In 2012, Klei Entertainment (which would later go on to produce Don’t Starve) debuted Mark of the Ninja on the Xbox Live Arcade, introducing a bold 2D take on the stealth genre. Boasting gorgeous hand-drawn visuals and tight, open-ended gameplay, this new platformer quickly developed a reputation for its quality, cementing it as a cult classic and a genre standout. Now, six years later, Klei has brought Mark of the Ninja: Remastered to the Switch, promising all the content of the Special Edition along with a few other improvements. It turns out that time has been extremely kind to this game; Mark of the Ninja still stands as one of the best stealth games ever made, and now it looks and sounds better than ever.
Mark of the Ninja follows the story of a nameless ninja—sometimes referred to as “The Champion”—on a quest with his fellow ninja, Ora, to slay the evil Count Karajan for attacking the Hisomu clan with his private military group. While Ora remains a normal (albeit badass) ninja, the protagonist has received the eponymous Mark of the Ninja, a tattoo which grants the wearer superhuman reflexes and senses, but eventually drives them mad. As the plot progresses and the protagonist becomes more unhinged, the lines begin to blur in more ways than one as alliances are called into question and friends become foes.
It may not be a terribly emotional plot, but it's certainly engaging and well-paced, with much of this being due to the excellent voice work and cutscenes. Each stage is bookended by a brief fifteen to thirty second voiced cutscene that echoes the art style of Samurai Jack, and these go a long way towards setting the tone and getting you accustomed to the cast of characters. Even so, there’s plenty of dialogue laid into each level as well, with Ora being frequently used as a convenient device for conveying exposition and light tutorializing. It all meshes together quite well, making for an experience that’ll have you eager to play that next level to see what happens next, and that’s before we even get to the stellar gameplay.
Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game through and through, playing the tropes straight in a way that encourages experimentation, creativity, quick reflexes, and quite a bit of planning. Each level is laid out in a relatively non-linear way, giving the players ample choice in exactly how they’d like to approach the solution to a problem. You can choose to kill all the guards in a room, let them all live, or bypass the room entirely in favor of taking an alternate route, and each one of these ways is equally viable. There are some real consequences to player choice, too, with some surprising outcomes happening in what should’ve otherwise been a straightforward plan.
For example, one mission saw us having to steal an item off a guard, and we were given the choice of killing him or just pickpocketing the item. Not seeing a difference, we chose to kill him for the extra points, but it turned out that he was wearing a heartbeat monitor which alerted the whole complex to the presence of an intruder. It’s moments like these which show how well Klei has mastered the design of a stealth game, with the overall pace oscillating wildly between calm and chaotic at the drop of a hat. One minute everything goes according to plan and then something goes wrong, demanding that you think fast on your feet to find a new solution. Knowing this, there’s always a tense air to every action you make, making each kill and narrow escape a thrilling experience.
Every level is designed with unique mechanics in mind, organically introducing the concept to the player and then building upon it as the level progresses and becomes more difficult. One memorable level has you infiltrating an enormous castle during a thunderstorm, with the occasional flashes of lightning giving away your position if you’re not hidden properly. Another features poisonous gas and moving crates that can be manoeuvred around as they proceed on their track. There aren't very many puzzles in the traditional gaming sense, but rather, the whole game is a sort of puzzle, handing the player all the tools they need and letting them figure out a solution.
Unlike many other stealth games, Mark of the Ninja doesn’t hide many of its mechanics from the player, meaning that every mistake made rests purely on you. For example, every guard has a cone of vision depicting exactly how far they can see, giving you the chance to pick out blind spots and plan your route. Alternatively, your ninja can’t see through walls, so if you happen to be standing on a solid ceiling with a guard below you, the sound of his pacing footsteps is represented by a series of small rings moving across the floor. It’s having access to all this information that makes Mark of the Ninja such a joy to play, as each victory or defeat feels entirely earned.
Your ninja’s success will depend considerably on the usage of gadgets, which help add a considerable amount of depth to each encounter and give the player greater agency in how they approach them. You have an endless supply of bamboo darts—perfect for knocking out lights and fuse boxes—but your arsenal also consists of flares, firecrackers, spike traps, carnivorous insects and more. Each of these has distinct advantages and disadvantages, favoring a variety of playstyles, and this can make subsequent runs through levels more interesting as you try out different toolsets. Moreover, costumes with different playstyles, new takedown techniques, gadgets, and gadget upgrades can all be bought on an occasionally available upgrade screen.
Player performance is judged in myriad ways throughout each level, with a handful of platforming challenges, collectables, and optional sub-objectives all deciding how many Seals you’re given to buy upgrades with. The sprawling stages are filled with all sorts of nooks and crannies along the routes, and some of these are sure to contain scrolls which help fill out more of the Hisomu clan’s history. Some of these scrolls aren’t simply handed to you, instead tasking you with going through a difficult, isolated platforming stage that usually stands well above anything in the main level in terms of challenge. Every level also has three ‘achievements’ to attempt if you’re feeling lucky, such as goading a guard into shooting another guard, or sneaking past a particularly difficult encounter without being seen once.
All these extra sub-elements do a great job of giving the gameplay much more versatility, as the player is encouraged to do more than simply clear the next required encounter and keep moving on. Having things to reward the player for exploring the level with greater scrutiny, or for approaching combat encounters in slightly handicapped or unconventional ways, helps to give both the exploration and combat greater staying power; there’s much more to both elements if you’re willing to invest the time or skill.
From a presentation perspective, Mark of the Ninja manages to impress, going for a distinctive, dark, hand-drawn look that’s packed with charm. The ninja’s movements are all animated in amazingly fluid ways, and there are plenty of minor environmental details that make the levels feel like real places - such as when infiltrating an ominous castle in the rain or skulking through ancient catacombs filled with bones and chains. The sound design is a perfect match for the tone being set, with there being next to no music during sections when creeping through shadows, while the theme that plays when you’re slowly choking on gas rivals the Sonic the Hedgehog drowning theme in terms of how quickly it instigates anxiety and panic.
This being the ‘Remastered’ version naturally brings expectations that this is an enhanced version of the core game, and while it could certainly be said that this is the definitive version, it’s only by a hair. All the content from the previous Special Edition release is present here, including the ‘Dosan’s Tale’ DLC level, as well as the option to enable developer commentary, manifesting as interactable bubbles placed throughout levels which explain some behind the scenes processes of the game’s development. These surprisingly add a lot to one’s enjoyment of the game, as you’re told exactly why that obstacle you just passed was designed that way, or how the art department struggled to settle on the look of the room you’re in. Aside from that, and this version's higher quality art and sound, we didn’t notice anything else particularly grabbing. Still, it’s nice to know that this version has been polished up quite a bit.
Mark of the Ninja Remastered is an utterly stellar stealth game and, six years on, it’s lost none of the magic that made the original such a critical darling. A strong art direction, engaging story, well-paced open gameplay, and a slew of extra content all combine to make for a near-flawless experience that you certainly won’t want to miss out on. We’d give this game a high recommendation to all Switch owners; it’s the best stealth game money can buy in the Switch library, and one of the best ones in any console library.