Obscura Ninjata

Back in the ’80s we couldn’t get enough martial arts action, shifty shinobis were lurking in every dimly lit cubbyhole, and Ninjalogy was practically a religion, only with cloaked deities and kuji-in a surrogate for prayer.

Cinemas and video rental stores were pushing the likes of Ninja Fantasy, Ninja Terminator, Cyber Ninja, Enter The Ninja, Dojo Dorian, Revenge of The Ninja, American Ninja, Ninja Kids, Enter the Newt and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while the unquenchable craze spilled over into the realm of video gaming with equal fervour.

Mostly on the 8-bit systems we embraced The Last Ninja, Ninja Kid, Ninja Spirit, Shinobi, Shadow Warrior/Ninja Gaiden (same game, different territory), Ninja Master, Ninja Warrior, Ninja Massacre (actually a Gauntlet clone), Ninja Commando, Edd the Ninja Duck (OK, so I made that one up), Ninja Crusaders, The Ninja, Bad Dudes, Bionic Ninja, and of course the TMNT accompaniments to the movie/cartoon/backpack and baseball cap set.

Phew! Deep breaths, we’ll be alright. You get the idea, we liked ninjas to a certifiable degree back then. What we also dug were anthropomorphic animals. Combine the two and surely you’d have a blockbusting, tectonic sales frenzy on your hands. It worked out pretty well for those gnarly pizza-munching Turtle dudes, so why not cast the net a bit farther afield? Enter the Rabbit.

Surreal beat ’em up, Ninja Rabbits, joined the fray in 1991 courtesy of Geordie developer/publisher outfit, Microvalue (previously Flair Software), who released it for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Commodore 64, following up with a DOS port a year later. True to their moniker, it was a budget offering that would have set you back a debatably bargainerific £7.99.

Flair Software weren’t known for producing trailblazing titles for any of the abundant platforms they worked on, yet did furnish us with a number of above average to top-rated, premium Amiga games such as Trolls, 1869, Oscar, the Elvira series and Whizz. The less said about the CD32 pack-in disaster, Dangerous Streets, and dreadful movie tie-in, Surf Ninjas, the better.

Meanwhile, Ninja Rabbits. Coding duties were assigned to Mick Hedley, while Phil Nixon took charge of the graphics and sound.

Possibly taking its lead from the Usagi Yojimbo samurai warrior bunny comic and game developed by Beam Software in 1988 (whose star also featured in the TMNT ‘toon), it’s a side scrolling button-mashing affair featuring a wascally wabbit ronin as the protagonist.

As for the plot, you wouldn’t expect a tome of War and Peace proportions, and Microvalue did nothing to confound those assumptions. It can be summed up in a few lines on the back of the box.

“A leakage at a chemical factory has filled the world with deadly nerve gases. The animals and people have become aggressive. A Ninja Rabbit is the only hope of finding the leak and saving their world from destruction.”

Curiously a parallel can be drawn here to the 1987 Zen: Intergalactic Ninja comic book (and 1993 NES/Game Boy game by Konami) which shares a similar premise: aliens send a militant environmentalist ninja to earth to remedy the pollution dilemma and exterminate the supervillain responsible for it, Lord Contaminous. Most relevant to Ninja Rabbits is the stage set in a toxic factory plagued by pernicious security robots, and decorated with floating conveyor belts, though also the acid rain threat from the forest-based stage.

Traipsing through various locales dotted around the UK, you encounter – and duff up – all manner of mammalian life forms from badgers, frogs, stoats, newts, and weasels to those funny humanoid creatures we affectionately refer to as people.

For reasons that will become apparent later you can consider Microvalue’s first jaunt down the wabbit warren as ‘Domestic Ninja Rabbits’. Aside from the presence of animals indigenous to Britain suggesting this is where the game is set, it incorporates a fish and chip shop. If you ignore the city area that resembles San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with a sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers located over the Pacific Ocean in the background, the concept works.

Your limited move set comprises a few punches and kicks and a rokushakubo staff jabby-swipey manoeuvre. Blocking isn’t an option; a real bugbear given you’re not sufficiently agile to swerve assaults from the wildlife, or salvo of irritating projectiles that emerge from out of the blue to thwart your pollution-plugging progress. You can’t even dangle from street furniture or command an attack dog. Pfft.

You can opt to fight above or below ground, though will face a far tougher challenge, for instance, if you slip down a rabbit hole into the subterranean tunnels. Once trapped you must contend with incessant falling rocks that nibble away at your carrot energy bar with the voracity of a Warner Brothers bipedal cottontail. That said, the surface isn’t much safer with pelted golf balls soaring past your ears at every turn.

Whichever plane you choose, your opponents are no pushover, sustaining their attacks even during the delivery of a nose-connecting strike. In fact they absorb blows without so much as flinching, leaving you wondering if you’ve made contact at all. Actually most of the time you can assume you haven’t since the collision detection is so shoddy. Nevertheless, what does aid your objective are the bugs that cause opponents to occasionally freeze, allowing you to dispatch them without any protests.

Once you’ve seen one level, you’ve pretty much seen them all. You plod onwards repeating the same walk-bash walk-bash rigmarole until you keel over, or lose the will to live.

Your mission commences on a golf course where what’s infinitesimally more entertaining than playing the actual game is spotting the peripheral animations amongst the scenery. Taking a leaf from the IK+ playbook, there are moles and worms that momentarily pop up from the lawn to scout their surroundings, bright eyes (burning like fire?) that peer out of dark, American style mail boxes, blackbirds perched on tree branches, and a man gesticulating from within a (club hire?) hut that oddly displays a sign pointing towards ‘golf’. How much closer to golf can you get than being on the course itself? Maybe golf is a state of mind like zen, and you’re not wholly there until you’re​ in the zone? Possibly I’m over-thinking this.

Next stop is a city-themed level with a sewer to descend into should the lure of brown sludge set your whiskers twitching. Above ground you must dodge lethal pigeon droppings, while dripping, noxious acid rain awaits below.

 

If you can stay awake long enough you’ll reach the third and final level, the Petro Chem Ltd laboratory, where you’re accosted by Short Circuit ‘bots wearing boxing gloves and hysterical lab technicians. Here foreground objects extend from floor to ceiling, hence passing behind them entirely obliterates your view. The correlation between what you do with the joystick and what happens on screen is tenuous at best, yet this takes it to a new blindfolded dimension!

If you didn’t kick the bucket quite so frequently, despite the ability to select from three graded difficulty settings, the way Bugs turns to face the camera before toppling over on his back as if pleading for help might be moderately endearing. If. Collecting carrot power-ups to replenish your energy level at regular intervals is one way to avert this. Playing Body Blows instead is another.

Our adventure concludes when you touch the edge of the last flick-screen, at which point we’re rewarded with a “level complete” message and the game resets. Oh joy, another hastily cobbled together game deprived of a genuine ending.

“A budget smash, this is a surreal beat-’em-up featuring huge leporine killers. Hit the badgers until they fall down, and when your energy runs out you fall down. Funny in a funny kind of way.”

40% – Commodore Format (June 1992)

“Graphically the game is a mess, the backgrounds are shoddily drawn and the characters, although occasionally well drawn, are poorly animated. So, sad to say, Ninja Rabbits isn’t really worth hopping down to the shops for.”

50% – Zzap!64 (July 1991)

Oh no more Wabbits

Without waiting awound to see if the first game reached the giddy heights of chart success, Microvalue followed up with a sequel. I don’t know why some people think two years elapsed in between.

Aside from adding an additional artist to the development team (Kevin Preston), resulting in improved, more intricate graphics, it’s a quickie rehash of Ninja Rabbits only with a corny cosmopolitan flavour.

 

International Ninja Rabbits revisits identical gameplay mechanics and combat style, though switches the scenarios in which you fight, along with your opponents’ species. Even the fudged-together-in-five-minutes-on-the-back-of-a-beer-mat plot is recycled.

“In this continuing quest to rid the world of deadly nerve gases the Ninja Rabbit encounters new and even more aggressive animals and people than before. Guardian Angels, Chinese Dragons, Demented Pandas and Fighting Football Players are just some of the enemies the Rabbit must now overcome before the world is destroyed by the polluting and highly toxic gases.”

 

Beginning in China harassed by flying dragons, reconnoitring the stereotypical town beneath a curtain of sweeping rain (which unbelievably is benign), you naturally progress to the snow-driven streets of New York. Is that the White House in the background?!? That was the final straw for me. I’m not at all convinced that this land of the ethnologic ninja animals is entirely true to life! In their defence, Microvalue did acknowledge that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located in Italy, the scene of the final level.

If you can jump the rolling barrels, safely landing upright, and sidestep the Monty Python-esque 1000kg weights that drop on your head from the heavens long enough to smash the winged crates, you may discover some useful power-ups, or even a red herring booby prize.

Again we occupy our surroundings above or below ground, though now, ringing the changes, our fleeting journey is punctuated by unintelligible speech samples. Did our buck-toothed pal just say “number one rabbit”? That’s quite an assertion given the stiff competition! I think Jazzy Jack Rabbit might object for a start.

Regurgitating our first hopping-mad outing, the ‘Buck Stops Here’ wraps up with a lazy, no-frills “level complete” message without so much as a ticker newsflash to allay our fears of the impending threat of pollution. In all the years since, Microvalue – who remarkably were still publishing games right up until 2013 – never reprised the winning formula for another sequel. Be grateful for small furry mercies!

“It’s similar in feel and graphics to NR1, with snazzy (and a bit overpowering) new backgrounds and more screens. But the combat isn’t particularly fast or exciting and you keep fighting the same characters. I’m afraid that I didn’t find it very interesting or addictive at all, and won’t return to it in a hurry.”

32% – Commodore Format (C64 version, March 1992)

“The gameplay and sprites have been improved – the rabbits and attacking sprites look more like live animals now, instead of extras from ‘The Woodentops’. The backgrounds are bright and colourful, but are at times a bit OTT. The game’s best played wearing a pair of shades, otherwise a migraine could well be the end result. Overall International Ninja Rabbits is just worthy of consideration”.

67% – Zzap!64 (March 1992)

Martial pets corner

Believe it or not Ninja Rabbits wasn’t among the earliest novelty ninja games to star a small furry creature. While the consumer grade Amiga was still finding its paws, the Speccy played host to an exquisite little rodent brawler by the name of Ninja Hamster – by far the best in its burgeoning class! Your unconventional gladiator actually looks like the Lone Ranger wearing a conker cocoon suit, but let’s not split furs.

Colin Ajayi-Obe’s 2 player, one-on-one beat ’em up coded by Gary Tomlinson and adorned with artwork courtesy of the Wise Owl Graphics Team was unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience in 1987 to less than rapturous applause. The Commodore 64 iteration and Derek E. Burns’ Amstrad CPC version, each accompanied by additional music from Jay Derlett didn’t fare much better.

“Ninja Hamster doesn’t add much to the martial arts theme – except to generate a bit of humour. But sadly the joke isn’t enough to last long enough for me to want to shell out for a full price game – at budget price things might be different.”

60% – Computer & Video Games (ZX Spectrum version, September 1987)

What for creative director, Ian Ellery, started as a wisecracking way of brushing off the probing questions of a Your Sinclair journalist who wanted to know what was next in the pipeline for developers, CRL Group, implausibly became a reality.

Inspiration initially emanated from ‘Trendoshop’, the local comic book store which at the time kept a healthy stock of TMNT paraphernalia. Ninja Hamster was in effect Ian’s spoof of the ridiculous Turtle Power concept that became a global phenomenon spawning poseable figures, lunch boxes, inflatable punch bags, playsuits, you name it.

Take it away Manual-San…

“The honourable Ninja Hamster returns home from his long journey across the seas. Only to find his village being terrorised by his arch-enemies, Sinister Rat and the Lizard of Death and their gang of joy-seeking villains.

Ninja Hamster, eyes blazing with fury at this malicious intrusion on his home domain hurls himself on his enemies in a frenzy of flying fists, gnashing teeth and kicking feet. He unleashes his deadly art on his tormentors.

With a combination of different teeth-smashing and bone-crushing attack moves you seek to delete your opponent’s stamina which is shown on the left side of the screen. A munch is taken out of your apple with every fall. To completely liberate the village you must destroy all eight members of the gang.”

Set in the alternating domain of a forest or Chinese temple, embodying a… go on, see if you can guess, you duke it out against formidable foes such as Mean Monkey, Barmy Bee, Crazy Cat, Perilous Parrot, Mad Dog and Looney Lobster. All minions of the nefarious, mastermind ring leader, Sinister Rat, who must be vanquished to beat the game.

Your life force quotient is measured by the fulsomeness of your apples. That’s not a metaphor, the fruity baubles deplete one chomp at a time as your opponents tear chunks out of you, and your energy bar recedes. This gradually replenishes over time so to defeat an enemy you must get stuck in posthaste and maintain the pace until they teeter onto their backs, legs splayed in the air.

With the harbinger of doom neutered your reward is a couple of lines of congratulatory text and a leap back in time to a previous bout.

“You have beaten 8 villains. Hooray you have rid your village of all the villains.”

Peddling pugilism

What was almost as popular in the ’80s as dressing up in a black jumpsuit, and hurling shurikens at cantaloupe melons perched atop fence posts while spouting pseudo-Japanese mumbo-jumbo and wearing an intense expression, is BMXing. Come on, I know I can’t be the only one. Juxtapose the two unquenchable manias and ka-ching! A surefire chart-storming powerhouse is guaranteed. Right? Alternative Software’s Roger Hulley certainly thought it was in the bag, yet with hindsight he may well have been suffering from a ninja-related concussion… or perhaps watched the early Nicole Kidman crime drama movie, BMX Bandits, once too often.

I’ll let the manual take it from here…

“After a hard day’s training with the freestyle team at the local dirt track, Phil ‘Pookie’ Wheeler, unofficial BMX Ninja, whilst travelling home on his bike, a Blackfoot Falcon, was set upon by a rival team, the Diamond Backs, whose leader is intent on gaining the ultimate street cred. Your title.

You must prove to yourself and your girlfriend that you are capable of keeping your title. Should you fail in your task, you will not only lose your title, you will lose your girlfriend (who wants to be seen with a loser anyway?), and your dignity. Should you succeed, you will be rewarded by your girlfriend. Should you complete a certain number of areas, you will receive the ultimate reward from her. (We’re not telling you what it is so find out yourself if you can.)

The game objective is to survive for as long as possible. To proceed to the next location, you must dismount 8 BMX bikers. Ninja scooters and Skateboarders do not count towards this total.

You must also avoid rocks thrown by other gang members. The scoring is dependant on how you dismount your opponent.

There are 6 different locations in which you can battle. These are a Miami Beach, a California sea front, the Dallas oil fields, New York City, Times Square and Cape Canaveral.”

29 years on I think it’s finally safe to reveal our fickle fairfeather girlfriend’s top secret “ultimate reward” without spoiling the surprise for fans of this solo entry genre. As you progress through the levels from funfair to NASA launchpad (really just feeble backdrop switches), one layer at a time she disrobes until she’s totally starkers… kind of.

Swan-songing its way to the anti-climactic last level, the bunny-hopping, back-peddling, wheel-spinning bike-wreck of a game wraps up with a visit to an “xx rated all nite nude” strip joint. Not triple x mind you, just double. I suppose it stands to reason that our prize would be a diluted half-ish measure (most keyboards aren’t fitted with a ‘half an x’ key) given BMX Ninja was the brainchild of the same outfit that brought us ‘Allo ‘Allo! Cartoon Fun!, Count Duckula 2 (featuring Tremendous Terence) and Suburban Commando.

Only one question remains, what the heck does any of this have to do with ninjas?

Mods and (no) rockers

Another game to allude to the influence of the fine art of covert ninja-ery espionage without containing so much as a whiff of a katana is Sysoft’s Ninja Scooter Simulator released in 1988 for the Speccy, C64 and Amstrad. Yes, I did say ‘Ninja Scooter Simulator’, you heard that right. Calling it a simulator would be an imagination-stretching, brain-twisting exercise in self-deception… and as startling as this is to comprehend, Codemasters weren’t involved in its development.

Essentially a cheap facsimile of Namco’s Metro Cross, it’s a side-scrolling, high speed, obstacle-littered street racer that pits you against rival scooter riders in addition to brick walls, ramps, coppers, cars and decapitated, levitating skulls.

Your seemingly simple objective is to reach the end of each level under very liberal time restraints without smushing your conk against an inanimate object. This largely entails opening up the throttle all the way, supergluing it in position, and pressing the jump button repeatedly. In the process you can pull off mid-air 360 degree spins and handlebar twists to boost your high score, though it’s hardly critical to your success.

Despite the deliberately misleading illustration on the cassette inlay cover, you play as a capped BMX style stunt rider. Today Sysoft would be asked some seriously probing questions by Trading Standards with a view to prosecuting them for violating the Trade Descriptions Act. Back then, however, box-based lying was considered acceptable and taken for granted by gamers and critics, even though the honest ones would still haul them over the coals for it, and hold lifelong grudges.

Ninjas are super-cool, hip, rad and trendy, now and then, that goes without saying, but scooters? Why would you base a computer game around the poor person’s, underpowered, penny-pinching alternative to a proper motorbike?

Of course the title makes you pay attention to articles that revolve around abstruse ninja-centric retro games. Then the same would be true of a game christened ‘Ninja Hell’s Angel Simulator’ and that would be a heck of a lot more enticingly dramatic.

“There’s been a cheapo game like this released before, called Star Runner or something, but this game is far superior. The graphics and presentation are first class and it’s both very playable and pretty addictive.”

70% – Your Sinclair (July 1988)

“Only a die-hard Metrocross addict would find this attractive”.

30% – Zzap!64 (September 1988)

“After I had recovered from the surprise of seeing a big burly Ninja on a kiddies’ scooter, I found the game playable enough. The graphics are reasonably detailed, though some are on the more simplistic side. But it’s gameplay that counts, and Ninja Scooter Simulator certainly has enough to keep most people going in the short term. I’ve a few doubts as to long term lastability, but at the price – who really cares? Overall, a fast and frantic race to establish your street cred as the best Ninja stuntman in the world.”

70% – Crash (September 1988)

OAPioid-fueled pensioners

Just when you thought milking ninja chic couldn’t get any weirder along comes Ninja Grannies developed by Clockwize’s Dean Hickingbottom and David Bradley.

“A multi-loader-level pensioner fighting game that was never sold. Developed in parallel on the CPC and ZX. I believe a CBM64 version was also written.”

– Dean Higgingbottom

You channel the bellicose, geriatric, war-mongering sparring machine, Mabel, in her crusade to become the supreme Ninja Granny. In doing so you lay waste to an old people’s home where you tango with Berty, Edith armed with a walking stick (don’t worry it’s not loaded), and Bessy.

Leaving the wreckage in your wake you’re transported to the post office where Ralph, Rosie brandishing an umbrella and rolling pin, and punk Hughy tooled up with a swinging chain await your arrival.

In the high street you tackle Amoss, Molly and her dog who jumps in synchrony with its OAP owner, and Joe mounted on his disability scooter battering ram.

The bingo hall serves as the backdrop for your final confrontations. Amidst the furore of number-blotting ecstasy you take on Billy wielding a wine bottle, the even more menacing Dot with her shopping trolley bludgeon, and wheelchair bound Annie, all of whom are hell-bent on prematurely introducing you to your maker.

Striking the final handbag blow, Annie crumples into an ex-pensioner and you’re commended with a double accolade…

“Congratulations. You can now sit back and be safe in the knowledge that you are the world’s greatest ninja granny.”

“Congratulations. You have successfully completed the ninja granny challenge. You can now claim to be the world’s best martial arts pensioner.”

Despite being finished Ninja Grannies was never picked up by a publisher and released through the usual retail channels, though it has since been made available digitally for the C64, Amstrad and Speccy by the authors themselves.

“Looking back at this game after 20 years, it seems to be lacking in a few ways. I think there should be some fun things happening occasionally in the background. The sound effects and music are very basic and the moves/controls are a bit simple but I’ve resisted the temptation to re-code any of it. I still like the graphics and think it is a good idea for a game even if no one else seemed to, or wanted to buy it. There’s no accounting for taste.”

– Many years estranged, Dean reminisces over simpler, stranger times

So I suppose what history teaches us is that combining one zeitgeisty concept with another doesn’t necessarily result in a million-selling masterpiece. A useless game with few redeeming qualities is still a poor excuse for entertainment, ninjas notwithstanding.

Not that this has deterred modern game publishing moguls and indies from investing in equally bizarre ninjaific projects. In recent times we’ve witnessed the release of Ninja Pizza Girl, Ninja Chicken, Fruit Ninja, Pool Ninja, and Ninjabread Man. Are any of them remotely worth playing? Does it even matter given that enough punters will buy them regardless to keep their progenitors ticking over based solely on their kooky ‘ninja + lucky dip word’ titles?

2 thoughts on “Obscura Ninjata

  • July 13, 2017 at 3:49 am
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    I broke 2 Quickjoy Jet Fighter joysticks playing Ninja Hampster on my CPC! After that I went for a Topstar.

  • July 13, 2017 at 11:30 am
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    Yeah, Quickshot tech wasn’t known for its longevity unfortunately. Still, their joysticks were amongst my favourites… while they lasted.

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