Neo Geo AES / Neo Geo CD
ADK / SNK
1991 / 1994
As one of the earliest titles ever released for the Neo Geo AES console, Ninja Combat has definitely earned its merits for being a legacy title for the biggest and baddest console of the 90’s. Like a proud grandfather, sitting back and observing his kin take on the world in the forms of game after game (the AES would see new titles officially released for it for fourteen years), Ninja Combat has been in the rocking chair for an impressively long time. With a respectable array of colours, characters, and graphics, the game fared well while trying to distinguish itself from the selection of releases that graced the cost prohibitive machine in the formative months of the decade. Games like Cyber-Lip, Magician Lord, and Top Players Golf were all excellent in their own rights, but none of them offered the wildly popular “beat ‘em up” action that the likes of Technōs’ Double Dragon and Sega’s Golden Axe had made so successful as the 80’s drew to a close. Fortunately for swanky new AES owners, Ninja Combat stood poised to answer the bloodthirsty call that was for repetitive poundings on endless waves of enemies. But how well did it thrive upon comparison to its hungry contemporaries? Surely a brand-new ninja brawler released for the world’s most powerful console could hold its own amongst puny, 16-bit offerings like Final Fight and Streets of Rage… couldn’t it?
Ninja Combat’s story follows the journey of nearly identical warriors, Joe and Hayabusa (not to be confused with Shinobi’s Joe Musashi or Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa, both of whom had debuted a mere couple of years prior…), as they wage war on the evil Kage Ichizoku clan. The two heroes must ascend Ninja Tower to bring the game’s antagonists to their knees. At the game’s onset, it’s glaringly obvious that there wasn’t anything particularly original happening here, but anything and everything to do with ninjas absolutely dominated the transition from the 80’s into the 90’s (thanks in part to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a plethora of ninja-based action films), so this game would’ve been released even if the character’s names were Stinky and Smelly and their mission was to collect textile fibres needed for a pair of corduroy pants. As Joe and Hayabusa make their way through the game’s seven levels, certain enemies-turned-allies will join them on their mission (becoming playable characters in the process). I thought this part of Ninja Combat was pretty cool as I wasn’t expecting a guy that I just beat the tar out of to take up arms by my side, but I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em… or something.
Ninja Combat’s gameplay is nothing overly complex, as none too many games of the time required the 45 minute tutorials that today’s titles dish out, so as long as you can remember that repetitively tapping the A button causes Joe or Hayabusa to launch lethal waves of shurikens, and that pressing the B button has them performing jumps, you’ll be ready for combat involving ninjas. Holding down the A button will have your character of choice perform their own unique Art of Ninpo (special move) that will help to eliminate all of the enemies on the screen (though executing this move costs the player some life), and pressing the C button will instruct your character to somersault through the air, also causing damage to enemies if the A button is pressed at the same time. There are also additional weapons to pick up within the game’s stages if you get tired of tossing shurikens, but I was only able to pick them up while playing as Joe or Hayabusa.
The overall experience in Ninja Combat is very repetitive. This was and remains typical of the beat ‘em up genre of video games, but I had a harder time gelling with this one due to its poor hit detection (when you swear you could’ve hit an enemy but your attacks scarcely make contact), mostly bland backdrops, and (at times) uninspired enemy design. The first stage that takes place in an amusement park made for a strong start, but none of the following levels really stood out to me. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad game, but it’s not incredible either. Again, this is a legacy title for the Neo Geo if there ever was one, and it’s still a lot more endearing than some of the other early AES games that hit the market, but I guess a few of the later, more impressive looking and playing releases that graced the system have made Ninja Combat look and feel all too dated for me.
The game’s soundtrack isn’t anything special. It’s okay for what it is but none of the music had me head banging or toe tapping. I do really enjoy the title of the game being enthusiastically shouted out to me during the opening sequence of the game though. There’s something about the announcer proclaiming “Ninja Combat!” that never gets old. Super 90’s. The sound effects within the game are a little over the top, as the blood curdling screams that will belt out of your character upon dying can get vexatious, to say the least (and trust me, you’ll die a lot while playing Ninja Combat). Thankfully, the game allows endless continues, so go ahead and intentionally jump off as many platforms as you want – Joe or Hayabusa will only be in agonizing pain for a second or so before they respawn, ready to rock. Personally, I’ve always thought that every AES title should permit limitless continues in their games. I know that they’re meant to emulate the arcade experience, coaxing hapless players into dropping entire piggy banks worth of coins into the cabinets, but given the cost of the games for the console, I’d like to think I had paid my 1,200 quarters up front. Shelling out $300 for a cartridge is gnarly enough, but forking over that kind of dough, only to then get your rear-end handed to you in the game’s first stage without a real chance to continue? That’s just cruel.
As one of the earliest Neo Geo games ever released, the differences between its cartridge and disc based releases are predictably slim. This was (unfortunately) a recurring theme (check out my review for King of the Monsters 2: The Next Thing for another example of this) with most of the titles that hit the AES early on in its life, only to be ported to the Neo Geo CD years later. That said, you’d think that given the amount of time between the two releases that the developers could’ve applied some extra spit shine to the CD ports by adding in some groovy loading screens or something, but nah, “just drill it out and those cubes will buy it anyway!” Funnily enough, there exists a rather significant difference between the two versions of the game, though I can only surmise that it was somewhat unintentional. You see, while playing through the AES version of Ninja Combat with the assistance of a Memory Card inserted into the front of the system, the game naturally saves the player’s progress as they make their way through its stages. That’s all fine and good, but unlike every single other Neo Geo AES game I’ve ever played (50, to be exact), which (when played again at a later time) offers you the choice of either resuming where you left off or simply restarting the entire adventure, Ninja Combat gives you no such selection. Every time I fired the game back up, I was always launched into its final level. Heck, even upon receiving a game over screen, I still had to start playing from the game’s final level. The only way to bypass this weird occurrence was to physically remove the Memory Card from the console; a task that could’ve been eliminated entirely had the choice to restart the game been available on screen in the first place. Whether ADK realized this mistake (glitch?) or not remains to be clarified, but the selection of restarting the game or resuming from your previous progress point thankfully does exist in the Neo Geo CD port. It may seem like a small nitpick, but imagine blowing the dust out of your Super Mario World cartridge for a relaxing Sunday afternoon play-through, only to be thrust into the game’s final encounter with Bowser as soon as you start playing. A strange flaw, for sure. The Neo Geo CD port of Ninja Combat also had its original soundtrack spruced up a bit, but the improvements aren’t overly noticeable. Regardless, the disc-based version of the game would be my selection over its cartridge brethren for the primary reason I spoke of.
Ninja Combat can provide a fun time every now and then, especially when played with a friend, but it’s not something I would spin on a consistent basis. The game helped lay the groundwork for future Neo Geo beat ‘em ups such as Robo Army and Mutation Nation (both awesome), but has a hard time holding its own in the black and blue genre nowadays. Still, it offers a cool selection of playable characters to select from, and manages to serve up some decent gameplay if you have the patience for it and the understanding of the era during which it launched. A once revered game that shows its age in some unflattering light, Ninja Combat is still worth trying for the history lesson alone.