The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors is not so much the third game in a series as the third attempt at the same game. The first go was in 1987 when Taito looked at its revolutionary Darius arcade cabinet – which used three monitors and two mirrors to fake a triple-wide screen – and decided it needed some ninjas. It created The Ninja Warriors, a side-scrolling beat-em-up with an '80s action-sci-fi vibe channelling The Terminator.
Round two came in 1994, when Natsume reinvented the game for the Super Famicom as The Ninja Warriors Again. And now, 25 years later, Natsume is back with this 3.0, in Japan titled The Ninja Warriors Once Again. Simply put, this is the best Ninja Warriors yet.
The story presents a crumbling dystopia in which an evil dictator has a grip on a “once great and opulent nation”. Fortunately, a rebel leader, Mulk, has unleashed some prototype robot ninjas to hunt him down. The scenario is lifted directly from the arcade original, giving The Ninja Saviors a retro '80s atmosphere that would otherwise be hard to pull off with any degree of sincerity. It’s set out in an intro that’s a shot-for-shot reproduction of Ninja Warriors on the SNES, but with artwork redrawn in beautiful detail. Suddenly, your chosen character smashes in from screen left, levelling a gang of soldiers: the game starts in style.
The gameplay is superficially similar to other beat-em-ups of the 16-bit era but soon shows its personality. The action, unlike Final Fight and Streets of Rage, happens on a single plane, so there’s no moving in and out of the scene, just left and right. This may sound like a limitation, but it opens the door for other distinguishing gameplay characteristics. For instance, the move-set and control scheme resemble a lightweight Street Fighter more than a simple brawler, based around blocking, special moves and busting out combos. It’s fairly detailed fighting for the genre, encouraging creativity and a very cool flow as you demolish your opponents. And those opponents come in droves. The single plane of play means everyone’s lined up for a smashing, with no way around your ninja. The grunts will fall in a single hit, but doing so may be a waste of a handy projectile, as they can be thrown at stronger enemies for some easy damage.
The graphics are gorgeous reworkings of the cheerily coloured 16-bit assets, from epic, deep, bombed-out beach-city backdrops to slick and graceful character animations with a hint of '80s camp-action fun. The sounds thump and grunt in all the right places and bring out the rhythm of the play. The music, meanwhile, trusts the brilliance of the previous games’ soundtracks and lets them do their thing on your Switch, while adding new tracks to the mix. Nothing like cracking skulls to Daddy Mulk, the 1987 synthesised shamisen anthem by Taito house band Zuntata.
Apart from bringing the classic up to date, Natsume Atari has created two extra playable characters, taking the total up to a robust five. These two are accessed after beating the game on normal and hard difficulties. The new guys fit in naturally around the profiles of the original SNES trio, but each also has a novelty element that makes them feel like a prize. They don’t exactly redefine the game, but that didn’t need doing, so they’re welcome.
A more revolutionary change is the addition of a two-player co-op mode. The one-plane playspace does its thing again here and lines everyone up in a row. The result is that both players are working the same crowds, rather than the more isolated fights that can happen in beat-em-ups that spread out on the z-axis. Two-player is a riot and ices the cake very nicely, but the one-player game is so strong that you won’t feel lonely with just the one ninja.
At this point, we should pick some nits. In 1994, this game was a bit easy. It still is. It’s very accessible, low-stress, smash-the-idiot-baddies fun, but it doesn’t challenge. Hard mode is better – and the final boss gets tricky – but it becomes apparent that if the game threw any more enemies at you or made them all tougher, it would soon get repetitive and dull the high-action, super-robot sheen. The difficulty is balanced right for this game; it just isn’t very hard.
The other little sigh that echoes from 1994 is a wish that there were more stages. There are only eight in total, and some are pretty short. A new stage – maybe an unlockable callback to the arcade game (with its superior ending!) – would have been brilliant. But being so good you want more is not the worst problem in a game.
In our review of Wild Guns Reloaded last year, we said Natsume Atari had set a new benchmark for Super Nintendo remakes. They’re working to the same standard here. This is the ultimate version of a game concept that has captivated since 1987: it’s nostalgia polished to gleaming.
You can never really go back – the game is still there, but the magic of that time mixes the memory up to something more intoxicating than it really was. Go back to the SNES Ninja Warriors now and it’s still fun, but it’s stuck in the square box of a 4:3 screen, the animation doesn’t stand out like it did and one-player-only looks weak alongside the other Final Fight tribute acts of the day. But when you see The Ninja Saviors, it’s somehow exactly what you remember: huge, lush backdrops, silky animation, and tight, mob-levelling ninja moves. It’s like being a kid again, and stands as yet another essential Switch release you really should own.
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