Dig if you will, a technological flashback. Arcades were the gold standard for graphical fidelity, game prices were extremely erratic, and swaths of beat ’em ups lined these same arcades during the heydey of this genre. Personally, I dipped my toes into titles like Streets of Rage, X-Men Arcade, and The Simpsons to name a few. One such IP that flew under my radar at the time was a proto-ultrawide screen beat ’em up known in the West as The Ninja Warriors that hit the arcades in 1987 (currently available digitally as an Arcade Archive). It used three monitors arranged in a horizontal setup that featured two android ninjas.
Here’s where things get weird. The arcade release only featured the hulky Ninja (creative, I know) and more agile female counterpart Kunoichi. The 1994 remake/sequel that made its way to the SNES added the quick but weak striking Kamaitachi onto the roster and marked its console debut Stateside. Which brings us to the enhanced remake of the game that adds newcomers Yakasha and Raiden (no, not that one) into the mix. Try not to think about it too hard, it’s weird.
Developed by Taito and Tengo Project and published by ININ Games, The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors was released in the US on October 15th, 2019, for Switch and PS4 at the digital price point of $19.99.
Fighting the Power
True to the era, the only semblance of a story is to provide the player a reason to play the game. You’re thrust into a dystopia that’s ruled by a dwarf-like dude that goes by Banglar the Tyrant. He commands a branwashed army of humans in an effort to maintain dominance over the planet. Naturally, a rebel force led by the equally dwarfish Mulk dispatches a small force of androids styled as ninjas to take down the swaths of soldiers and technology that block their way. Should they fail their mission, they’re programmed to self-destruct. Considering the cutscene and story-heavy nature of games today, this could throw some off, but that’s just how it was in the 1980s and 1990s. People walked into arcades and wanted to get straight to gameplay without much explanation for story.
Thankfully, the original team that worked on the console release makes a return for this remake. Gameplay-wise, it’s about as straight up as you can get for a classic-style beat-’em-up . You pick one of three (eventually five via unlocking) characters with unique movesets and gameplay aesthetics and go to town from the beginning of the stage to the end stage bosses.
Unsurprisingly, level design is quite linear and doesn’t play too much with this type of progression. What this game is looking for from the player is to experiment with each character and discover which moveset works best for them. Every ninja has a standard moveset and a special one that uses battery power that charges as you play (save for taking hits, which will drain it). Letting the battery charge fully will let you unleash a massive screen nuke that comes in quite handy when things get hairy.
It’s a bit of a learning curve trying to discover what works for each ninja and how it fits your playstyle, but I find it to be part of the fun. However, old school games like this tend to retain the quarter-munching difficulty of its forebears and this game is no different. It’s not quite controller-throwing levels of hard, but it’s no slouch either. Players will need to get into a groove to power through this one. There are the occasional health pickups scattered through each stage, but more often than not they’re few and far between. While each moveset can be a bit stiff, the tight controls ensure that you know that certain attacks are a quick and simple button combo away.
Bosses for the most part have some level of creativity in their execution, which is nice. Sometimes I had a good time strategizing and succeeding in defeating each stage’s boss. Other times things just didn’t click for me, so I was forced to experiment with different characters. But I can’t say all of the bosses were winners, namely the final boss. Once you figure out how to damage it, you’ll find that most characters are ill-eqipped in executable moves to do this in any way other than cheesing it. Even using that method isn’t always reliable.
Gameplay-wise, this is the worst thing about this version, and I’m sure it was worse in the SNES version considering 4:3 displays were the norm in those days. Aside from that boss, the gameplay is solid enough to at least stand in the room with more recent efforts like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game and River City Girls. It’s not anemic in that department, but I can’t say that it’s as robust as the aforementioned titles.
New to this version is the inclusion of couch co-op, which is always a welcome feature in an age of exclusively online titles, and the implementation is quite like it was always there. The only rub for some would be the fact that both of you share a health meter, so failing at any point will trigger a fail for both players.
Speaking of which, triggering a fail state at all will end your game. While it does give you the option to continue, clear times are not factored in if you do so. With that in mind, this title does feature leaderboards for death-free clear times but offers no online play whatsoever. Personally, this doesn’t bother me given the nature of this game. But it’s something worth pointing out. Some features will unlock after fulfilling certain criteria, but the difficulty of doing that might detract some from going after them.
Ninjas Are Always Cool
While it’s not uncommon for classic games to get modern releases these days, it’s always nice to see improvements to aesthetics that surround them. Ninja Saviors is no different in this regard, as this game sports a native 16:9 HD resolution and totally redrawn sprites and environments that help bring it to modern screens while also retaining the retro feel of the SNES release. Graphical design overall isn’t bland, but it isn’t striking either when these same things are put in motion. Chalk it up to being a relic of the era, but you can only appreciate industrial areas, forests, and strongholds so much when you’re focused on taking down swaths and swaths of mooks.
Call me spoiled, but part of me wishes that the soundtrack was a little punchier than what is presented here. Granted, the Streets of Rage games are a high bar to clear when you compare soundtracks in the genre, though I was hoping that perhaps the remixes presented here would at least be somewhat compelling. It’s not bad by any means, but sometimes you want something to hype you up to take down some dudes instead of something that simply fits the design of the level in a game like this.
While you do have to unlock them, there is the option to switch up the soundtrack if you would prefer to do that here. It’s a nice nod and having the chance to do that is always welcome. Aside from that, sound design is appropriate to the era it came from. Attacks land with a distinct noise and foes/environmental sounds don’t come across as an afterthought.
Part of me is glad that they didn’t do anything particularly gimmicky to improve the presentation. While it might have been nice to take a more modern graphical style and give it an on-the-fly option to switch it to the original release’s, sometimes you just want to work with what’s already there. In this regard, that’s totally fine because some of us just want a straightforward modernization of a classic game.
Classic Yet Current
Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s some wanting more beat-’em-ups on the market, or just wanting to mindlessly wail on some nameless dudes in the face, but it’s nice to see long-dormant genres coming back onto the scene in today’s gaming space. Make no mistake, Ninja Saviors is a very short game. Despite this, it’s the kind of beat-’em-up that, despite some of the questionable design choices, you don’t mind firing it up because of the solid replayability factor games similar to it also sport. Considering that it’s available on the Switch, it lends itself easily to solo runs on train commutes and couch multiplayer at home.
Taito is trying to do its best to make a big return splash into the market. While today’s gaming market is saturated with so many classic releases, it’s nice to see releases like this being brought to modern audiences new players to discover. Part of this game shows its age in a number of ways, but this is not a quick and dirty port by any stretch of the imagination. Thought and consideration shines through here, and the low price point is a good reason to at least give this blast from the past more than a passing glance.
Review copy provided by ININ Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of ININ Games.