It is not uncommon for a game's critical appeal to far outweigh its selling power. Throughout the history of gaming there have been many cult hits that now go for ridiculous prices on the second hand market, EarthBound and the original Shantae being a couple of notorious examples. However, few games can boast the extreme rarity and universal acclaim of Ninja Cop. Widely touted as one of the best games in the GBA library, Ninja Cop (or Ninja Five-O as it's know in North America) has become an extremely sought-after collector's item since its release. And with good reason!
Ninja Cop is a side scrolling action game developed by Hudson Soft. You play as Joe Osugi, a specialist officer charged with taking down dangerous gangs that have been terrorising the neighbourhood. The start of the game sees you battling an assortment of fairly generic thugs, but soon you'll be up against some pretty bizarre foes (including a giant frog riding ninja).
The goal is to traverse each stage and locate the exit, defeating gang members and rescuing hostages along the way. Joe has a wide array of moves at his disposal, such as throwing stars, knife attacks and various special moves and power-ups, including a rather nifty laser gun. One feature that immediately stands out is the swinging mechanic, borrowed from Bionic Commando on the NES; using your trusty grappling hook, you must swoop around each stage. It's extremely good fun and immediately gives the game a different feel to similar side scrolling fare. The controls are highly responsive and very satisfying to master - after a while you'll be swinging, sliding and slashing your way through levels like a hot ninja through butter.
It's important to get to grips with all of these tools, as you're going to need every one of them. Enemies are pretty canny and will parry your attacks, hide behind crates, or even use a hostage as a human shield. Learning the best strategy to deal with each foe is key - run in all guns blazing and you won't last very long. Since enemies will only attack if you are in their direct line of sight the stealthy option is usually the best one. Health pick-ups are fairly scarce, too, so you're going to want to take out your adversaries as efficiently as possible. Collecting one of the weapon upgrades hidden throughout each stage will transform your humble Shuriken into a much more lethal fireball attack; two upgrades will nab you the aforementioned nifty laser beam. Taking damage causes your weapon to be downgraded again, so watch out! There's also a special meter which fills up with each kill. Maxing it out allows you to use a deadly special attack which obliterates every enemy on screen.
Levels are pretty non-linear, so you'll need to do some exploring - there are also several keys scattered across each stage that must be collected in order to progress. While there is a fair bit of backtracking involved, it never feels frustrating. Enemies don't re-spawn, for example, so most rooms are only tricky the first time around. The game pulls no punches, but it's more a test of patience than dexterity; success comes from learning the layout of each room and picking the most effective route. It's also wise to leave a few health pick-ups and upgrades behind in case they're needed later on.
All told the level design is very elegant, with a good balance of combat and platforming. Enemy placement is never unfair, and the non-linearity means you can choose when you want to tackle the more difficult segments.
The game consists of five missions in total, which take place in a variety of urban locations. Each mission is broken up into three stages with a boss fight at the end, where you must face off against one of the four nefarious ninja masters. These fights are a real highlight and mix up the action nicely; they're well thought out and can be quite challenging, especially if you haven't managed to carry over any power-ups from the previous level.
Thankfully lives are infinite, so you can take on each stage as many times as you like. The game also auto saves when a stage is completed, so you're never under too much pressure. One slightly irritating design choice is that your HP metre isn't fully replenished between stages, so if you finish with barely any health left the next section might be a bit of an uphill struggle.
Ninja Cop is quite short, and can be completed in 3 to 5 hours depending on your skill level, though there is a decent amount of replay value. There's a scoring system which ranks you on enemies killed, hostages rescued and so on. This gives a nice incentive for repeat runs; if high score chasing isn't your thing there's also a time trial mode. It's most certainly a fun game to blast through once in a while.
The graphics are serviceable, if a little bland. Scenery is detailed but fairly drab and - brilliant bosses aside - there's not a whole lot of creativity in the enemy design. This wouldn't be so bad if the main character wasn't so nondescript. The developers could have had a lot more fun with the idea of a ninja cop but instead went for something fairly generic. Without a unique protagonist the game does feel slightly lacking in identity, and this may have been one of the reasons it was overlooked by many on its initial release.
It's a shame Ninja Cop didn't receive a wider distribution as, minor gripes aside, it's a fantastic game with a well balanced difficulty curve and excellent level design - the unique blend of frantic rope swinging and clever combat still feels fresh today. If you're a fan of 16-bit action games or you're just looking for something cool to add to your GBA collection, Ninja Cop comes highly recommended.