The Ninja Warriors (ニンジャウォーリアーズ) - Arcade, PC Engine, Mega CD, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, Wii (1988)
Sometime back in 1987, the suits at Taito had a brilliant idea - what if they took three arcade monitors and stuck them together, creating some kind of super widescreen cabinet? Surely that must mean that any games they made for it would be three times as awesome! One of these games was Darius, a mediocre shooter with an interesting hook (it had flying fish) which eventually grew out of its gimmickry and matured into a respectable series. There was also Rastan Saga Episode 3, which was nothing like the first Rastan and (thankfully) also completely unrelated to Rastan Saga 2. Somewhere in between there was The Ninja Warriors.
In Ninja Warriors, two players can take on the roles of two ninja robots - a red female and a blue male. You walk forward and hit stuff, and that's pretty much it. It's basically a beat-em-up like Double Dragon, except you can't move up and down into the scenery, so every practically every stage is one big, long, flat line. At one point, there are some stairs to climb, and that's about as exciting as it gets. You have two attacks - you can either swipe bad guys with your painfully short kunais (knives) or toss shurikens, which are actually weaker and in limited supply. Most standard enemies die in one or two hits, but there are several stronger foes, such as oni masked warriors and claw wielding hunchbacks that cause trouble. You can also block incoming bullets and attacks by holding down the Attack button. At one point in the second level, you need to take down a tank with just your scant arsenal - which would be cool, if you didn't have to fight the same tank several times throughout the game. Since there are only two buttons, you need to press Up on the joystick to jump, although seeing as there are no platforms anywhere, you only use this to dodge fire. Your own special move is executed by holding Attack and pressing Up, which will cause you to somersault through enemies attacks.
So there isn't really much to Ninja Warriors. It's slow and bland, and a wider variety of moves and/or a fasted speed would've done wonders to make the action more exciting. As it stands, the only aspects particularly noteworthy are the graphics. Discounting the three monitor view (which admittedly loses its impact when playing on an emulator), there's a couple of pretty nice background details here and there, particularly the graffiti in the first stage, and some of the goofy Engrish painted throughout. (I love the Hamburger Bar, personally.) It still repeats too often to be notable though. Your characters are pretty large and animated smoothly, although their walking animation is merely a light saunter, as if your ninjas aren't interested in the game they're in. The main theme music, a catchy bit called "Daddy Mulk", features some strange robotic synth voices that easily identify the game as a product of the 80s. The rest of the soundtrack is unfortunately pretty forgettable.
Since the ninjas are technically robots, they take battle damage, which is the other interesting aspect of Ninja Warriors. If you take too many blows to the head, your mask and face peel away to reveal a cyborg skull similar to The Terminator. If your chest gets banged up, your mechanical chassis is left exposed. And when you run out of life completely, you fall to your knees and explode. This all actually ties into the plot - apparently, the president of your nation, some guy named Banglar, is corrupt, and a group of terrorists led by a guy named Mulk has sent the ninjas into the assassinate him. When you reach the final stage and corner your target, a bomb hidden inside your ninja causes it to self destruct, taking down the entire mansion. Your quest is revealed to be a suicide mission, one of which has slightly unsettling overtones about the justification of terrorism.
Strangely, the plot isn't really detailed in the arcade version - the intro just shows a black and white picture of an assembly hall full of soldiers. The ending spells out the story, spoken in English and filled with spelling errors. When ported to the home consoles - the PC Engine and Mega CD - this intro actually has text.
Naturally, Ninja Warriors' big triple screen gimmick won't carry over to the home system, so what's left is hardly impressive. The PC Engine version takes a bit of a visual hit, and loses a lot of the background detail, making the levels even more repetitive. Getting killed will also send you back to the beginning of the stage, and you have severely limited credits.
The Mega CD version releases a few years later fares better, with graphics that are more faithful than the PC Engine version. You can continue where you left off when you die, although you only have three credits. Included as redbook audio on the CD are perfect recordings of the arcade soundtrack, as well as a completely rearranged version. There are a few difficulty settings, as well as the ability to set the Jump command to an additional button. So while the gameplay still isn't great, the Mega CD is definitely the best of the ports.
Finally, there's an option on the menu screen that reads Zuntata. This is an extremely tongue-in-cheek cinema scene featuring still photos of the Zuntata crew dressed up in costumes and injecting themselves into the game's plot. The story begins in a board room, where the terrorists are considering their their plans to overthrow the government. One character heads out to a bar to meet up with someone, and he finds them dead, with the initial ZTT written in blood. (ZTT are the initials for Zuntata.) He finds these initials in the neon lights of a club, where he sits down and watches Zuntata put on a concert, which consists of more cheesy still photos set to the music of the first stage. This music somehow inspires the hero to create the ninja robots to kill the president, setting in motion the plot to the game. The whole thing is narrated (terribly) in English with Japanese subtitles. It's actually really amazing that Taito would let their musical team waste time and money to put together something this ridiculous, but at least it's a unique extra.
Although neither of these console ports made it outside of Japan, Ninja Warriors was ported to several home computers in the late 80s, closer to its arcade release. The Commodore 64 version is actually pretty decent for the hardware, and the Atari ST and Amiga versions come fairly close to the original version, at least moreso than the PC Engine version. Both of the console versions are somewhat letterboxed to retain the feel of the original, but it's even more squished in the computer releases.
The title of this game is confusing - it's simply called The Ninja Warriors in Western territories, which seems to suggest that it's a port. But it's known as The Ninja Warriors Again in Japan, suggesting that it's something of a remake or a sequel. This SNES installments takes many of the aspects of the original and completely overhauls them, resulting in a much, much, much better game.
The plot is essentially the same - ninjas beat up bad guys to take down an oppressive regime - although this time there are three robots, each with different capabilities. The Kunoichi is the most balanced character, wielding kunais and possessing both average speed and strength. The Ninja is a huge, hulking beast, with powerful brute force attacks dealt out with his fists and nunchakus, as well as a speed dash in place of his jumps. The Kamiatachi, brand new to this installment, doesn't even try to hide its robotic appearances, and attacks with extendable blades on its arms.
The basic gameplay is pretty much the same, although the shuriken attacks have been completely removed. Movement is restricted to a single place, and while there's more variation in the stages than its predecessor, most levels are pretty much just a straight line to the end. But the fighting has been drastically improved. There are now finishing moves executed after landing a few strikes, similar to Final Fight. You can grab enemies and either slam them into the ground or ram them into other enemies, which is extremely important for crowd control purposes. There are occasionally items, like huge safes and motorcycles, which can be picked up and lobbed at other bad guys. Both of these moves are quite useful, because you're invincible while throwing anything. Like the original, you can still block, which is required for beating many of the boss encounters. Finally, there's an extra power meter that slowly builds up over time - when it hits maximum, it can unleash an explosion which damages everything on the screen. However, being knocked to the ground drains it completely, so you can't depend on it too much.
With all of these improvements, this installment of The Ninja Warriors is far better than its predecessor. Given that it was designed specifically for the home consoles, it's also quite a bit easier. Although you need to restart the area when you get killed, you have unlimited continues, and can even change between characters if you want. It's also quite a bit easier than the arcade version. Unfortunately, some of the cooler aspects have been lost - there's no longer any battle damage as you take hits (although you still explode when you're killed), and the game's only single player, which is a huge detriment for beat-em-up games. The music is pretty forgettable, and let's face it - the gigantic sprites were impressive back in 1987, but several years later on the SNES, where launch titles like Super Castlevania IV featured similarly styled characters, the graphics just aren't as overwhelming. Still, it's a fun beat-em-up - not to the levels of Final Fight 3, but better than the earlier Final Fights or any of the Rushing Beat trilogy (Rival Turf, The Peacekeepers, etc.)
Much like Final Fight, the original Super Famicom version had female enemies, which were replaced by claw-wielding freaks in the Western releases. There's also a small green splatter whenever you hit bad guys in the Japanese version, which is missing in all of the other versions.