[Disasterpiece is a recurring feature in which the 2D-X staff admits to loving highly suspect games. This outing, Jeffrey L. Wilson fesses up to Ninja Combat.]
Many of you know me simply as Jeffrey L. Wilson, lead editor of 2D-X, but a good friend of mine frequently calls me by another name: film snob. She claims that it’s a fitting moniker as I tend to gravitate toward cerebral, thought-provoking pieces rather than the majority of Hollywood sludge. Please note: I never said I wasn’t a film snob; the term just rubs me the wrong way.
So you’d probably assume it natural that my gaming tastes would lean exclusively to high-art, high-concept storylines like those in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, but lo (and also behold) there are plenty of skeletons in my closest. Hideous, hideous skeletons.
I love Ninja Combat. Yes, the Neo Geo’s Ninja Combat. Yes, I recognize and realize that it’s a hideous title with stiff controls and cheap enemies (even by old school standards), but the game never fails to bring a smile to my face. Why? Sheer nostalgia and base button-mashing. My needs were simple over a decade ago, and not much has changed since then.
Ninja Combat was the first Neo Geo title that I’ve ever played, which, some would say, should’ve been enough to swear me off of the system forever. The year, according to estimates gathered from my hazy recollections, was 1992. I had begun frequently visiting my local arcade (the once godly Faber’s Fascination in Coney Island, Brooklyn) to play the occasional game of Ms. Pac-Man and Street Fighter II. Then one day I noticed the Big Red sitting in the back. I don’t know if a steady diet of Nerds candy and Sour Power blinded me from seeing it before then, but I was instantly impressed by the tall, brightly colored cab. It was like a 16-bit version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, only far cooler than anything Kubrick made in his career (oh, snap!).
After standing fixated on the cab — a cab containing a mind-blowing four games in one — I popped my twenty-five cent piece into the slot, and without hesitation, cycled through the title and selected Ninja Combat. I didn’t do so because I had any previous knowledge about the game — I most certainly did not. It did possess, however, two of the three elements that an 18-year old man desires: ninjas and combat. Unfortunately, boobies wouldn’t become a gaming staple until years later.
Despite lacking that vital third element, Ninja Combat managed to capture my imagination like few other games of the late ’80s/early ’90s. Unlike the NES version of Ninja Gaiden which satisfied the cerebral part of the brain with an awesome storyline that unfolded via Tecmo’s trademark cutscenes, Ninja Combat satisfied the inner Dennis the Menace that took joy in frying ants with magnifying glasses under the summer sun.
The fighting mechanics are typical of beat ‘ems ups of the era: you (and a friend using a pallette-swapped character) could strike, use a special high-impact yet energy-draining move, and pick up weapons like nunchucks (woo ha!) or axes (eh?). But, without question, the best weapon in the game is the trusty shuriken, which you can toss a handful at a time.
What’s so grand about the throwing stars? They are, in effect, Contra‘s Spread Gun. They allow you to mow down wave after wave of minions, and effectively transformed Ninja Combat into a slow horizontal shmup like R-Type (the plodding pace of the game pretty much eliminates the “run” from “run-and-gun”). Bloodlust? Thoroughly satisfied. By today’s standards the graphics are pretty decent. Nearly 20 years ago, those sprites were huge. Poorly animated huge sprites, but still big, chunky, rugged (in a good way), and quite eye-catching. The background music’s forgettable, but the sound effects and voice samples are insane!
Unfortunately, Ninja Combat has one of the worst examples of artificially high arcade difficulty designed specifically to devour quarters. Death comes swiftly courtesy of the O.P. goons and, in that heinous old school game mechanic, a good portion of your life meter vanishes whenever you perform a super move. So even when you’re attempting to save your own ass, the baddies still win. Christ.
So to sum up: bad animation, cheap enemies, ho-hum music, death at every corner, and outdated gameplay. Ninja Combat has disgrace written all over its 46 Meg capacity, but I still hold it dear to heart. The chances of a sequel are probably Robert Downey, Jr. (that is, less than zero — ha!). Still, a follow-up would be sweet, especially since the new beat ‘em up laws have been laid out. C’mon, SNKP, make it happen. For me.
Want to read more about our favorite bad games? Check out our Disasterpiece landing page!