Oh! What joy to be a ninja! Yeah, we see it. You know what we're talkin' 'bout. Leaping across tree tops, spending all your time being lit by the most dramatic light possible, running across water... and then one day you get to be in a movie with Chris Tucker! Awwww yeah. From Berzerk Studio comes an epic tale of ninja, demons, and frogs wearing boxing gloves in Swordless Ninja, an utterly charming platform adventure that will make you believe in little red ninja all over again.
... you... do believe in little red ninja... don't you?
The little fellow in question is Mabushi, who leads an idyllic ninja life until his beloved Miyuki is carried off by a jealous demon lord. Which wouldn't be a problem, except Mabushi's sword has been stolen as well! Most ninja would give up and despair. But not Mabushi. He knows that all you really need to succeed is bravery, determination, and the ability to incapacitate any foe by stomping on their head. It's an ancient, honorable ninja tradition. Really!
For most of us, a lot about Swordless Ninja is going to look very familiar. Using the [WASD] or [arrow] keys, you move Mabushi around the screen. If you jump against the side of a block or wall, hold [Z] or [K] and Mabushi will grab hold of the edge if it's within reach, letting you reach higher places. Leap on enemies to knock them out, then pick up and throw them with the [X] or [L] keys. Your goal is to reach the Yin-Yang symbol at the end of each level, but don't ignore the lucky coins, either. Collect one hundred of them and you'll get an extra life. They can be found everywhere, including inside the starred boxes which you can break open by jumping up into them.
Being a ninja, Mabushi is, of course, well-versed in the art of hop-stomping his foes into nothingness. (How else do you think ninja fight?) But hidden along the way are various power-ups to acquire that will enable him to shoot darts or shurikens, handy since some enemies like to be unpleasantly pointy up top. There's also a very special item that can make you invincible to all attacks... but not to falling off cliffs.
In addition to being a blast to play, Swordless Ninja is absolutely gorgeous. The big cheesy enemies, the cotton-candy pink clouds... Swordless Ninja manages to be easy on the eyes, while remaining easy on the processor at the same time. (If it seems like the game is playing too slowly to you, you can change the quality under the options.) Mabushi's little yips and yelps as he jumps around may start to slide from cute to annoying after a while, but these can be turned off via the options menu.
Swordless Ninja is a part of the new GamerSafe network. The new system allows you to play the same game on different portal sites, and it keeps track of your saved games and achievements no matter what site you play the game on. Account sign-up is free, and in addition to helping you keep track of your gaming prowess, it also enables you to start earning GamerPoints, and get GamerGold. GamerPoints are awarded for completing various achievements in your favourite games, but GamerGold needs to be purchased. The difference between the two is that while GP can unlock minor new items or upgrades, GG often unlocks bigger, fun new implements, such as "Samurai Mode" in this game. You can still play Swordless Ninja in its entirety for free, and without signing up.
Analysis: Oh, Mabushi. Who needs Miyuki? Come and whisk me away to your bizarre, whimsical world of shurikens, bees, and angry plant... things. I haven't been this charmed by a game in a good long while, and for good reason; it's an absolute pleasure to play. The bright, cheerful graphics, the easy-to-master control scheme, the old-school style... all of it combines to make Swordless Ninja an easily accessible title to both newcomers to the platform genre and veterans alike. The difficulty curve is steady, but never unreasonable.
Still, it's not perfect. I have to question the idea to incorporate lives into the system. The plethora of coins laying about every level means you'll usually have a ridiculous amount of lives under your belt, so why have them at all? And like another red-suited platformer hero, Mabushi also dies with a single hit (unless he has a power-up active). You can call this a staple of the genre, but it still can make some levels unreasonably frustrating. And is there any particular reason why Mabushi can't swim, other than to make things difficult? All I'm saying is that if I were an esteemed ninja clan leader, and if any of my ninja couldn't swim, they would be taking weekly classes at the Y until they could.
Swordless Ninja goes out of its way to be accessible, and it shows. Not only with its multiple control choices, but in the scope of its levels, which are often very short and run on a straight path. This approach means that younger players won't be frustrated by it, but that for the most part, older gamers may crave a bit more of a challenge. But Swordless Ninja does so many things right, it's easy to overlook its shortcomings. It's a big world out there, with plenty of hidden levels to find, items, and achievements, and it's also just plain fun. As an homage to the genre, Swordless Ninja is a resounding success, and shouldn't be missed by anyone who has ever hopped on a Koopa before.