Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16) review
"Herodotus writes that on the eve of battle with the Persian army, the Greek hero Dienekes was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that the mass of arrows, when they launched their volleys, blocked out the sun. Quite undaunted by this prospect, Dienekes responded: "Good. Then we shall have our battle in the shade." The boldness of Dienekes is shared by Moonlight, the hero of Ninja Spirit, though he faces more swords than arrows. His father murdered, Moonlight undertakes a missio..."
Herodotus writes that on the eve of battle with the Persian army, the Greek hero Dienekes was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that the mass of arrows, when they launched their volleys, blocked out the sun. Quite undaunted by this prospect, Dienekes responded: "Good. Then we shall have our battle in the shade." The boldness of Dienekes is shared by Moonlight, the hero of Ninja Spirit, though he faces more swords than arrows. His father murdered, Moonlight undertakes a mission of revenge that leads to him taking on a whole bunch of ninjas all by his lonesome.
(I had to rely on the internet to reveal the story of this game, as it's all in Japanese excepting the title screen and the piercing death screams, which are the same in every language.)
Ninja Spirit is a fairly straightforward side-scrolling action game. From the beginning of the game, Moonlight has four weapons among which he can choose. Each is lethal--the basic sword; the shurikens and kusari-gama (sickle and weighted chain), each of which can be thrown in all eight compass directions; and finally the bomb. Better yet, powerups obtained during the course of the action power up each weapon to its full form. For instance, Moonlight's ordinary sword slash is a mere upward slash (though the ninjas who fall before it would contest my use of "mere"). The powered-up sword unleashes angry rings of blue fire as it sweeps through the air, creating a lethal shield of energy that can block enemy bullets and knives. Moonlight's also capable of crawling along the ceiling if the going is tough on the ground, a handy tool at times.
The signature gameplay feature, however, is the presence of "ninja spirits". Some powerups give Moonlight a spirit ally, another pale, translucent spirit who follows mirrors everything Moonlight does. The spirits can't be hurt but their weapons are just as lethal as Moonlight's, and up to two mirror spirits can be acquired. So although Moonlight's fighting as a lone wolf, at times he will have the destructive force of three ninjas with powered up weapons – that means three sweeping walls of blue fire with each slash of a sword, or almost-Persian volleys of nine shurikens. The huge array of weapons and abilities available to Moonlight is the strongest aspect of the gameplay.
The seven levels and bosses are not as memorable. Take the third level. Even after completing the level, it's tough to say where you've just been – there's a few twisted trees and boulders to be seen, but this could be anywhere from a parched desert to an arctic tundra. At the end you'll face a giant ninja with a huge sword, dressed all in gray, but though fearsome looking Moonlight will crush him if at all powered up. There's simply nothing to make this level stand out. The third is the worst level in this sense, but the others share the flaw. Take level two, the forest stage; though there is plenty of jumping around on branches to be done, it doesn't contribute much to the challenge or thrill of playing; moving through the trees is only necessary to get enough height to make it over two high walls. So much more could have been done to make the interwoven branches, dappled in the moonlight, a soaring and vibrant test of Moonlight's skills, but it's not there. You'll long remember the hero and his skills, but his specific travels and exploits – the environments and signature enemies of Ninja Spirit – will soon escape you.
The graphics, as suggested above, are often drab despite the TG16's relatively high degree of power. The music is top-notch, though, and if anything does more to set the scene than the visuals. In moments where the action is repetitive, upbeat tunes drive the game forward. And don't let me mislead you – it should be noted in all this that the game certainly isn't boring, because every level features the rush of oncoming ninjas, wolves, giants, you name it, that must be dealt with. But because every level seems to rely for challenge mostly on overwhelming you with enemies, none stands out from the pack, and the game lacks the singular moments of passion that cause it to reside in memory for years afterward.
Looking at Ninja Spirit's brethren, the most obvious analogy is with the Ninja Gaiden series. Spirit does not benefit from this comparison. Though the sensory pleasures of this title rival those of any competitor of the time, the Gaiden games (at least I and II) are substantially more complete and enthralling than Spirit. First, Gaiden possessed a complexity and rigor of level design that Spirit cannot offer, because it combined challenging enemies with difficult terrain. 95% of the difficulty of Ninja Spirit derives from the waves of enemies coming from above, below, and both sides; for most of the game, Moonlight's footing at least is on steady ground. But much of the thrill of the side-scrolling action genre is to combine challenging enemy assaults with challenging platforming action. This game doesn’t really offer much in the second department, and thus isn't as memorably challenging as the Gaiden games.
Though beautiful, in the end Ninja Spirit doesn't fully capitalize on many of its strongest innovations. Nevertheless, to bring out its faults one must compare it to Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II; like a basketball player who only looks bad next to Michael Jordan, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Spirit is loaded with strong features and executed without error, and though it potentially missed out on a chance to top "greatest game" lists, it is still an excellent title and strongly recommended.
Community review by denouement (October 07, 2005)
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