Ninja asks, “Do you want some more?” We say, "Yes please!"
I-Ninja is a game that somehow manages to equal much more than the sum of its individual parts. Broken down, it offers nothing that hasn’t already been covered before by titles such as Super Mario 64, Super Monkey Ball, and, more recently, Prince of Persia. However, as a whole, it’s a fun-filled and genuinely humorous romp with plenty to offer even the most jaded platform-gaming fan.
The story, such that there is, is pretty flimsy and serves no real overall purpose in the game. Checking almost every cliché in the book, our hero Ninja is the last of his clan (following a Rage Stone incident in which he accidentally kills his own sensei) and is thus charged with saving his world from the evil emperor O-Dor and his marauding Ranx army. Being dead doesn’t of course matter to Sensei, as he simply dusts himself off and pops back up in sprit form to help his now beleaguered pupil. It's a simple set-up, but one that does all it needs to do.
Ninja himself is a versatile character. Alongside the standard running and jumping abilities of more orthodox heroes, our man can also grind along rails, use his sword to hover, run and kick-jump up walls and half-pipes, use his chain to swing across open areas, and ‘power chain’ around almost F-Zero-esque tracks. He is also gradually given access to four different, and very useful, Rage Abilities which are charged by taking or delivering blows.
The game takes place over five pretty large worlds (Robot Beach, Bomb Bay, Jungle Falls, Mountain Gorge and Moon Base). Each of these worlds acts as a hub to the various levels contained with in it, and they are gradually opened out as you progress. The way in which the game opens up is a very big plus point, and one that makes it feel considerably less linear than many other titles. When Ninja completes a mission he is awarded a grade (the equivalent here of a shine). As his total number of grades builds up, Sensei awards Ninja with new belts which, in turn open up new levels or new variations of levels already completed. It’s here that I-Ninja gains some meat to its bones... completing a level once will allow you to move on, but returning to it again to take on the alternative objectives (usually consisting of either a red coin hunt, a time-limit race to the finish, or a Ranx kill target) will see you earn additional grades and therefore unlock previously closed levels out of sequence. Of course it’s not just grades that you are after - collecting the coins within each level allows you to purchase tests from the level guardians, and wiping out the Ranx enemies along the way will see you gain several sword upgrades.
So far nothing appears to be out of the ordinary for I-Ninja, but it’s the sheer number of things to do within its world that helps it to rise above the rest of the crowd. You may begin a level with some simple jumping, but success may then depend on running up and along walls, grinding along rails, manoeuvring a giant robotic eyeball or heart in a wonderfully monkey-ball style, sneaking past sentinels, or popping a poison dart into a fat sap sucker. The variety of action keeps each of the levels feeling fresh, and even then something occasionally comes along out of the blue to totally change the pace. ‘Shoot the Ships’ within Bomb Bay, for instance, sees you manning a gun position charged with destroying the ships of the incoming Ranx army. Kysa, the Robot Beach boss, has you taking control of Tekayama, a 150-foot tall robot, for a sea-based mechanical boxing match (this particular match-up is repeated again in one of the guardian tests called Egg Shell Skull, and the cruel one-hit kill scenario almost cost me my WaveBird on several occasions).
Sprinting through the game would see completion in eight to ten hours. Collecting all of the grades for 100% completion takes considerably longer, and it never feels like a chore (although the reward for doing so seems a little meagre, it has to be said). Each of the worlds are wonderfully realised with a simple but stylish charm. Some might say that I-Ninja is graphically simple, but the art direction is so tight that it always feels just right. The animation is of particular note, and alongside his constant wise-cracking, "The blade is cold yessss!", it really brings Ninja to life.
I-Ninja is a wonderful blend of styles that every platform fan should take a look at. It’s filled with the kind of touches that indicate quite how much love and care the development team put into it... from the manic laughter of Ninja himself, to the unbridled joy of a sentinel Ranx who catches an unwitting player. It’s a genuinely funny, refreshing, whirlwind of a game. As Sensei would say, "A player who misses out on I-Ninja………..is a stone gathering no moss!".