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I-Ninja (GameCube) artwork

I-Ninja (GameCube) review

"Even when the ninja falls down a pit, or collapses from exhaustion after a difficult fight where the enemies get in too many hits, it's difficult to turn off the game just because you know there's something cool waiting just around the corner. The game accomplishes this in a number of ways. First, it keeps things fresh with all the different objectives already discussed. And second, it has a power-up system that fits the game and becomes almost instantly addictive."

As I-Ninja opens, you'll witness a tiny ninja running past some villains in an effort to free his sensei. He finds the elderly man chained between two columns, hands spread wide. A few quick sword strokes and the sensei is freed, but a giant, dragon-like creature attacks. The little ninja quickly hops up and drives his sword into the beast's head, driving forth a powerful jewel. As the sensei shouts not to touch it, the ninja ignores the warning and snags the gem. From there, he careens wildly about the arena, and in the end the poor sensei loses his head. Literally. As a spirit, the rather patient old guy directs the little ninja on how he can become powerful enough to put down the world's evil.

And of course, this is where you get to play. From the minute the ninja is placed in your hand, you'll find that there are many cool moves at your disposal, and a host of tiny flaws that prevent you from enjoying the game so fully as you might have otherwise. I-Ninja is a polished teakettle that sat out on the stove too long. While it's easy to see the glowing majority, it's the blackened underside that may leave you shopping for a better title.

The first flaw worth mentioning is the play control. At first, you'll likely play the game and think I smoked some exotic herbs. The little fellow moves quickly about the hub between stages. Pressing the 'A' button will cause him to hop, while pressing it again gives him the famed double jump. When in the air, he can then press the 'X' button to twirl his sword overhead and slow his descent. If he jumps straight toward certain walls, he can start running up them, and will handplant at the top if the wall is low enough. Or maybe there's a wall to his side. He can hop to the wall, then run along it to cross wide gaps. Another move worth mentioning is his ability to build speed by running up halfpipes. Oh, and he can grind if he touches railings.

There are these moves and others, and they pertain strictly to his ability to navigate the stage in general. The problem is that a lot of the time, he'll come to an area where a precise move is required, and he might veer slightly off course for no apparent reason. Or he'll be dashing up a wall and stop just short of its top before plummeting back down to the wall's base. Such moments can be frustrating at the best of times, and lethal to your enjoyment when you have a time-based objective (such as beating a burning fuse to a stack of dynamite).

Besides the moves I detailed above, the little fellow also has some that are limited to battle. During a fight, pressing the 'B' button and a direction will cause him to stab as directed, while pressing 'X' will allow him to spin his sword in a quick circle. He melts readily enough from one move to the next, which is important thanks to the fact that if you're fighting, it's usually in a melee sort of capacity. The game knows this, and rewards you for creative use of the sword. A good strategy often is to dash directly to battle, stab a guy head on, then turn quickly to surprise the guy who is rushing you from the side. As that guy reels and brings up his guard, the ninja can swiftly hop into the air, turn, then bring his sword down on a third opponent, splitting the fiend in half. Thanks to this system, battles never grow old.

In fact, you may wish they occurred more often than they do. That's because I-Ninja relies more on puzzles and irritating mini-games than it does on the pure action you might expect based on the genre. Level objectives can vary wildly. While there are stages where you just kick butt as you work your way to the end, variations of that occur far more frequently. For example, many stages rely on your ability to maneuver giant balls. In one stage, the ninja might have to roll about the area on a barrel of gunpowder, so that he can blast open a lock at the end. Throughout, he must avoid flames and explosives and long drops, or he'll die instantly and have to go back to the start of the course.

While you are in control of a ball, or riding a barrel, or whatever the case, it seems like play control goes out the window. The barrel wants to roll every which way, and you'll have to balance carefully in order to avoid frustrating deaths. The courses are fiendishly designed, meaning that even the earliest of these courses is likely to exasperate you.

Besides play control that can't decide whether it wants to be excellent or horrific, the game also suffers from infrequent camera issues. While it's true that you'll have little difficulty seeing the corridors ahead of you the majority of the time, trouble begins whenever the camera settles slightly off the beaten path. In one stage, you must follow a twisting hallway while avoiding robot sentries. As you duck in recesses and work along the hallway, you'll eventually find yourself battling the camera as it starts stuttering, hung up on the corner. Fortunately, such moments don't happen so often as they would in other games. Most of the time, the view swoops around you precisely where it should. It's usually only the looping hallways that provide any difficulty.

So the controls are an enigma, the camera mostly works, and there are too many breaks in the action that leave you spinning around on balls. Doesn't sound particularly stunning, does it? But there are more marks in the game's favor.

I already mentioned the ball-rolling areas, but there are other breaks from the action that work a lot better. Sometimes, you'll enter a stage and find that it's like a mini-game. An example is one stage where you take control of a gun turret and prevent enemy ships from reaching the shore. Other games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker have presented similar designs, but I-Ninja takes that much further and adds score multipliers. Then there are boss battles, which differ significantly from one another. In the first stage, you'll pilot a giant mech as it boxes another machine out in the water. In the second, you'll pilot a submarine as you fire torpedoes at a robotic fish. And so it goes. The amount of variety in this game means you never know just what to expect.

That extends to the dialogue between characters. While it's true that you're jerked around the island in what is a somewhat cliche storyline, the bantering between characters can sometimes catch you off guard. It's clear that the ninja and his deceased sensei share a very special relationship, and the tiny touches of humor throughout will keep you amused where a more average script would have failed.

A lot of this is thanks to the game's sound department. The characters speak to one another in digitized voices that are as cliche as they come, which somehow makes the lines all the more amusing. It's like the developers wanted to spoof all those kung fu movies from the 70s. Even when you're not listening to voices, the game constantly produces pleasing sound effects that add a lot to the general mood. Not only that, but you can hear it coming out of your surround sound system if you have the set-up. Very nice.

Visually, the game also has it going on. The little ninja moves as fluidly as water pouring from a hole in a vase of flowers. He looks very much alive as he goes through his very wide range of movements. It's almost as much fun to watch someone playing the game as it is to play it yourself. His enemies also are well-animated, so battles frequently resemble slightly violent cartoons. More impressive than the characters themselves, however, are the environments Argonaut throws at the player. Rather than painting a generic world with trees, cliffs, oceans, and skies, the team of artists crumpled that up into a ball, then tossed it onto the disk. The result is a uniquely artistic design that somehow manages to perfectly straddle the line between edgy and cute.

None of the above would matter, though, if the game weren't fun to play. And it is fun. Even when the ninja falls down a pit, or collapses from exhaustion after a difficult fight where the enemies get in too many hits, it's difficult to turn off the game just because you know there's something cool waiting just around the corner. The game accomplishes this in a number of ways. First, it keeps things fresh with all the different objectives already discussed. And second, it has a power-up system that fits the game and becomes almost instantly addictive. Play through a stage and a window near the top of the screen keeps track of your score. When you reach the end of a stage, you'll gain an icon and your score will be converted to skill points. Each time you get 100 skill points, your sword is upgraded and you can do more damage while remaining limber. The icons are also important, as you must get several of them to improve the color of your belt. You'll spend the time doing that because color-coded doors can only be entered when your character's belt has reached the appropriate level. Even after you've completed one 'world' and moved onto the next, it's fun to re-visit older ones because new objectives might be available that allow you to power up your ninja.

In the end, its flaws and strengths add up to mean that I-Ninja is a surprisingly fun game that most people haven't heard of. It's certainly not the best platformer in existence, but it does a better than average job at everything it attempts. If you're heading to Blockbuster to rent a game, see if they have this one. Or if you see it in the bargain bin, snatch it up immediately. I-Ninja is a keeper.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 03, 2004)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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