Critically acclaimed at the time, and still praiseworthy today, The Last Ninja sees you exploring several superbly detailed environments on your quest to defeat the evil Kunitoki. Picking up weapons along the way, you encounter a variety of enemies to despatch, puzzles to solve and the occasional trap to avoid.
Utilising an isometric flip screen display, you play the part of Armakuni as you seek to infiltrate the palace of the Shogun and wreak your revenge. A variety of weapons and items are at your disposal as you progress, sometimes helpfully glinting as you enter a screen in order to better spot them. Some weapons have a longer reach than others, and the shuriken can be thrown at an enemy from afar (resulting in an instant kill).
Combat is a bit hit and miss (pun intended), with weapons like the staff definitely giving you an edge. Fortunately there is never more than one enemy on screen, and his health is displayed, which is handy. Once an enemy is defeated he will never reappear, and inflicted damage is remembered if you exit the location. You will have to pick your battles to succeed, as fighting everything in the game is a sure way of running out of lives (even with the extra lives granted by finding apples).
Puzzles are generally simplistic, with an item collected in one place being used in another. Observation is of the utmost importance, with some items or their purpose not immediately obvious. There are also objects that are collected but not used until a later level – potentially forcing you to start the game again if you miss them.
The control system takes getting used to at first, but before long you are rushing around the levels with relative ease. Picking up items can take a couple of attempts, but it’s not really a problem. The one issue that does crop up is having to jump over small stepping stones in order to cross rivers (or quicksand). This can prove extremely frustrating as one false move results in losing a life (and since when can a Ninja not swim?!). The collision here also lets it down, with you sinking into the water when you are clearly on solid ground.
Each of the six levels is fairly short (ranging from 15 to 27 screens), but they still manage to convey a sense of size due to how thoroughly you need to explore them. It’s surprisingly easy to get lost, and drawing a map is definitely worth considering (do people still draw maps these days?). Each level also requires a lot of practice to master – something to bear in mind if you are short on patience.
In addition to the beautiful graphics, fluid animation and excellent presentation, there is also some terrific music (amongst the best the C64 has to offer) that accompanies your journey. The Last Ninja is not without its faults, but still provides a lot of entertainment and a decent challenge, provided you are willing to put the time in to see what it has to offer. Highly recommended, and hopefully we’ll be seeing the even better sequels before too long.