Review: Last Ninja 3 (C64)

Epic fail...

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that we have revised this review in light of the game-breaking bug which prevents the player from progressing beyond level one in the game. We raised this with Commodore Gaming at the time of release and was assured that a patch would be made available ASAP. As this patch is still not available we did the honourable thing and revised the review to make it completely accurate. We apologise for any confusion caused. – Ed.

The third in the Last Ninja series sees you as Armakuni, the Last Ninja. He is drawn again into a battle with evil Shogun Kunitoki.

Last Ninja 2 is one of the best games ever released on the Commodore 64, taking the absurdly successful formula of the original and applying a number of improvements across the board. It was inevitable that there would be another entry in the series, but the pressure to impress was even greater the third time around. And yet the talented bods at System 3 managed it.

The most immediate improvement is in the visuals. Last Ninja 3 opens with an impressive and moody animated introductory sequence, the kind of thing we take for granted nowadays, but quite uncommon on the tape-loading C64. The game itself more than lives up to this opening, with detailed sprites, intricate environments and sumptuous colours throughout, the result of a new graphics engine built from the ground up for this installment. Instead of the singular environments of previous games, this entry has an elemental theme which allows for distinct and effective level designs; you can almost feel the heat of the furnaces and magma of the fire level, and the final stage, set in a strange otherworldly void, is particularly evocative in its cosmic weirdness.

The sound also impresses, with a number of good tunes and strong use of the C64's famous SID chip. The compositions are perhaps not quite as strong as in previous games in the series, but nonetheless, there is plenty of good music in the game, and the C64's sound technology remains ahead of its time. We reviewers can sometimes come across as a broken record when talking about the Commodore's superior sound capabilities, but it really is that good.

The gameplay also receives some minor but significant tweaks. The complexity of the puzzles is boosted a little, with some items needing to be combined in order to be useful, and others not revealing their utility until a later level. These are not exactly brain-numbing in difficulty, but they do lift the game above the level of a simple button-masher. Similarly, the Bushido system introduced with this installment adds some depth and variety to the frequent combat; while it is still possible to flee from or overpower your enemies, you miss out on certain benefits if you do, and furthermore, the boss fights become considerably more difficult when Bushido runs low. There even seems to have been a slight fixing of the occasionally fiddly Last Ninja control scheme, and Armakuni is a touch more responsive this time around, although parts of the game (most notable changing direction) are still not best suited to a control pad; as with the earlier games, it may be wise to break out a Gamecube controller for this one.

This is truly one of the best Commodore 64 games in that machine's venerable history, and it stands proud amongst other Virtual Console offerings, even from more powerful systems. Or at least it should. The reason why it does not is because the Virtual Console emulation is marred by a particularly egregious bug which prevents progress beyond the first stage, dumping the player into what looks suspiciously like the C64's native operating system, with no way of getting back into the game. Commodore are aware of this bug, and have been for the year or so since the game's initial release, but thus far it goes unfixed, and it is hard to believe that the producers care a jot for their audience, or for doing a proper job.

Conclusion

It is a terrible shame that one of the very best games of the 8-bit era is unveiled to a new, modern, audience in such a shoddy and incomplete state. Until it is fixed, if it is fixed, you should save your Wii points for something else, and not waste them on rewarding a lazy job.