Reviewed: January 13, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Namco is on a roll with more quality releases in the past few months than most companies see in an entire year. I-Ninja is their latest multi-platform offering and introduces what might quickly become their biggest and most loveable corporate mascot since Pac-Man.
The premise of I-Ninja is purposely generic to the point of being hilarious. The game is set in “The World”, an earth-like planet inhabited by Ninja Guardians that has been invaded by Master O-Dor’s evil army of robotic Ranx. The entire population of the planet has been imprisoned with the exception of Sensei and his prize student, Ninja.
In the opening movie Ninja encounters the first of several lost Rage Stones and in an unexpected act of rage accidentally kills his master. In true Obi-wan fashion, Sensei returns as a glowing apparition to council our hero throughout the rest of the game.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of I-Ninja is its diverse selection of gameplay. Imagine every type of action and platform game ever made combined into a single title and you just begin to scrape the surface of I-Ninja. Our mighty warrior can rail grind like Sonic or Vexx, he can run along walls and up vertical surfaces like Prince of Persia and he can helicopter glide with his samurai sword much like Rayman does with his ears.
The only thing more diverse than the way you play the game is the sheer originality of the level designs and the mission objectives. The game is divided into five environments, each with several doors leading to specific areas with multiple challenges based on Ninja’s current skill level determined by the color of his belt.
You will visit the same level two or even three times but the objective for each return trip is such that even though the level is the same the gameplay is totally different. On your first trip through a level you might have a primary goal such as retrieving a specific item. Along the way you can kill plenty of Ranx and collect hundreds of coins. Your next pass through the level might put you on a strict timer so you have to skip combat, or perhaps you will be quested to kill a certain amount of enemies or find a certain number of red coins. Sometimes you are on a time limit and other times you can explore for hours to find cleverly concealed coins, barrels, and power-ups.
Ninja is a nimble character with an impressive set of moves. He has an uppercut attack that allows him to juggle enemies and a downward smash that sends out a shockwave stunning nearby enemies. He has a sweeping attack to clear out a 360-degree arc and some impressive combo attacks that will leave his enemies cleaved in two neat halves that slowly peel apart. You can also chain your attacks for valuable combo bonus points.
Also at your disposal are blow darts and shurikens for ranged attacks and several special Ninja power modes. These power modes are some of the best parts of the game and allow you to invoke Ninja Berserker for a temporary burst of speed and extra damage, or Ninja Revive to heal yourself. Ninja Shuriken puts you on a giant throwing star that glides around the level slicing and dicing while I-Ninja is the ultimate Rage Ability unleashing the Iron Ninja.
Once unlocked, these four Rage Abilities can be activated whenever your rage meter is filled. This is done during combat by either doing damage or taking damage. You can execute any available Rage Ability whenever you wish, which adds a bit of strategy to the gameplay.
Ninja is not only a skilled warrior, but he also has several unique tricks for navigating the challenging level designs. He can run up short vertical walls or swing from a chain he shoots out much like Spider-man. He can also use this chain to make tight high-speed turns around several racetracks scattered about the levels. Ninja can also run along walls and bounce between opposing walls to reach new heights.
One of the most interesting twists is when Ninja flattens himself on a giant sphere and the game turns into a next-gen version of Marble Madness as you roll around the level, down chutes rolling over Ranx lined up like bowling pins, or navigating narrow beams and moving platforms.
You will need all of these skills and combat abilities to battle your way through all four islands, defeat their respective bosses, collect the Rage Stones, and make your way to the moon base for the final battle with Master O-Dor.
With the exception of the belt color restrictions, you are free to explore the game in any order you wish. You can even move on to other islands and return to earlier ones after you have earned the belt required to open locked doors. There are plenty of mini-games and challenges like operating a turret to defend the coastline from invading ships and zeppelins or special grind challenges. The boss battles are extremely creative like the first one that puts you inside a giant robot to duel another giant robot in a fisticuffs match complete with laser guided missiles.
There is even a bit of RPG tossed into the game design. Ninja earns new belt colors and more powerful swords as he kills more and more enemies and finishes each level. You can also earn plenty of coinage that can be given to Guardians in exchange for bonus missions.
Perhaps the single best element of I-Ninja is that the game is always changing so you have something unique and challenging to master, but as diverse as the gameplay is the level of fun is consistently high from start to finish. Some of the more challenging levels will have you playing and replaying them ten or more times but you never really get frustrated. A game that is fun even when you fail is the mark of a good game.
There is so much to like about the graphics in I-Ninja it’s hard to know where to begin, so we’ll start with the star of the show, Ninja. With his big round head and tiny body you’d swear this was Charlie Brown in a ninja costume but his quirky attitude and hyperactive antics reminded me of Beavis after a few cups of cappuccino. Even when Ninja is standing still you can just tell there is an explosion of energy waiting to be unleashed.
Rather than going for ultra-slick realism, the designers have opted for a comical style with exaggerated and simplistic designs. Even the Ranx look like evil clones of Marvin the Martian. Colors are rich and vibrant and everything has an overly saturated cartoon feel to it.
Each of the islands has a unique theme that remains consistent throughout all the sub-levels and mini-games. For instance, the coastal level has mini-games high on the cliff and another onboard a docked ship. Robot Beach has you recovering various missing parts of the giant robot lying on the beach then using that robot for the climactic boss battle.
The menus and progress screens are very nice and easy to read with intuitive icons. All available ranks for each mission are shown with completed ones filled in with gold. Your Katana slowly fills in with color as you kill more Ranx earning you a new blade when it fills up.
There are also plenty of Manga-style visuals embedded in the presentation. Whenever Ninja invokes a Rage Ability the background blurs by and the camera spins around our hero as he powers up. There are even some sub-boss battles that take place while suspended in space with streaking backgrounds whizzing by.
While all three versions of I-Ninja are fairly comparable in graphics quality, the PS2 version does exhibit some shimmering and jaggies. It's not horrible and it never takes away from the amazing gameplay but it is noticeable. The framerate also isn't quite as smooth as the Xbox or GameCube versions, again, nothing to deter from your overall enjoyment of the game.
Groovy, funky, upbeat, fun, are all words that would accurately describe the eclectic mix of music in I-Ninja. Each island has an underlying theme but the basic tempo is always there driving the frenzied action.
Sound effects in the game are comical and fit the visuals. Computers and machinery whir, giant robots sound like…err…giant robots, force fields hum, air jets whoosh, your chain jingles as you grapple hooks, you get the picture – everything is perfect. The Dolby Pro Logic II mix falls short of the quality of the Xbox sound but still does a good job of surrounding you in all these wonderful sounds and enhancing the visuals if you have the sound system to support it.
There is a surprising amount of speech in the game, mainly from Sensei giving you your assignment for each level, but Ninja also comes equipped with plenty of wisecracking one-liners that he dispenses in true Bruce Willis fashion as he slices and dices his way through countless hordes of Ranx. “My blade is cold…no?” is a particular favorite, and Ninja’s various throaty yells as he powers up is comical and even a bit scary.
I-Ninja offers a substantial and quite challenging gameplay experience. With five worlds and several levels on each that you can play multiple times, each with unique objectives there is a good 15-20 hours of gameplay. You can finish the game sooner but to get a ranking in all missions and play all the bonus stages and mini-games, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
Another nice feature is the ability to go back and replay any previously completed level to better your score or just have some fun. Some of the mini-games are so enjoyable you will play them just for the sake of playing them again.
Namco has reinvented the genre by mixing every type of platform game into one diverse and incredibly fun adventure. I-Ninja is easily one of the best platform titles of the year. I haven’t had this much fun since Vexx or perhaps Rayman. I-Ninja just oozes with a perfect blend of charm, humor, and visual quality that has been long overdue in a platform game. A definite must-own title.