Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16) review
"The main character’s name is Moonlight (not the most fearsome moniker, true enough, but full of, er, grace). His father has been killed and Moonlight seeks revenge. The opening scene is nothing special - it certainly isn’t as eye-catching as the one in Revenge of Shinobi, and the fact that it’s unapologetically cliché does not help. The saving grace is witnessing Moonlight’s transmogrifying into a wolf. I know we all have to do it sometime, but it’s so satisfying watching a ninja do it. "
Joe Musashi and Ryu Hayabusa, meet…Moonlight?
NEC struck gold when they released this arcade gem by Irem on their Turbografx-16 system. A gaming publication that prides themselves on not giving games tens, had one editor do so for Ninja Spirit. Turbo fans had reason to be proud. Would the world finally be convinced of their console’s power? Well, not really, but it’s nice to think so.
The main character’s name is Moonlight (not the most fearsome moniker, true enough, but full of, er, grace). His father has been killed and Moonlight seeks revenge. The opening scene is nothing special - it certainly isn’t as eye-catching as the one in Revenge of Shinobi, and the fact that it’s unapologetically cliché does not help. The saving grace is witnessing Moonlight’s transmogrifying into a wolf. I know we all have to do it sometime, but it’s so satisfying watching a ninja do it.
Another Gaiden then?
Though I still intensely enjoy this game, much of my enjoyment is derived from listening to the music as I play. There isn’t enough platform play to keep your hands sweating. There isn’t much jumping to be done, and when there is - like in the mountain level - missing a leap and falling has only the tedium of retracing your ascending steps as the ramification. You won’t really die for lack of planning a jump.
Also, the game’s easiest aesthetic comparison is Ninja Gaiden. But while that series of ninja side-scrollers does feature a similarly sized protagonist and amazing tunes, the game play in Tecmo’s titles is far more advanced. In addition to your sword, you’ve got magic powers as auxiliary weapons, and your platform leaping skills must be called upon in the extreme at every turn. Ninja Spirit on the other hand, features a quartet of selectable main weapons that can each be powered up only once: the sword, the shurikens, the dynamite, (yes, ninjas can do science too) and the chain and sickle. In almost all cases, the sword is the most effective weapon, despite the coolness factor that the fourth weapon brings. The dynamite is the most effective boss killer - don’t try using it against the kite boss though.
The PC Engine mode gives you a five hit power bar indicated by the fair-sized ''5'' in the corner of the screen. Predictably, the number will decrease to numbers like ''4'' and ''3'' as you continue to take hits.
Taking hits won’t happen too often though. Playing on this mode allows you to make short work of Ninja Spirit; all in a day’s work, to be clearer. It’s better to attack the Arcade Mode right away, as it only allows you the one hit before you perish (now this is the Irem I know!). The difference in modes of play is a huge one. I would only recommend playing this game on Arcade Mode. On PC Engine Mode, it’s just a matter of time before you just arrive at the end. You’ll brashly walk your way through it all, expecting Ninja Gaiden toughness and frustrating bits, and getting none of it.
There are great parts to Ninja Spirit though, that account for the score it received. It looks good, the bosses are immense and creatively conceived. There are gargantuan swordsmen, moving, crushing square rocks, flying tree spirits et al. The last level is particularly diabolical. You must fall down a pit of certain death, navigating your way through an airborne maze of ninja with swords thrust upward - a veritable living bed of spikes.
And of course, Ninja Spirit is aptly named for the spirits that Moonlight can bring about with blue power ups, up to a maximum of two. When the two translucent clones and Moonlight team up and perform their floaty, top-of-the-screen touching jumps (almost!), their three swords drawn, it is a thing of beauty and graceful violence.
The Song of Steel Blades
So the reason I play Ninja Spirit is to experience the most basic of side-scrollers with the most superlative of soundtracks. Never before have I heard such powerful, authentic, martial arts-inspired music. Revenge of Shinobi had tracks here and there that came close, but not this overwhelming, full-bodied richness and completeness. From the title screen to the ending screen, the tracks sounds thoroughly Japanese, and the orchestration is sublime. This music will stay in your head long after you power the system down, and Irem must have known how well it would go over, because they (thankfully!) included a nicely laid out sound test. They’ve made the extra effort to make sure every sound is refined. From Moonlight screaming as his heart stops, to the sound of multiple shurikens hitting their intended target, to the almost cursory tune in between levels - this is what you have ears for.
Regrettably, on an 'objective' level, great music cannot save any game. In the end, Ninja Spirit is a mundane platformer with little jumping that matters, enemies that don’t do much, and as such, it lacks much in the challenge and intensity departments. Playing it as a one hit wonder helps, but the game still lacks the depth of Ninja Gaiden 2, a game that made better use of Ninja Spirit’s clone ninjas that would seem to be its only real innovation. In the former game, the clones, or spirits, are actually essential in some boss battles, their placement to be successful, precise. Not so in Irem’s good-looking, beautiful-sounding walkthrough. Again, with the one-hit-wonder mode, (which to be fair, is how the game was meant to be played) things get a little more hairy, and that is welcome. But the need for better programming cannot be covered up by this move - it slows things down when you have to preserve that one hit, making the game almost Revenge of Shinobi-slow, but without all the fine ingredients to keep your interest.
Ninja Spirit is a great game and an excellent ninja game. It's certainly better than Shinobi, but falls short of Revenge of Shinobi's greatness, and pales beside Ninja Gaiden 2, which, do be fair, most games do. Still, you won't be too disappointed, and you'll be glad for the sounds you get to play by.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 29, 2003)
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