since he’s so slow, it’s very easy for you to get attacked from behind while you’re throwing out attacks. This means you have to do the first two hits of the combo knowing when the other enemies will come behind you into striking distance, but not with enough time for them to actually hit you. And what if you face a single enemy? Do you combo him, grab him, dash/shoulder tackle, rocket stomp, or try to find a crate to throw at him? There isn’t one approach that’s best for all situations; you have to use your head.
The Ninja Warriors offers multiple playable characters with different styles, a common and most welcome feature in beat-em-ups. The not-so-aptly named Ninja is freakishly powerful, but you have to time his attacks properly lest faster enemies (which is almost all enemies) get in a hit while you’re busy hitting something else. The Kunoichi and Kamaitachi are faster and have more options in combat, but playing as the Ninja to demolish hordes of foes with massive fists and spiked nunchaku is the best part of the game.
Levels are “1D” and linear. When I say 1D, I mean you walk in a straight line; no moving on the Y axis like in Final Fight or most other games of the genre. This is actually in The Ninja Warriors’ favor, as it means you don’t have to waste time lining up vertically with enemies before attacking. It also means that it’s easier for enemies to gang up on you, and they certainly won’t give you time to breathe. This game is challenging but not unfair; all three characters have the tools necessary to conquer the hordes of enemies, but it takes practice.
My definition of “fair” would be “has no unavoidable instant death traps” and “all obstacles can be overcome with skill”. I explained this to a friend of mine and he said:
Mine would be “even though you’re expected to utilize every move you have, every move you have is also well-defined, well-utilized, and you never ‘forget’ you have a certain skill”. Also, “checkpoints are frequent so that overcoming each challenge is significant”. One thing I hate is when a game forces you to utilize some obscure gameplay aspect late in the game that was never useful, or even *mentioned*, earlier on.
The Ninja Warriors exemplifies the “hard but fair” design philosophy that makes the best video games truly great and memorable. You have to earn your victories but you never feel like you conquered a challenge through dumb luck.
The bosses are the best part of an already great game. You get chameleon men, ki-shooting karate masters, android Schwarzeneggers (of course, this is a beat-em-up), a dude with a chainsaw, and my favorite: A bastardly hard battle against two enormous and speedy robots painted gold and silver. The final boss isn’t the best in the game; he requires a unique method in order to even hurt him but is ultimately less enjoyable to fight than the monocle guy or the aforementioned robot duo.
The Ninja Warriors is just plain gorgeous. 1994 was near the end of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan and featured some of the best sprite work ever made, and this game still stands out. Though the gigantic characters look great on screen, sometimes their movements are too stiff. The animation could have used some wider, smoother movements or maybe just more frames overall.
As with Final Fight, there was some mild censorship in the American release in regards to the player beating up women. In The Ninja Warriors, the female ninja enemies are changed into the irritating little claw guys. This was a surprise to me when I first played the Japanese ROM sometime in the late 90s, but is common knowledge to fans of the game nowadays.
The only thing I remember about the original 1988 The Ninja Warriors was that my local arcade had one and there was an image burned into all three screens. Actually, come to think of it, that game was just a weaker Shinobi and I’m glad it got the SNES remake it deserved. It’s a shame we never got any more entries in this series; it easily had the potential to be a long-lived franchise. But we can enjoy the little that is still available.