If you believe the arcade machines of the era, the 1980’s consisted of a few things: bad guys, ninjas, neon, and pastel coloured clothes. Ninja Shodown, from Bitmap Bureau makes no effort to dispel this myth, instead embracing it and squeezing it for all its worth. The result is a fast and furious arcade game that’s really good fun and that knowingly nods to its audience at every opportunity. Its premise is daft – it knows, and it doesn’t care.
Right from the title screen, the game makes it clear that it knows exactly what it is – a homage to the arcade units that those of us of a certain age (including myself) will remember pumping coins into in our local bowling alley. Lovingly rendered pixel art fills the screen – looking as good as you remember it looking; which is to say significantly better than it ever did at the time.
As the game begins, it lets you pick a mode and number of players. From there, you pick a ninja (you get to choose the colour – it doesn’t have any bearing on how your character plays or their abilities) and then dive straight in.
Ninja Shodown plays out as a series of static screens (with some very 80’s parallax scrolling in the backgrounds). Doors open into the room to spawn the enemies, and there are several platforms onto which you can jump to position yourself. From there, the game begins. Enemies spawn, and you need to kill them. You have a katana and a limited number of shuriken – breaking boxes allows you to collect more. Every so often a crate will appear that will let you pick up a special weapon. Remember uzis? They’re here. Along with bombs, rocket launchers, mines, molotov cocktails, and a magic scroll that will teleport you across the room if you’re getting overwhelmed.
The enemies themselves vary from standard goons who go down with a single slash up to some that move nearly as quickly as you do, and later on armoured guys who need several shots from the front or one from behind to take down. The enemies do a good job of making you think on the fly about how you’re playing and how best to change your tactics to clear the room as quickly as possible. Just as most of the enemies go down with one hit, so too do you – and with the speed you can move at, once the room is busy navigating it becomes as risky as the combat. Each enemy (and you!) die with a hilarious splatter of blood which can be toggled off in the options, in true 80’s fashion.
The single player mode is a lot of fun – but seriously hard. If you were pumping coins into your Xbox to play this, you’d need very deep pockets indeed! Whether this is a good thing or not is really down to the player, but from my point of view it’s a good thing. Ninja Shodown is no pushover. I died a lot playing this game – but every single time it happened, it was my fault. Bitmap Bureau have nailed one of the critical points of making a difficult game, and that’s in making sure that it’s fair. Make the same mistake twice and the outcome never varies. Your jump is long and high but predictable. Enemies move around quickly but consistently. Collision detection is spot on. With gameplay as tight as it is, you’ll get to the point of finishing levels knowing that you could do it faster or better. Or you’ll fail, agreeing with the deep voiced narrator who informs you of just how hopelessly you’ve just performed – as if you weren’t already acutely aware.
In addition to the single player game, Ninja Shodown comes with an infinite mode which does what it says on the tin, and a multiplayer mode. Couch co-op with up to four players is where this game really comes into its own – I had even more fun playing this with my son than I did solo, which is to say I had a LOT of fun. Equally leveled characters battling it out led to a lot of laughter, grinding of teeth, trash talking, and finally exchanging of bragging rights.
If you’re bored of the endless parade of sports games, racers and first person shooters that Q4 parades past us every year and are looking for a change of pace, or something that you can play in shorter bursts, Ninja Shodown is different enough and fun enough to be worth checking out.
Ninja Shodown is available now from the Xbox Store for £11.99.
Part parody, part homage, Ninja Shodown is as close as you can get to standing in front of an old action arcade machine on your Xbox One. If you’re a fan of platform based combat games (especially HARD ones!), then Ninja Shodown is a game that should be in your digital collection.