Ninjas by their very nature are an elegant and elusive group - patiently lurking in shadows in order to dispatch foes without anyone ever realising they were there. Their grace and efficiency have become legendary over hundreds of years. In the medium of video games, however, ninjas have a somewhat 'varied' depiction, none more so than with the arcade slash 'em up Ninja Shodown.
From Southampton-based studio bitmapbureau, Ninja Shodown on the surface is an ideal title for the Nintendo Switch, which is becoming a trend of late. The simple pick up and play nature of multiplayer action - that anyone can enjoy at a frantic pace - is as appealing as it is becoming commonplace. It is up to Ninja Shodown, as a result, to prove itself as a worthy competitor in an arena becoming more populated with local multiplayer games. Glancing at the competitive side of this game, it has a slight passing resemblance to a simplified version of Smash Bros. - characters dart around a static stage taking lives off each other until there's a winner. So far, so good. Dig a little deeper, though, and the game's shortcomings emerge in plain sight.
The overall presentation of Ninja Shodown is straightforward, snappy and basic. After initially selecting Arcade, Infinite (horde mode) or Multiplayer, there is a brief cutscene explaining your mission. You are a viper clan warrior sworn in to protect a sacred katana blade at all costs. The game soon disregards any attempt at exploring a narrative and brutally goes for the jugular; it is essentially a one screen brawler split into a number of stages. With no overworld map, little narrative or complexity, proceedings are kept as arcade-like as possible.
Upon a quick countdown and a rundown of the controls, in single player you appear in the stage and it is go time. Enemies will appear from multiple doorways on different levels of the stage, with your evasive as well as attacking skills immediately put to the test. The slightest of touches will result in losing a life. There is no energy bar or difficulty settings here, it's straight up 'kill or be killed'. Three (or however many you can gather on your run) lives lost and it's game over, with a points score, kill ratio and an alphabetical ranking to show for your efforts.
Without doubt your first few attempts will likely be pitifully short lived, but after a bit of getting used to it the first stage is relatively easy. You will soon feel like a lethal weapon, clinging to walls, lining up and chopping down lines of goons, double jumping, flipping and shuriken throwing your way to a second or third victory screen. Combos and multipliers are satisfying to execute, even if there is occasionally a sense of more luck than judgement with the collision detection on armoured enemies. As you see the (optional) red pixels fly and piles of enemies slain, you'll be ready to take on the next wave.
To aid you on your quest you can bust open crates with shuriken, knives, as well as curiously less conventional ninja weapons such as an uzi, proximity mines and pistols. Some of the special weapons - deployed with X - can be cumbersome, and it's easy to get caught (sometimes unfairly) napping, especially by triggering explosions. Enjoy the chaos while it's fun early on, though, because from there on out the game is unforgivably tough. The action moves along at a frantic pace, enemies with armour take a lot of (sometimes randomly detected) stopping, and the stages feel more and more claustrophobic as swarms of adversaries relentlessly appear. Close your eyes and (apart from only lasting a handful of seconds) you'd swear you were playing a Mortal Kombat game circa mid-'90s. The cheesy techno soundtrack, wincing at every squelch, groan and cry from an injured soldier or the condescending announcer's proclamation of your repeated incompetence - it's all here.
Regardless of the aesthetic, the single player stages - in terms of structure - are all single screen affairs, and layouts don't vary very much.
As fun, addictive and frustrating as the single player 'campaign' is, the majority of your time will be spent in multiplayer mode, and it's here that the game goes further in demonstrating its strengths as well as highlighting its downfalls. Despite the Switch screen in single player mode being perfectly functional, anyone who has played a game of Smash Bros. on even a 3DS XL can testify that the combination of pace and a wide field of view makes it pretty hard to keep up, especially with four players; it's worth bearing that in mind, and perhaps TV play is the way to go when playing with friends. It is admittedly fast and entertaining until you start exploring the options available.
While the (likely) short competitive matches with friends won't outstay their welcome, there's a disappointingly low number of modes available, all centred around the same idea. Whether it be 'last man standing', timed, a 'keep the flag' option (in this case, crown) or the highlight, 'coin mode' - where the person with the most coins wins, adding a bit of strategy - there's a lack of variety in how matches play out. You'll essentially be doing the same thing (killing) with slightly different scenarios. Outside of costume colours and different names, it all feels a tad repetitive; there are a handful of stages that are worth checking out for variety, but it's a real shame the core game isn't expanded upon more.
However you end up playing Ninja Shodown, it's unlikely that it will hold attention for more than a handful of rounds. The core mechanics are solid, the action is relatively fast and fun - especially in four player mode on a big screen - and it can be rather entertaining. However, the difficulty spikes and lack of depth in single player, coupled with the lack of modes, no online and minimal options in multiplayer, ultimately make the game little more than a brief but fun time filler. It's becoming more and more apparent that party games like this need more meat on the proverbial bone to stand out, and in this respect Ninja Shodown struggles to make its mark.