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You gotta hand it to the era of the Super Nintendo, a time where side scrolling beat em ups were a solid stable in the arcades, and home consoles receiving solid titles with the likes of Final Fight, Batman Returns, Alien vs Predator and let's not forget the legendary Battletoads in Battlemaniacs. There was hardly a shortage of quality titles, but developer Natsume managed to do something remarkable with their remake of their arcade based Ninja Warriors title, that not only set it out from the pack, but turned it into one of the best games on the Super NES.
In a dystopian future, the tyrant Banglar used his army to rise to power, and after brainwashing the populace, brought the one prosperous nation into ruin. Amongst this rapid descent into destruction, Mulk, the leader of the resistance group fought to overthrow the might of this military. Outnumbered and outgunned they had little chance at winning, so their hopes were put into the design and deployment of an android capable of assassinating Banglar and restoring peace. Banglar rallied his army and decimated the resistance group.
Before they were overthrown three prototypes were created but never tested. With hope resting on their shoulders they were launched with one goal: kill Banglar. We play as one of the three androids, in a single player event to overthrow this warlord and bring peace to the nation. We, are the last hope.
How can you not love a setup like this, dystopian future, malevolent government, robot ninjas and a butt load of dudes to kill. In this quest we can choose one of the three prototypes, Kunoichi the balanced, more or less completed female Ninja, Kamaitachi the swift and bladed warrior, and Ninja, a towering mass of solid steel with little speed, but unmatched power.
Unlike other games which use a semi open field to navigate, Ninja Warriors is completely linear with a small battlefield. Soldiers will appear from both sides of the screen and come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. From the typical grunt with pansy knives, snipers whom fire three rounds per assault, quick midgets that dart across the screen, black dudes with flattops who love to grapple, female ninjas who flip out everywhere and Green Berets who do extra damage. Each level has their own unique array of characters to kill, each with their own unique tactics.
What Ninja Warriors does differently from other games is that it doesn't try to screw the player by offering cheap deaths. Arcade games of this era are notorious for having cheap difficulties designed to eat coins, but this games combat system stands above the rest.
The combat engine is very straight forward there is only one button to attack, which isn't entirely uncommon, but there are many different ways to use it. By striking 3 or 4 times, your final strike is a powered up area attack. Ninja for instance flails his nunchaku around, or Kamaitachi spins his blades around. By holding down you can duck beneath strikes and make counter attacks, similarly with jumping.
At any time during a combo you can quickly attack in different directions, keeping enemies at bay who are trying to sneak up on you, and if you can continually land hits, your combo will continue.
As you fight on, you will charge up energy, and when your bar is completely full and flashing you can unleash a devastating area attack that will knock down everything, and leaving you invulnerable. It will completely drain your bar, but you will be safe. Alternatively you during a combo, if you hold upwards you spend a small portion of that energy in a long range reach attack that will pierce anything in your path.
What really makes this engine great is the blocking mechanic, games of this calibre will often negate to have such a feature, not just for challenge, but to royally stuff you out of a clean run. By holding down attack, you character will keep up a guard that is tough to break. You cannot turn around by guarding, but by hitting jump while blocking you can manoeuvre forward or backwards, closing distances or by getting out of trouble. This blocking becomes very important as you play, as the difficulty really is something else.
On Hard, the game is simply that. Hard. Enemy numbers will be increased, their strength greater and their ability to absorb damage buffed. Utilising your ninja's strengths is really important here, you have to employ blocking, area attacks, dodging and adhere to tight timing. When Titus published the game in the west, they changed the difficulty dramatically, slowed the pace down a notch and removed some of the female enemies. Can't have young gamers beat up women sprites after all, well not unless they're transsexual.
Who you choose to play out the game will change your tactics severely. Ninja for instance is extremely slow but hits ridiculously hard. He does have the ability to boost around with thrusters strapped to his back which means closing distance for him isn't completely impossible, and he has the ability to grab enemies, throw them and walk around with them. Playing around his speed limitations is a great challenge in this game, as some of these enemies are very quick, and playing sloppy leaves you open too easily.
The other two are more speed based, Kunoichi has the advantage of aerial strikes and having the ability to link her jumping attacks. It may not do huge damage, but it her speed does make it harder for her to hit. Her attack range is very small however, so closing that distance quickly is a must. Kamaitachi on the other hand moves equally if not faster by crouching down and pressing forward, his attacks are lightning quick, but he is somewhat fragile at taking damage and doesn't have as versatile time of moving about as the Kunoichi. With three effective methods of playing the game, there is surely something to tickly your fancy. Personally I just love throwing soldiers around by the scruff of the neck.
Visually the game is a treat, each character is well defined and detailed. By having a smaller battlefield, artists were able to really sell the prototype nature of each ninja and really detail a world in ruin. Fighting through broken streets, unfinished buildings, hidden bases and rooftops. The first level is particularly memorable with the city launching mortars at you. In short, it looks fantastic and sounds equally great. Each punch has a visceral feel of steel crunching on flesh and expertly rains home the fact you are an unstoppable cyborg viciously tearing apart an evil military. Music is pretty decent, not overly memorable, but it does the job admirably.
The biggest issue with this game lies not with its combat, difficulty or design, but rather it being a single player affair only. Had this more of a Final Fight approach and offered multiplayer, it could have been a virtually perfect game. The only real shame as the rest of the game is phenomenal, and anyone who is a fan of beat-em-ups should most definitely give this game a try. It's challenging, memorable and exceptionally fun to play. One of the best of its class and one of the best of all time.
With multiplayer it would have been perfect, as a single player beat-em-up there is almost nothing better. Play the Japanese version for the best experience.