Ogre Battle/Tactics Series, 1993-2001

There are five games in the “Ogre Battle Saga” series. (Four have been released in English, but there is a mysterious Japan-only fifth that I have never been able to get my hands on…) The main four that I will discuss are “Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen” (SNES, 1993), “Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together” (SNES, 1995), “Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber” (N64, 1999), and “Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis” (GBA, 2001).

Each falls into one of two different styles: A) a real-time strategy simulation where groups of characters fight together as units (“Ogre Battle” games), or B) more traditional turn-based combat on a grid where characters act individually (“Tactics Ogre” games).

But they all have a few things in common:
1) Serious tone and themes about “war” and “morality,” with multiple story-lines and endings.
2) A large number of generic characters that evolve over the course of the game based on player’s actions.
3) Strategic combat on large maps where features like terrain, time of day, and weather have an impact.

Worldview: Strategic stewardship of an army in a vast, serious world.
Your actions and decisions feel imbued with moral weight that manifests itself in the your gradually growing and evolving army.

DEAD SERIOUS TONE
The Ogre games feature stories and characters that take themselves very seriously, tackling themes like loyalty and morality with plenty of heavy-handed dialogue. The stories usually focus on characters’ helplessness in the midst of forces beyond their control, and their struggles to do the “right thing” when there is no one right choice. Since most other games have a comic relief character or at least a few jokes here and there, the serious tone in the story and dialogue is somehow refreshing and endearing.

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Dramatic cut-scene with Cybil in “Knights of Lodis”

The serious tone carries over to the realistically-rendered character portraits, which are plain, rarely smiling, and could even be called drab. Again, compared with the colorful and dynamic portraits in most other RPGs, this gives the game a distinct feel of its own.

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No smiling allowed in Zetegenia!

BIG MAPS THAT MATTER
Whether an “Ogre Battle” or “Tactics Ogre” game, the combat system involves large maps where terrain type, element, time of day, and even weather affect the battle.

Characters’ class affects how they move and which type of terrain they are most effective on, while time of day and weather affect which characters and actions are most effective. Items (as well as towns in the case of Ogre Battle) are hidden around every stage, encouraging exploration and making mobility an important factor.

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When units get near each other they have to “fight it out”!

With all the factors involved, every stage is different in terms of how each character will fare. Generally you’ll need a variety: flying characters for quick movement, characters that can move quickly on mountain terrain to reach remote locations, and water-type characters to reach islands. (Though I do feel that the water classes rarely get much of a chance to shine in any of the games… sadness).

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I love octopi, but oceans and lakes aren’t always easy to come by…

Generally you can’t just throw out the same powerful characters in every situation, and sometimes you can really get caught in a pickle by environmental factors. In “March of the Black Queen,” a lot of this is offset by a limited supply of tarot cards that can massively change the course of battle in case of emergency.

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In the unique tarot card system of March of the Black Queen, you receive a card every time you liberate a city and can use it for devastating effects in battle

STEWARDSHIP OF AN ARMY
What many fans undoubtedly enjoy most is managing the characters and units in their army. For the most part you manage generic characters that can be recruited throughout the game, and early on you will have a lot of the same starting classes (“soldier” for males, and “amazon” for female). But, due to the large number of classes they can change into, in the end you usually have only have one or two characters of the same class, so they still end up feeling one-of-a-kind and special.

New classes can be added to your army in a number of ways throughout the game, and a large part of the joy of the series is in trying to obtain a specific class through a side quest, waiting to see what a lowly soldier will become, or stumbling upon a new creature and trying to recruit it. The games even allow you to recruit enemies in the middle of battle by “persuading” them, with success dependent on the class, alignment (how good/lawful or evil/chaotic they are), and other factors of each character.

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That feeling when you persuade the enemy…

The various classes also affect each other in a number of ways. For example, all the games feature a “beast tamer” class that boosts the power of gryphons, octopi, and other beast-type allies nearby, the same being true for dragon tamers and dragons. Similarly, characters’ element, alignment and class affects the damage dealt to and chance to persuade enemies.

Actually, the way you use characters in battle alters their alignment. Attacking evil or higher level units raises a character’s alignment, while relying on high level characters to kill enemies slowly turns them evil.

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Killing ghosts and other evil characters raises your alignment

This character system makes your army feel connected to and affected by the epic battle going on around you. Your actions and playing style determine the make-up of your army, and as it develops you’ll need to assemble characters into effective groups where they can best use their unique skills. This is the joy of stewardship that has earned such a following for the Ogre Battle Saga series.

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So many units, so little rare items!

Of course, individually equipping and keeping track of 20+ units can border on tedious micro-management, but the games are generally playable with minimal attention to classes and equipment. If you want to fine-tune your army there is plenty of depth and complexity, but taking things as they come generally works fine (except in “Let Us Cling Together”…). Also, most of the games’ systems are not only complex but also somewhat hidden in that you’ll need a FAQ to really see all that the game has to offer.

SUMMARY
Though varying greatly between two gameplay systems and various consoles, the Ogre Battle Saga games focus on the joy of taking stewardship over a large army, which at the same time feels small in the vast and epic worlds and stories that the games create.

On a game-by-game breakdown, I’d say that:

“Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen” is the roughest around the edges (it’s also the first in the series). A lot of things go unexplained, and the equipment system is bare bones. Still, it has some of my favorite in-battle sprites, I love the tarot card system, and, maybe it’s because it was the first Ogre game for me, or maybe it’s because the bare-bones minimalism is strangely appealing, but March of the Black Queen is probably my favorite Ogre game.

I think “Knights of Lodis” is the stronger Tactics game, but if you like grid-based strategy games you really can’t go wrong with either one. Be warned that “Let Us Cling Together” is incredibly punishing with its perma-death system and tough enemies.

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Let Us Cling Together was remade for the PSP with beautiful character portraits

“Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber” is the weakest link for me. The battle system is super unbalanced and the graphics are not my cup of tea. Still, I played all the way through and mostly enjoyed it (the game doesn’t totally fly off the rails until the end).

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Painful graphics (IMHO) in Person of Lordly Caliber

I wish I could speak for the elusive “Prince of Zenobia: Let Us Walk on Together So As Not to Lose Our Way” for Neo Geo Pocket- let me know if you have played it! There have also been rumors of another entry in the series for awhile now… Let’s hope they come true someday.

SIDE NOTE: Apparently the title “March of the Black Queen” and other names in the series are references to songs by the British band Queen. Who knew!

Posted in Game Boy Advance, Game Design, Japanese, N64, RPG, Series, SNES | Leave a comment

Romancing SaGa Character Design

Well, well, well, I’m delighted to see how many people liked the Romancing SaGa post. The Gamasutra edition got a lot of retweets and my pageviews suddenly skyrocketed. Seems like coverage of underrated gems and analysis of what makes them fun is a popular topic. So I’m thinking I’ll do a similar post for the Ogre Series (Ogre Battle/Tactics), or Harvest Moon (possibly most prolific series ever??).

Also, I forgot to share the wonderful concept art and character design for Romancing SaGa done by Tomomi Kobayashi.

Here’s my favorites from Romancing SaGa 2, where you play as multiple generations of emperors and choose the class of your emperor as each new generation begins. So any character class you come across could later become your “main character,” the emperor, or just be recruited as one of five party members at any time. Really original and fun (but has never been fully translated into English).

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Shigen

Some of her drawings are a little too airy and whimsical for me, but I enjoyed these. Check out her work from the other SaGas if you did, too!

Posted in Characters, Console, Game Design, General, Japanese, NES, RPG, Series, Site-related, SNES | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Romancing SaGa Series, 1989-2012

Romancing SaGa is a unique series of Japanese RPGs spanning from 1989 all the way to 2012. It focuses in on the core elements of what makes RPGs fun: exploration and discovery as a world gradually unfolds before you.

(I haven’t completed every SaGa game and am focusing on the ones I know best: Romancing SaGA 1-3 (SNES), Minstrel Song (PS2), and Unlimited Saga (PS2))

These classic “SaGa” elements appear in most of the games:

① Characters learn special moves randomly* in the middle of battle.
② There are no experience points (characters’ abilities improve randomly* after each battle).
③ HP is fully replenished after every battle, but characters have Life Points (LP) that determine how many times they can get KO’d before they are permanently dead.
④ Enemies change to match your level throughout the game.
⑤ Large number of recruitable characters (including a choice of main characters), and a loose story with minimal dialogue.
⑥ Order of events and quests mostly left up to player.

*Not literally random, but a lot of chance is involved.

In short, every battle is new and surprising since enemies match your level and there’s always a chance characters might grow stronger somehow. The game is open-ended enough to feel like you are exploring, but provides enough structure and juicy tidbits to stimulate your imagination and bring the world to life.

LIGHTBULBS & SURPRISE IN EVERY BATTLE
A few key elements make the battle system delightful, setting it apart from the basic JRPG turn-based model.

One is the lightbulbs. Sometimes, especially when facing a difficult enemy, a lightbulb flashes over a characters head and, instead of doing what you instructed them to do, the character learns a new move and performs it on the spot. In early games, characters yell the name of the move in a speech bubble, which, coupled with the rough translations of the 90s, was really endearing. I fell for Romancing SaGa 3 the moment my character suddenly yelled “Big Logs Chop!” and wailed on the enemy with an axe.

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Julius learned “Sweep Down,” a long sword technique! (RS3)

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It’s in Japanese, but he’s casting “Light Ball” (RS2)

The lightbulb flash gives you a burst of adrenaline each time (or dopamine? I don’t know my psychological chemicals. Probably both.) and keeps even random battles fresh and exciting, since, although it happens most often in boss fights or against tough enemies, it can happen at any time. This eases the issue of grinding that plagues many RPGs.

Additionally, when the battle is over, characters may gain a level in their weapon or magic, or gain HP, TP or MP (the games use separate Points for magical and non-magical attacks, which means that all characters have an array of special moves and Points to manage whether they are a fighter or mage).

When a character improves their abilities at the end of battle, he or she also does a little jig (spinning and kicking in the SNES versions, or a character specific victory move in Minstrel Song). This spinning kick of the SNES games was a really nice touch. It’s kind of a random (spin, kick, and freeze in mid-air), but really makes you feel awesome when they yell “HP UP!” Also, each character has their own “kick” sprite (which is actually true for every sprite- no two characters punch or kick alike!). Since every character can technically equip any weapon or magic and perform any skill, their unique set of sprites gives otherwise interchangeable battle skills some personal flair.

EVERY BATTLE IS IMPORTANT IN THE DUNGEON-LONG STRATEGY
The unique take on LP, HP, BP/TP, and MP (I know, its a lot of Ps!) also serves to increase the strategy of battles and the entire dungeon.

Battles can be quite tough, so you generally need some characters need to use special abilities to survive. Simply mashing “Attack, Attack, Attack” won’t work. At the same time, the fact that HP is fully restored in between battles let’s you ignore healing (a pet peeve as you may have guessed from previous posts), and you can begin each battle and its strategy from the same state.

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Fairy has learned two bow techniques (the bow itself is called “Enhanced”) (RS3)

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All of Barbara’s sword abilities (Minstrel Song)

Romancing SaGa games are also the only games I have ever played were KOs don’t require special “Life” magic. The usual healing spell brings characters back, which makes being KO’d strangely inconsequential. As long as a character has LP left it doesn’t matter- they’ll be alive again after the battle, HP and status fully recovered. (Though they do lose LP upon each hit while KO’d, which makes you feel really bad…)

Balancing the use of MP and TP with your remaining LP thus becomes the main focus. Nothing like making it to the boss with just a few LP left and hoping you can spark (ie lightbulb flash) some big new techs to survive! In worst case scenario, enemies can be avoided since they are visible onscreen and only have to be fought if you come in contact with them.

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Beautiful character and monster design of Unlimited Saga… Those tree guys are hard on the LP, though

STORY & WORLD
I love the “SaGa” approach here, which falls somewhere between linear and open-ended. The way it works is that, you can go to any location that you have heard about through the story or dialogue. For example, maybe someone in that first town mentions a neighboring city, while another talks about a mine that has been infested with monsters. These two locations can now be selected on the world-map, while the rest is completely blank.

Depending on what order you do quests and where you decide to go, your path through the world will be quite different. This works because enemies in each dungeon match your level- their sprite tells you the enemy type (demon, blob, undead, etc.), but your level determines whether you face a measly lone zombie, a gang of zombies, or a terrifying lich king.

Each location and quest offers tidbits of story that, pieced together, give you a sense of a larger story and world. Since available quests, recruitable characters, and other features vary by main character, playing through as different characters gives you a different experience of the world.

Dialogue appears in balloons over characters heads, which are quite small in the SNES editions and contain little more than a short sentence. You could call it super minimalist. For me, though, these mysterious tidbits drew me into the world and got my good old Belief Engine going.

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Good old translations (RS3)

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Love the giants (Minstrel Song)

IN A NUTSHELL
SaGa has been praised as open-ended, but it is in fact quite structured. It is a far cry from games like the Elder Scrolls series, where you can literally go anywhere at anytime from the get-go. I always found that pretty lethal to story and fun, since I could just walk away from any person or quest and nothing seemed to matter, while at the same time if I went to the wrong place I would be instantly killed by overpowered enemies.

The SaGa series provides something more like a guided journey that can be completed out of order, continually offering both challenge and discovery.

That is what excites me about the series. Considering that exploring a new world is a key part of what makes RPGs attractive, the SaGa offers some interesting models and approaches to be inspired by.

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Side note: “Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song” (PS2) has one of the best intro videos, with music by Masayoshi Yamazaki.
AND “Harid’s Theme” from RS3 is one of the most relaxing and wonderful video game tunes I know.

Posted in Game Design, Japanese, RPG, Series, SNES | Leave a comment

Trying out New Types of Posts

I have a few ideas for new approaches I want to try on the blog besides the world-breakdown model I’ve been using. It should free me up to highlight some specific aspects of games and their worlds.

One is to focus on how to improve a single mechanic that appears in one or more games. Kinda like open-brainstorming about fun new twists on old mechanics.

Another is to do an overview of a whole series of games at once to see what common threads there are between their worlds and approaches to worldbuilding- what worked well and what didn’t (Romancing Saga for example).

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Romancing Saga 3 on SNES

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Romancing Saga on PS2

I’m still planning to do the old format sometimes, just wanna mix things up for variety. As always let me know what you think so I can keep things fresh and interesting!

On a side note, I haven’t had time to play much lately besides Nethergate (and that was awhile ago), but I did play some “Super Mario 3D World Wii U.” Both it and “New Super Mario Brothers Wii” are incredibly fresh and amusing throughout. They quickly turn into a slapstick series of trial and error and laughs when played with a friend (which is the only way I played), and I was pretty blown away by both from beginning to end.

Posted in Game Design, General, Japanese, Platformer, Site-related, Wii | Leave a comment

Chrysanthemum. Mac, 1993.

This is a quick post to highlight a little known Mac game from 1993 by Ryan Koopmans called “Chrysanthemum.” It can still be played online thanks to Online Alchemy, here.

Worldview: Meticulous, meditative spatial management
Theme: Flower-arranging

Most puzzle games that involve arrangement (Tetris, Bejeweled, Candy Crush etc.) have simple but hypnotic visuals and can put you in a pleasureable trance-like state with their straightforward and addictive gameplay. That’s why flower-arranging makes an especially nice theme for such a game.

While Bejeweled and Candy Crush have their own charm, I never thought that the destruction of candy or jewels made much sense or benefited their worlds. Bejeweled feels like a trippy sci-fi journey with a deep-voiced man through a world of jewels, while Candy Crush creates a slightly disturbing candy-sweet world, but in both cases the core theme of exploding candy/gems never quite clicked.

Flower-arranging, on the other hand, is visually pleasing and works with the “arrange similar objects” theme. The “art of flower arranging” (ikebana/kadou) also theoretically involves a meditative mental state, and these type of puzzle games also often lead to a trance-like state where you aren’t thinking consciously but rather responding to events in a relaxed but alert mindset.

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Flowers appear randomly from all four sides of the screen. You can move them side to side until they collide with something and stop.

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The bugs pictured here start to appear if a flower hits the opposite wall, or if you run out of time! (This screenshot is from the original version)

Once you have memorized the arrangements for each flower, you begin to see each level’s design in terms of potential flower layouts. In other words, like real flower-arranging, the game gets you into a visual design mode where you are focused on arrangement of the elements you are given to work with.

The titular chrysanthemums are the game’s “special item” that converts all flowers of one type into completed flower arrangements. Chrysanthemums become a rare and special treat that can save failed arrangements in even the most hopeless of situations.

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A chrysanthemum appears from the left! Lucky!

Once you get into later levels, however, the speed becomes unbearably fast- it increases relentlessly each level rather than ebbing and flowing like Tetris. Additionally, some levels can feel unfair if you get a bad mix of flowers at the beginning (see “Strait Jacket”!).

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Side Note: Ryan Koopmans apparently released another game called “Fungus” in 1994. It is hailed as a classic, but I can find virtually no information about it online, let alone a place to download or play it… Any leads?

Posted in Action, American, Game Design, PC/Mac, Puzzle, Western | Leave a comment

Upcoming Schedule

I have some ideas for the next few posts, but I have a super busy spring coming up, so I’m not sure what kind of schedule they will be on… But they shall come!

Sorry- I know “once a month” is already slow enough as is, but I’ll do my best to continue to be regular. Just remember, if you don’t see anything for a little while, the blog is not dead. ;D

Speaking of which, I found out about a new type of crowd-funding website called Patreon. Patreon projects are on-going with no “end” (unlike Kickstarter or Indiegogo)- instead, backers pay as each new “thing” is released, whether that’s a painting, story, video, or new version of a game.

I was thinking about doing it with the old blog, if anyone would be willing to support each post. Then I could make sure to write more regularly! (Since trying to make a living keeps me pretty busy most of the time, and I can’t always prioritize writing.) But I’d love to write more- I dunno, maybe even more than once a month!? Who KNOWS!?

(Although I did recently have time to play a bit of “Nethergate: Resurrection,” the little-known “Celts vs. Romans” RPG using the engine from the Avernum series by Spiderweb Software. There is something special and unique about those games despite their obvious shortcomings.)

Posted in General, PC/Mac, RPG, Site-related, Western | Leave a comment

Shadow of the Ninja. NES, 1990

Shadow of the Ninja (“Blue Shadow” in Europe and “Yami no Shigotonin KAGE” in Japan) was developed and published by Natsume in 1990 for the NES.

Worldview: Being a ninja
Theme: Infiltration of a cyberpunk machine world

The worldview may sound generic, and many games have certainly tried to create a “ninja” experience (compact and efficient actions, fast and nimble navigation, and strategic stealth). But SotN really makes it happen with the set-up of ninjas infiltrating a dystopian, mechanized world (a post-apocalyptic dictatorial America, to be exact).

GRAPHICS: Environments range from the rooftops of crumbling cityscapes, to rainy boats at night, to sleek interiors full of gears and moving parts. The style is generally dark and grungy, giving the game an atmosphere of “near-future society where machines flourish but humans are in danger” (i.e. cyberpunk). There are a lot of cold colors, until the final stage with its intense purple and red.

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Fig. 1: Sneaking aboard a boat on a rainy night in the first stage

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Fig. 2: Navigating turning gears in the second stage

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Fig. 3: Climbing up and into the enemy stronghold on a bright, sunny day provides some nice contrast

Though the first level is purely linear side-scrolling, others expand in all directions, and you’ll find yourself hanging, flipping, jumping and climbing around various platforms that are sometimes moving themselves. Also, your jump and attack range are relatively small (ex. you can’t go flying across the screen with a leaping bound), which allows for more compact levels. This lets you plan your path and flip about more skillfully, while also contributing to the experience of being an efficient ninja in a vast world of machines.

Most enemies’ designs include robotic and organic elements, while the heroes are decidedly human and old-fashioned in simple “ninja” clothes (though some enemies also follow the “ancient Japanese” theme of ninjas and samurai). The bosses follow the same cyborg theme, and are varied and imaginative. Across the board, sprites and their animations are detailed and impressive, especially considering the NES’ capabilities.

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Fig. 4: Battle with a samurai atop the ruins of a city

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Fig. 5: Got hit by the “eyeball-on-a-chain” mini-boss!

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Fig. 6: There is a theme of machines with eyes throughout the game

TEXT: The backstory, explained through pre- and post-game cinema, sets up a somewhat run-of-the-mill, post-apocalyptic scenario where an evil dictator who takes over America can only be stopped by two ninjas who infiltrate the country (assumably coming from Japan). Yet even the ninjas, the game’s hope for humanity, appear from the shadows and disappear back into the shadows at the end (hence the name of the game). Working from the shadows to rescue a world in darkness fits the cyberpunk theme and gives the game an interestingly dark set-up. To a limited degree (given that there is not much text involved), this heightens the drama of being an anonymous outsider infiltrating a sinister world of machines.

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Fig. 7: Introductory cinema with a dark tone in visuals and text

SOUND: The sound effects are simple and effective, but the music steals the show. SotN offers one of the most riveting soundtracks for the NES. The fast tempo matches the brisk game play- it will get your heart racing, and remain stuck in your head after you’ve stopped playing. Though the tracks are best enjoyed with the game, check out my favorites here, here, and, my favorite of all (wait for when it drops the beat), here.

CONTROLS: Overall, the controls are incredibly responsive and tight, enabling you to move smoothly and efficiently to dispatch enemies. The short weapon range and the low jumps relatively low make for nice, compact actions. The best way to put it is that you feel like a ninja.

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Fig. 8: In mid-flip between platforms

GOALS & RULES: The basic, short-range sword attack mentioned above can be gradually upgraded to increase its range and power. These power-ups are lost if you die, and must then be gathered again from scratch. It is thus simpler to rely on the chain and sickle weapon, which has much longer reach but lacks power and cannot be upgraded. In this way the weapon system allows for a simpler approach that will please beginners as well as a more complex and powerful route that requires more skill.

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Fig. 9: The sword attack reaches further after collecting upgrades

There is no timer so there is no pressure to rush, but nonetheless the game moves quickly. Also, compared to many other platformers, it is quite lenient with the life bar in that you can be hit many times, and even if you fall into a pit- the classic frustration of platforming games- you appear right back on the screen and only lose a chunk of health.

Again, this makes the game very playable from the get-go for newcomers, while still offering plenty of challenge in actually making it all the way to the end for serious player. The generous life bar and the lack of timer enable the player to experiment, determine the best approach, and strike at just the right moment.

Though there are limited numbers of shuriken (and bombs) placed around the levels that enable you to make special/ranged attacks, for the most part you must rely on melee attacks. Also, enemies are relatively scarce, but carefully arranged and usually requiring multiple hits to take down. This encourages more strategic play and efficient, well-timed hits. You feel like you are skillfully taking down enemies while navigating the terrain, rather than haphazardly slashing your way through wave after wave of small fry enemies. At the same time, the levels are brisk and fresh, continually throwing new types of enemies and obstacles at you.

Two player mode is a rarity in platforming games, and I think it’s a real delight here. The lenient time and life supply keep co-op play fun even if one player is slower or more prone to be hit.

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Fig. 10: The two player characters, Hayate and Kaede. You can select one, or control both with a friend

WHAT COULD BE BETTER
The only real downfall are technical limitations- for one, having no save feature. There is also an area in one stage where so many enemies appear on screen that there is visual glitching and lag.

Besides that it is generally smooth sailing and there’s not much to complain about, though some hardcore platforming gamers online seem to consider it too easy. I’m no hardcore platforming gamer myself, so I’ll let you decide.

GRAPHICS: Effectively create a cyberpunk world of man and machine
CONTROLS: Swift, efficient ninja action is a delight to experience
SOUND: It’s not an exaggeration to say that the exciting and engaging soundtrack is a masterpiece of the 8-bit era
TEXT: The backstory and in-game cinema set a dark tone
GOALS & RULES: Relatively small numbers of enemies, a complex weapon system, and brisk, varied level design make you feel like a skilled ninja- by yourself or with a friend

OVERALL: I know there are more ninja games out there than you can shake a stick at, all of them claiming to make you feel like a bad-ass ninja. But Shadow of the Ninja isn’t pulling your leg. With dazzling (if old-fashioned) visuals and music, why not step back to 1990 for a cyberpunk ninja treat? [Thankfully it is in the Wii Shop so you don't need a functioning Nintendo to play.]

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