Developer: Beam Software
Released: February 1991
US Cartridge ID: NES-J7-USA
Genre: Action Adventure
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC3 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
The Last Ninja originally appeared on the Commodore 64 as The Last Ninja 2: Back with a Vengeance in 1988, the second installment of System 3’s hugely successful action-adventure trilogy. All three titles in the series became hits both critically and commercially when they were originally released, lauded for their fluid animation, highly detailed pseudo-3D graphics, and stellar musical scores considered by many to be the best of their generation. Beam Software’s NES rendition of The Last Ninja is a direct port of The Last Ninja Remix, a slightly reworked version of The Last Ninja 2 that featured a new soundtrack and tweaked graphics.
The Last Ninja picks up shortly after the story of the original game. Armakuni, the sole survivor of a ninjitsu clan, takes up the mantle of his master after defeating the evil shogunate leader, Kunitoki. While training with his disciples, Armakuni begins to glow and suddenly disappears. He finds himself in a strange room with completely unfamiliar objects, not realizing that he has been hurtled through time from twelfth century Japan to twentieth century New York. Sensing an evil that he hadn’t felt since his last fateful encounter with Kunitoki, he understands that he must prepare for the battle that awaits him.
The Last Ninja is a unique title, blending elements from both the beat ’em up and graphic adventure genres. Against an isometrically viewed landscape, Armakuni must fully arm himself in order to take on a plethora of New York’s most dedicated threats, including unhinged police officers, homeless men, and feral animals. While fending off these unprovoked assailants, the titular ninja must search out vital quest items and powerups, in addition to a key (or key card) that opens the way to the next stage. Each of the five stages (including Central Park, the city streets, a sewer system, an office building, and a mansion) contain between fifteen and twenty non-scrolling screens that must be thoroughly explored before taking on Kunitoki in the final battle.
The control scheme employed in The Last Ninja is unusual: in adapting the original joystick controls to the NES’ controller, the cardinal directions of the D-Pad move the ninja diagonally (much like the 45⁰ angle control option in Marble Madness). This takes some getting used to, but becomes comfortable in its adherence to the given perspective after some practice. The puzzles are rarely difficult to figure out providing Armakuni has the requisite item, but the controls make things trickier than they should be. The ninja must stand directly over an object to take it, though he won’t stoop down to grab it unless the character sprite is placed perfectly within the tiny predesignated area. Since obtainable objects are not highlighted against the background, it is easy to assume, because of the control’s inconsistencies, that an important item is something cannot be picked up. Hidden or locked exits do flash, however, when a screen initially loads, providing some welcome direction. Fighting is reliant more on luck than skill, since it is nigh impossible to line Armakuni up perfectly with his assailant like the game requires for a hit to register. While some weapons, namely the katana and the nunchakus, are more forgiving due to their extended range, most encounters require the player to flee if there is to be any hope of reaching the next stage intact. In the sewer stage, there are doors that, if entered, kill Armakuni outright with absolutely no warning. The perspective also causes significant issues with jumping, leading to a couple of “puzzles” (the river crossing in the first stage is a particularly egregious offender) requiring an extreme amount of trial and error; even after completing these areas, the correct method of progressing still makes little sense, and knowing the solution does little to make subsequent tries easier.
The Last Ninja‘s graphics, like its control scheme, will be very familiar to anyone who has played Tengen’s Marble Madness. The faux 3D perspective differentiates the game from most others on the NES, and though simplistic, imbues it with a lot of atmosphere that most games lack. The main character’s sprite is very smoothly animated, making jumps and attacks a joy to behold. The enemies are all well detailed, and though they lack variety, fit in well with their environments Though all of the backdrops are distinct, many graphical details are missing from the NES version, which is puzzling since the Commodore 64, as a gaming machine, lacked the hardware muscle of the NES. The same holds true for the sound: the excellent music from the original is gone, replaced with bizarre beeps, awkward pitch bends, and muffled samples of thwack and thunk sound effects.
Despite its crippling control issues, The Last Ninja is not a complete failure as a game. Though the adaptation is poor, the magic of the original game can still be glimpsed here on the rare occasions when everything functions as it should. The graphics, though somewhat barren, do provide a novel look at an idiosyncratic approach to graphic design, and the game’s slow pace allows it to be enjoyed without the fear of timer-related deaths. The Last Ninja is a game that tries to do something different, and while it succeeds, it stumbles so badly in its execution than many will pass it by, never understanding its appeal.
|The Last Ninja