Saturday, September 9, 2023

Ninja-Kun: Adventure of Devil Castle (1984)

Name:Ninja-Kun: Adventure of Devil Castle AKA 忍者くん魔城の冒険
Genre:Side-Scrolling Shooter
Time:1 hour 10 minutes
Won:Not possible

Ninja-Kun is a very simple game. You play as a cute, chibi ninja who attacks a demon infested castle. It reminds me of something, but I'm not quite sure what just yet. I'm playing the NES/Famicom version, because despite originally being in the arcades I can't seem to find an arcade version.

In each screen you have to take out a set number of ninjas. Your weapons are your own body and very short-ranged shurikens. Jumping up or falling down to an enemy knocks them out, while shurikens are lethal. You can even shoot enemy shurikens.

Controls are kind of weird. You get the usual movement with the D-pad, A jumps and B shoots. Jumping works weirdly slow. Almost realistic but not quite. You have to hold down a go left or right when you jump, otherwise you fall down a floor. This doesn't even always work as advertised, sometimes you just stand still despite having released jump, and whenever you go left or right you jump. You get a very awkward and floaty descent as you return down, with no air control outside of turning.

The trick is that you have to hold down jump for a specific amount of time, then you go down. Now I can move around, awkwardly bumping into enemy ninjas and hoping I get lucky in shooting them.

You get a time bonus, but sadly, no bonuses for scrolls or orbs.

This makes dealing with enemy ninjas tricky despite the simplicity of the game. They can do what you can do, so you better not get jumped on or you're basically dead. If there are two ninjas on the same floor, it's tricky, more and you're a bit screwed. Despite enemies all starting on their own floor of the rock sculpture, they jump up and down quite a bit.

At first I assumed this was going to be a very crude arcade game, the only difference between levels is that later levels require faster reflexes or something. Not entirely true. On level 2, the rock sculpture has a jumping ninja head, who looks kind of like a baseball. Kind of weird to see a chibi version of that floating head demon. This guy is annoying too, because he constantly fires off multiple attacks that even follow you across floors. From basic braindead enemies to revenant-esque enemies, talk about a weird difficulty curve.

Eventually, I figure out the trick, shoot him before he shoots you, you can't stun him. Just get lucky. Level 3 is like level 2, some number of ninjas and baseball head ninja. Only this time, it's on the outside of a castle, a Japanese castle, of course. It's hideous, this would be better even if it were just a simple outline. I'm dead serious.

But let's get into the other issue, which now rears it's ugly head here. Having played Tomb Raider and a lot of classic DOS platformers extensively, I have unconsciously understood the concept of making sure the player knows where he can jump. This block can be jumped on, this one cannot. Yes, sometimes you can't see the platform, but that's something different.

So Ninja-kun breaks this solemn rule of platformers in two ways. The first couple of levels you had all these little mini-platforms that looked like you could jump on, but couldn't. Fine, whatever, it's still obvious that a bit wide platform is where you have to go. But on stage three, you have to jump halfway up a roof in a spot that breaks this rule. It's obvious by the game's design, but it's unnecessarily obtuse. Add a railing for god's sake!

Level 4 returns to the pillars and changes up how it plays. Now the baseball head ninjas are easy to kill, they don't fire off dozens of shurikens. Instead you have a fox demon who brings down bombs. This guy is easy, he fires off his weapon in an arc, like a grenade, which then falls straight down.
The following levels with this plan go well. I find myself grabbing three orbs in this time. See, in order to get points you need to pick up scrolls from dead enemies, only one can be on-screen at once, killing another enemy destroys the old scroll. You can also throw a shuriken at a dead enemy. Finally, you get a falling orb once every stage. This spawns a bonus stage in which you grab a bunch of orbs.

The next set of levels prove that the fox demons can in fact be dangerous. When there are a dozen of them constantly throwing bombs. The more curious aspect here, is that there's a flame attack constantly wandering around with a semi-homing aspect to it. Not sure if it's connected to this set's big enemy, which is much like the baseball head ninja, except he shoots fire.

Level 10-12 now has a samurai with a bow as the big enemy, and he's annoying, but still deadly. He seems to jump off whichever platform I'm on, which works against the game in some ways, but does serve well to annoy me. I try to hit him for some time. It doesn't work. I hit him sometimes, but he still lives. It seems like you have to knock him out first, then kill him, which is annoying to pull off.

I stop playing at level 13. It's not necessarily that I still have to take out the samurai, they're tolerable as regular enemies. It's that I have to do that in addition to constantly dodging the homing flame. Checking a longplay, it seems that while the game keeps going infinitely, this is about as much content as it has, after this it has a series of levels that has all the enemies, but I'm not about to do that, for one obvious reason.

This game does not have a pleasant presentation. Visually, it has neither animation nor a good use of the NES's palette. Often it is borderline ugly, getting pretty close to something I'd describe as the ugliest game ever. In the audio department, there are sounds, and there are sounds that sound like music. This makes playing the game not very fun, and thus my decision to quit while I'm ahead.

A simplistic weapon with pathetic range. 1/10

An interesting variety. Sadly, it seems like for the most part the game gets stuck on the theme of enemy who walks around and shoots at you, though the boss versions of regular enemies was interesting. 2/10


I'm pretty sure there are just two layouts of nominal difference. 0/10

Player Agency:
Very awkward. Even after I figured out the control scheme, I still accidentally jumped up or jumped down. It's hell. 2/10


Cutesy demon ninjas. You know, I don't think I ever concieved of such a concept before. I don't care for it. 1/10

Not eye-searing pain, but it seemed very ugly and primitive to me, with the bare minimum of animation. 1/10


High pitched whines indicating music and someone getting hit. 1/10

That's 8. Notably, this is the first time since I was playing 1982 games that two single digit games were clustered together.

I feel like this is half I don't understand the appeal of this game, half my usual problem with early action games. I think the closest I ever got to something like this before was reading reviews of Goemon games, but there the cuteness is a bit of a facade. In Japan, basically the only place the game was released, this was very beloved and there are a goodly amount of games in this series.

The NES seems to be starting off with a really bad batting average. Granted, right now we are still in the first year of the system, with two outliers. But so far it's really just been a supped up version of Atari-era consoles or downgraded arcade titles. In the meantime, next up, from what was once my least favorite computer, we've got something very interesting.

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