Back in its heyday, Super Mario Maker was notorious for the proliferation of ‘Kaizo’ stages in its community; these were hyper-difficult platforming gauntlets that required dozens if not hundreds of tries and usually had only one successful route to completion, eliminating any margin for error. Games such as Super Meat Boy and Celeste have also exemplified this hyper-difficulty in their level designs, incentivizing the player to continually build up their skills through repeated deaths as they attempt to overcome the increasingly more ridiculous trials ahead. Super Hyperactive Ninja, a new action platformer on the Switch eShop, aims to follow in this lineage of difficult platforming, but rather than presenting a fair and worthy challenge that only befits the most skilled players, it ends up falling short, resulting in a forgettable (though not entirely flawed) experience.
Super Hyperactive Ninja starts out with a Mega Man-esque intro that introduces the villain, a powerful and evil shogun hellbent on ruling the world. The shogun destroys the ninja village to remove any threat of resistance and seizes the Legendary Coffee, which grants unlimited power to the one who drinks it. You play as the last of the coffee-nin, Kohimaru, who sets out on a mission to save the world and his friends from the shogun’s terrible reign. Although one doesn’t expect a quality story in an action platformer, Super Hyperactive Ninja still manages to disappoint somewhat from this perspective. The coffee theme could feasibly be taken in plenty of interesting and cool directions, but instead, your ninja faces a bog-standard collection of generic evil ninja and monsters, which feels like a missed opportunity for a much more memorable adventure. As it stands, the premise of Super Hyperactive Ninja is satisfactory, but it could’ve been so much more given the potential of the premise, making it feel somewhat lazy right off the bat.
Gameplay could be most closely described as a mixture of Sonic the Hedgehog and Ninja Gaiden, focusing on guiding your ninja through a series of platforming gauntlets as fast as possible. Like most modern humans, your ninja is kept alive by a near-constant supply of caffeinated coffee — which can be found in generous supply throughout each level — and your level of consciousness is represented by a health bar at the top of the screen which is constantly emptying. Holding down the ‘ZR’ button causes your ninja to enter Hyperactive Mode, which causes them to run forward uncontrollably, lets them jump up walls, and gives them the chance to dispatch enemies if you run at them from behind. Levels are primarily designed around Hyperactive Mode, but a balance must be found, as staying in Hyperactive Mode causes your caffeine supply to deplete even faster.
Although this central mechanic of Hyperactive Mode is interesting on its own, Super Hyperactive Ninja does a poor job of implementing it well, making for a wildly uneven and needlessly difficult experience that’s light on the rewards and heavy on the punishment. If your ninja takes any damage or touches any stage hazard they’re instantly killed, and you have to start over from the closest checkpoint; there’s no room for error whatsoever. This is a fine concept on its own, but the level design loves to throw plenty of cheap enemy and obstacle placements at you, making for an experience that becomes more focused on trial and error than it does raw skill.
For example, levels are typically designed around you toggling back and forth between the normal and Hyperactive modes, but exiting hyperactive mode leaves your ninja defenceless as they take a moment to catch their breath. If you happen to be barreling towards an enemy and they turn to face you, there’s nothing you can do; either you run into the enemy and die, or you stop and watch as the enemy dispatches your helpless, wheezing ninja. The windows of time for reacting to moments like this are minuscule in many instances, all but necessitating repeated attempts until you eventually eke out a victory.
Now, Celeste did this too, but the reason this game fails where that game succeeded can be found in its poor controls. Super Hyperactive Ninja is unwieldy and imprecise, making for poor moment-to-moment gameplay that’s very stop-and-go in its nature. When walking, your ninja controls relatively responsively, with tight turns and jumps being easy to pull off. Engaging Hyperactive Mode, however, throws all this out the window, speeding up the ninja to a ridiculous degree and making them very difficult to control. The level design, though focused around Hyperactive Mode, doesn’t account for this loose level of control, and many segments feel far too crowded as a result; simply put, you don’t have adequate time to respond to the obstacles being thrown at you.
This is further exacerbated by the introduction of additional characters, each with abilities and stats of their own. There are several characters on offer; one can run on water while another can put out fire with ice breath, and each has different speed levels and recovery times. Though the variation in character stats would be a nice way of allowing players to try out different playstyles, level designs often necessitate the use of a specific character, making the earlier ones feel basically useless outside of a few circumstances.
From a presentation perspective, Super Hyperactive Ninja is rather inconsistent; ho-hum visuals are accompanied by a surprisingly fantastic chiptune soundtrack. Stages are devoid of detail or life, with each one having the same boring ‘oriental tower’ theme to it that’s marginally changed every world when the background gets palette swapped. Characters are animated nicely, but their uninspired designs and the boring environments bring absolutely nothing unique to the table, making no effort to step outside of well-worn tropes.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, features a diverse and exciting array of great 8-bit chiptune tracks that match the fast-paced action well, while imbuing it with some much-needed excitement. Although the music feels a little out of place thematically, it acts as a great backdrop to the gameplay, and there are several catchy tracks that’ll stick around in your head for a while after playing. Indeed, the soundtrack is by far the best thing that Super Hyperactive Ninja has to offer, and while it doesn’t justify the cost of entry, those of you that pick this game up will be pleased by what you hear.
In terms of replayability, Super Hyperactive Ninja has a fair bit of content on offer, with about a five-hour long campaign that’s bolstered by a grading system which pushes you to go back and perform better on earlier stages to earn a higher rank. There’s also an in-game achievement system which encourages you to play the game in unconventional or challenging ways to unlock everything, so the few completionists who are swayed by the gameplay will find plenty here to keep them coming back.
Super Hyperactive Ninja is a great example of what happens when good concepts meet bad implementation; the coffee theme and Hyperactive Mode are both interesting things that could have potential if explored properly, but Super Hyperactive Ninja doesn’t do so. Cheap level design, uninspired visuals, and poor controls make this a game that’s difficult to recommend, but moments of enjoyable gameplay can still be found for those who look hard enough. Even so, there’s no shortage of excellent platformers on the eShop at the moment, so you’d be best served passing on this one. If you’re looking for a challenging, retro-inspired side scrolling ninja game, go play The Messenger instead.