This ninja’s greatest trick is not having aged a day in six years.
Mark of the Ninja’s beloved legacy dates back to its 2012 debut on Xbox 360. Playing it for the first time on Switch in its 2018 Remastered form shows clearly why this game was so critically adored at launch because truly, this is one of the best stealth video games ever made. It elegantly and effortlessly communicates so much in a way that is rarely overbearing while still letting the gorgeous art and style shine through. Minor hiccups are all that stymie Mark of the Ninja on Switch, along with a few irksome control problems.
Your heroic ninja gets embroiled in a war between the ideals of classic ninja styles and modern technology. He is bestowed with the titular mark, a tattoo that grants powerful abilities but also slowly drives its wearer insane. The game follows that thread with many twists and turns along the way, all told during and in between levels thanks to gorgeous animated cutscenes that could easily be ripped from a hand-drawn cartoon. The story isn’t why I wanted to play Mark of the Ninja, though, but it’s a nice backdrop for the true focus: the gameplay.
That part is made up of a variety of side-scrolling levels where your hero has to sneak around environments, silently taking down or avoiding enemies. While lots of nuance is added as you progress, the basics focus on using the darkness to move deftly around the environment to complete objectives. The screen communicates so much information while never getting too overwhelming. At a glance, you can see areas that are lit or unlit, potential obstacles to sneak into or hide behind, enemy placement and line of sight, and more. The art is never overpowered by a stealth vision or anything; it’s all just in plain sight so the smooth animation can always be on display.
That graceful design isn’t without flaws, however. Most of these result from the same button being used for multiple context-sensitive actions. If you knock out a guard near a vase you can hide behind, you have to make sure you’re in the exact right spot to pick him up and dump him somewhere to obscure the body. If not, you’ll just hide and unhide from the vase endlessly while the guard’s carcass just sits there, waiting to be noticed by other foes. In a game so heavily based on quick reflexes and precision, moments like this are maddening.
Fortunately, Mark of the Ninja does so much else right that it’s easier to forgive lapses. My default state is a general dislike of stealth segments, but the gameplay here is snappy and fluid. Even in failure, I enjoyed experimenting because the penalty for most mistakes is just to respawn moments before.
The levels are rather linear, but each one has various hidden artifacts to find, side objectives to complete, and scores to aim for. Points to hit those scores are earned by performing cool ninja feats, whether it’s a smooth takedown of an enemy or nimbly avoiding detection. Replaying levels is encouraged to a degree, as completing all the goals earns you Honor points, which are used to unlock and upgrade abilities and costumes. To start every mission, you can choose a loadout of costume and items. The various costumes are well balanced, usually giving you a boost in one aspect but a debuff in another. For example, a powerful offensive costume will make more noise and be less stealthy. The amount of choice and customization of your ninja is great, letting you play the way you wish. While being stealthy is generally the optimal strategy here, you can tweak your loadout to be much more focused on action if you so desire. That flexibility is awesome.
Beating the game unlocks a New Game Plus, which is almost hilariously challenging. Your field of view is restricted and enemies are deadlier with better AI. I doubt I’ll ever see the end of that, but I appreciate the stiff challenge, especially since the initial playthrough leans a little on the easier side. The Remastered version also includes the DLC from the initial release, which features a few new items, a prequel chapter, and even a developer commentary track.
Aside from some small control issues mostly stemming from the fact that multiple functions are tied to the same button, Mark of the Ninja Remastered is excellent. It’s a smartly-made stealth game that oozes style while being packed with gameplay variety and depth. Playing this 2012 release today made me wary that it might show its age, but the amazing thing is that in 2018, this game feels extremely fresh. This ninja has been hiding in the shadows, waiting to strike on Switch, and the results are fantastic.