More noise than signal

Ninja Cop – Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

You wouldn’t look twice at this game if you saw it sitting on the shelf in your local gaming suppliers. At least in the U.S. it gets the slightly more exotic name of Ninja Five-0, but for it’s British release Konami no doubt thought we’d assume it’s a football game and they’d missed out ‘Preston North End’ off the end of the name. So we get a generic title, a generic and unimaginative cover picture and a generic write up on the back that really isn’t going to convince the idle browser to splash out thirty notes on it. That’s a great pity, as it’s one of the best games that’s yet graced Nintendo’s pocket rocket.

As the title suggests, you take control of a ninja who happens to be a cop. Fair enough. There’s some tortuous plot to justify the fact that you’ll go up against a coalition of common thugs, military types and other ninjas, but it’s hardly essential to your experience. Something about masks and the quest for power and whatnot. To this end, or because of this, or perhaps in spite of this (I wasn’t paying much attention. The important thing is that there was ninjas present in some capacity) this alliance of evil takes over certain buildings key to their plans, whatever those happened to be, such as the airport, the factory by the docks, the banks and, err, a cave. Your job is simple, rescue the hostages they’ve taken in each building by simple means of slicing and dicing the bad guys until they’re reduced to small puddles of blood.

The goons come in the usual assortment of gun toting baddies and knife wielding thugs, as well as some chaps who rather care freely lob sticks of dynamite in your general direction. However, you are a ninja and this kind of mundanity isn’t going to be too problematic to deal with, seeing as your shurikens can not only do a serious mischief to miscreants but also knock their bullets out of the air. A swift tap of the left shoulder button whips out your chopper. Ooh-er, missus. Your katana can rather usefully slice through both the flesh of your assailants and the dynamite sticks, neutralising them. Your ninjitsu avatar Joe Osugi can dish out a two hit slice combo with another tap of the button, or if he’s in the middle of a jump he does a rather nifty somersaulting slice of doom that does some serious damage.

These low level goons aren’t too much of a problem, although you’ll have to be a bit more careful with the ones holding a hostage across them as a human shield. Wait for them to shove their captive aside and attempt a few pot shots before either slicing them up or inserting a shuriken in them, or sneak up behind them using the usual assortment of crates and barrels as cover and take them from behind. Ooh-er, missus. You may have a little more bother with later foot soldiers with a penchant for flame throwers, assault rifles and laser cannons however. Also standing in your path are a selection of evil ninjas, who look rather similar to Joe and can attack in similar ways which will present more of a challenge for you to counter. There are also a few lumbering mecha-ninjas wandering around who can take a bit of a beating, but their sluggishness means you ought to be able to dispatch them.< The areas themselves harkens back to the days of Revenge of Shinobi and platformers of it’s ilk, with supposedly commonplace buildings having been designed by someone with scant regard for the safety of anyone inside it. Even as a highly trained police ninja you’ll have difficulty progressing through some fiendish levels that are as difficult as any I’ve seen in recent years. You have one skill above all that’ll help you with this – your ninja grappling hook. Taking inspiration from Bionic Commando and combining it with the acrobatic antics of Spiderman, this enables you safely swing over the various pits of spikes and dangerously placed exhausts that game designers seem to think lurk at every turn in everyday life. You’ll need to learn how to swing over pretty much the entire length of the level in some cases, which is initially a little tricky but very gratifying when learnt. This also enables you to pull out some nifty ninja moves, jumping at the end of your upwards arc to soar in the area and drop down on some unsuspecting thug, slicing him up like a baloney.

Each level holds a boss of various fiendishness, some looking more or less like inexplicably large ninjas and one looking like a normal sized ninja on the back of an inexplicably large frog. Uh-huh. Some of their attack patterns can seem as fiendish as the level design on first encounters but they’re all beatable once you work it out. It’s a good job you’ve got unlimited continues as there is the occasional section that has a slight reliance on trial and error (or trial and death) which can be get annoying, and it’s about the only significant flaw the game has.

An advantage of being a ninja is that you’ve got some ninja magic to dish out. Once you’ve killed enough goons to fill a power bar or grabbed the appropriate pickup you can tap A + B to destroy any common or garden chappie on the screen, or do a chunk of damage to a boss. There are also a few power ups knocking around in addition to health bonuses, which allow your ninja to fire three flaming shurikens in a spread formation rather than your basic variety and eventually to fire one very powerful, almost laser like shuriken that’ll take down any of the normal guys instantly and do some real damage even to a boss.It is, I suppose, not all that different to a lot of platformers, but it’s more fun than the majority of them. The control method is probably responsible, it’s terribly intuitive and it’s easy to be lost in a little ninja based world. The graphics have some nice animations and a couple of ropey ones, but there’s always a trade off between character detail and how much playfield you can squeeze of the GBA’s ickle screen. It’s a balance that I think Konami have got right, although you do have the ability to scroll the viewpoint by holding down the left shoulder button. This is rarely needed and it’s easy to forget it exists, which is probably the cause of a few of those trial and error scenarios I was bitching about earlier now I come to think of it.

I suppose if we’re being picky it can’t be a five star game. While it’s the best platform game I’ve seen in years it’s also blatantly nicking Revenge of Shinobi and crossing it with Bionic Commando and the old Megadrive Spiderman games. That alone wouldn’t stop me doling out the top marks but a few additional niggles with some of the levels almost ensuring that you take at least a few hits on a first play and remember to avoid something or jump as soon as you enter a room take the shine off a little. The lack of more than one tune for the normal levels is plain sloppy, and it features another of my pet hates with games such as these. When you as much as brush against a bad guy you lose a chunk of health. Why? Are they coated in acid? Are you allergic to them? Are they undercover porcupines? Were their suits made of scorpions? Likewise killing a hostage by accident or design results in an inexplicable loss of health. Not the sort of thing a skilled ninja should be doing to be sure, but why does this dishonour result in your own disembowelling?

Slight flaws perhaps, and it’s still a fine game. Perhaps the best recommendation I can give it is that with so many varied and interesting ways of pirating games in this age of lasers and particle accelerators (and internet newsgroups, emulators and flash writers, more to the point) I still ponied up the dough to buy a legit copy. If you’ve got a GBA, I’d recommend you do the same. Easily the best ninja based game on the platform given the balls up THQ made of Revenge Of Shinobi.

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