To say that there’s no shortage of ninja-themed games on the Xbox Live Indie Game marketplace would be an understatement. Feudal Japanese assassins practically own the place. Avatar Ninja!, Avatar Ninja! 2, Sky Ninja War, Parasitus: Ninja Zero, Star Ninja, Ninja Stole My Bike, Ninja360°, Quantum Ninja, Ninja VS. Zombie, Castle Ninja, Junior Street Ninja, Ninja Escape, Ninja Chop!!, ARC Ninja Edition, Ninja Bros, Ninja Guardian and Ninja Train are only the games that are named “Ninja something”! Akane the Kunoichi doesn’t even carry the word in its title, as it stars one of the rare female members of the profession.
The first you’ll probably notice about Akane when browsing the marketplace are the heroine’s boobs, which are featured prominently on the cover. These days that’s the only way to catch any attention on XBLIG among the masses of mediocrity and piles of poop. The apparently predominantly Catholic conservative XBL community voted it 3 out of 3 for sexual content, but the title screen is already as racy as it ever gets. Akane and her rival still show a lot of cleavage in the game, but it’s all cutey-style from here on. Akane the Kunoichi is made by the folks who brought you Ace Gals Tennis, which used the same “sex on the package, cuteness in the game” sales strategy.
Pure 2D action platformers are one of the more dead genres. While the indie resurgence has brought back most classic forms of gaming, puzzle platformers like Braid or exploration-focused titles like Cave Story are all the rave in the community, with mindless jump- and slaughterfests locked away in a niche far away from the spotlight. Accordingly, little buzz was made around Akane, despite it being one of the best games on XBLIG.
Maybe it was also the silly story that chased people away, in which the supposedly most handsome stud of a samurai (you sure can’t tell from his sprite) is getting kidnapped by The Evil Bitch(tm). Akane, like every other woman in feudal Japan, has a crush on him, and so she starts her personal rescue mission. That’s it. But one doesn’t play retro games for their deep narrative (actually, it’s nice to see an indie game that knows to shut up for once), one plays them for… Charming Lost Kimonos! You read right, there’s three of them laying around in each level, and collecting all of them is the only way to see the True Ending, which is maybe 10 seconds longer than the bad one, for a total of no more than 20 seconds.
Before that, however, Akane has to jump and kill her way through 15 stages, and that’s the field where the game proves its worth, as both the mechanics and the level design are exceptionally tight. It might feel a bit slow-paced at first (though not as slow as Castlevania), and platforming veterans find themselves underchallenged in the early levels, but the difficulty curve is just steep enough to keep one going, and the last 2/5 are rewarding even for the most adept. Moving platforms, water currents and slippery grounds are composed into challenges that feel genuinely fresh and use all of the mechanics to their full effect, even though they use only standard elements that have been around since 8-bit times.
The focus is on the platforming, but Akane also has to fight hundreds of ninjas on her way. There’s no scoring system, so often she’s better off by just avoiding them, but that alone eventually gets more difficult than killing everyone. It might be a bit of-putting to hear that there are only four enemy types, but those generally fill all the important functions for sidescroller enemies, with the exception of obnoxious flying bats or birds. Good riddance to them, I say. Enemies are taken out by throwing kunais, but Akane can only fire them straight forward, unless they’re upgraded with spreadshot capabilities. Extras like that are hidden in Maneki Neko statues, but dispensed in rather tight rations. There are also three special ninja powers, which are limited to three uses per stage and fire dozens of kunais at once in different directions. Otherwise Akane’s abilities are rather limited, although she can and has to cling on walls to get up high obstacles with subsequent wall jumps.
Depending on aesthetic preferences, it may take a while to get over the cutesy graphics. The quality also betrays the low budget, but they’re still looking very good for an indie game. The huge bosses look great, only the animations make them look like they’re from an upscaled 8-bit game, which clashes a bit with the high resolution. What little assets the game has it makes great use of, though. Especially the way enemies bounce to the ground when it, accompanied by excellent sound effects, makes them seem to have real weight, and killing stuff thus manages to feel satisfying without resorting to gory effects. The way kunais bounce back from walls and then fall down is likewise a sight to behold, especially when applied in huge numbers. Backgrounds are only sparsely animated, but while they look somewhat dull on still images, the parallax scrolling is simply amazing. The music’s also pretty cool, but most tunes are a bit too calm for the genre, and sound more like something out of a stealth sequence in a spy thriller. Only the rocking boss and final level tracks really fit the mood. Aside from the melody played during the short intro sequence, the soundtrack also doesn’t really try to correspond to the oriental setting.
Final verdict: If you’re looking for a truly old-fashioned action platformer devoid of any forced ambitions for depth in the form of RPG or puzzle elements, you need to go no further than letter A on the Xbox Live Indie Game Marketplace. With 80 MS points, Akane the Kunoichi is on the cheapest pricing tier, too, which makes it easy to forgive its somewhat short length and lack of replay incentives aside from seven “Trophies”, that fill in for achievements (but most of them are easy to get just by playing through the game without caring, with the exception of the all kimonos and the no kunais one).