“People we don’t care about doing things we can’t believe”

Something tells me the producers of the 1993 (allegedly) comedic kiddie action movie, Surf Ninjas, were fans of Alternative Software’s work. Wedge together two popular concepts/pastimes, flog ’em in the same fully stylin’ package and you’ve got a sure-fire chart-topper on your hands. Guaranteed. It worked for BMX Ninja in 1988. Case closed.

Starring Ernie Reyes Junior, Rob Schneider, Nicolas Cowan and Leslie Nielsen, Surf Ninjas revolves around the seemingly mundane adventures of two teenage LA surfer dudes, Adam and older brother Johnny. I say ‘teenage’, yet 15 year old Ernie was actually 21 when the movie was released, because as we know, kids are useless at playing kids since they have no frame of reference. Oh, they’re also joined by their irritating, blathering pal, Iggy, played by Rob Schneider. Sorry, I almost forgot. OK, tried to forget.

Johnny: (Johnny and Adam are about to surf the waves) Wooo, the waves are pumpin…
Iggy: Go.
Johnny: What, you’re not coming with us?
Iggy: I’ll be there in a minute, I just gotta wax the old ‘Man to wave friction reducing vehicle’.
(Johnny and Adam pause and stare at him)
Iggy: … Surfboard!
Johnny: Oh, so we’ll see you after, Right?
Iggy: Sure, gotta put some wax on so I don’t slip off, need a lotta wax.
Johnny: (afterwards) Whoa, I think I fully dinged my board on a rock or somethin…
(Iggy starts walking towards the water)
Johnny: … Bro we’re leaving!
Iggy: What, now? Awww c’mon, I had some moves in me too!
Johnny: (under his breath) Yeah right, you’ve never surfed a day in your life.
Iggy: Look, tomorrow we start off early, OK?

DOS-ing about on the beach is all very PC.

One day, out of the blue, the totally rad homies are going about their business shooting the curls of off-waves life when they’re lynched by a throng of ‘Tiger Ninjas’ (not anthropomorphic ones sadly, just silly humans), their adoptive parent, Mac, is dadknapped and an enigmatic one-eyed guardian angel spontaneously materialises to protect the bros.

Zatch – played by Johnny’s real life daddy, Ernie Reyes Senior – informs the dumbfounded duo that they are dislodged heirs to the Patusan throne. Moreover, sons of a usurped king who found himself supplanted by the dastardly elephant crushee, Colonel Chi, very briefly played by Leslie Nielsen between Naked Gun movies.

Left: Leslie as seen in Airplane (the non-inflatable guy in the middle). Right: The pre-trampled/deformed Colonel Chi.

Being too young to have absorbed any of this at the time it’s an uphill battle attempting to convince them of their true destiny; to return to the Asian kingdom (filmed in Thailand) to restore the balance of power and free their enslaved brethren. If we learn anything at all from the tortuous history lesson it’s never to throw yourself in the path of a stampeding elephant – even the Bionic Man has his crosses to bear. Chi’s is not being able to get wet, now that he’s electrically powered.

“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better… stronger… faster.”

Of course they come round to the idea soon enough; otherwise they’d have made a liar of the back of the VHS box blurb-writer, and the story might have fizzled out into a sort of sanitised proximally of Beavis and Butthead.

This change of heart is largely courtesy of a visit to a restaurant in the Patusani district of LA where the exiles of their former homeland are holed up awaiting salvation. Thus they set off on a jolly back to their estranged island stomping ground 13,000 miles off-shore… you’d hope not entirely crossed in the toy dinghy Zatch provides!

Johnny gets another shock when he learns he is to marry his betrothed Patusani princess, Ro-May. I was expecting the punchline to be that she’s hideously ugly, or a bloke in a dress, but no, she’s your stereotypical fairy-tale beauty. Indeed played by Kelly Hu, Miss Teen USA 1985 and Miss Hawaii USA 1993. She’s also a talented actress and voice-over artist, has a black belt in karate… and threatened to knock my teeth out if I don’t read this script word for word. 😉

Adam: You know what they say – Chick’s got a veil, dude better bail.
Johnny: If she covers her face, pick up the pace.
Iggy: She’s afraid to show it. She’s… probably not very attractive.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner! Pick any prize on the top shelf.

All a bit run of the mill so far so why not accept some investment cash from SEGA, who in return would expect the producers to crowbar in a story arc focused on a telekinetic, soothsaying Game Gear. I kid you not; while playing Shinobi (developed and published by SEGA in 1991) Adam’s game is inexplicably swapped with another game titled, go on, bet you can’t guess. No, not Skating Smurf Commandos, Surf Ninjas!

It doesn’t need to be run from a cartridge, it’s more of a spiritual possession, which explains why later in the jungle a Columns cartridge (developed and published by SEGA, again in 1991) can be spotted in the Game Gear’s rear slot while Adam continues to play Surf Ninjas. It’s not a goof, it’s a marketing opportunity. Sometimes the hand-held games system can be seen with nothing in the cartridge slot, which is a goof – a missed marketing opportunity! Oh well, at least they remembered to insert an advert for ‘Shinobi II: The Silent Fury’ at the back of the game’s manual.

What? I can’t enjoy tile-matching puzzle video games because I’m a monkey? That’s just racist!

Adam serendipitously discovers that his Game Gear can give him a heads-up on what’s going to happen in the very near future, and his in-game actions have a real world corollary. Consequently it dawns on him that he can use his new found party trick to his advantage, orchestrating the brothers’ inevitable battles. Sometimes to comedic effect (again, allegedly).

Well, that’s certainly one way to district a troublesome despot.

“The screen play was originally written about two young boys – approximately 12 and 16 years of age. The older one would develop his skills as a ninja warrior and regain his throne as ruler of a Pacific Island. We wanted to make sure that the younger one would be just as exciting a character as the older one, so we made him a visionary – a ‘seer’ of the future. But we wanted his magical power to be funny at the same time so that it would appeal to kids his own age. Knowing that video games play such a big part of the lives of young kids today, we incorporated a hand-held system which Adam could use to foresee the future.”

Surf Ninjas producer, the late Evzen Kolar (SEGA Visions issue 14, August/September 1993)

What happens when your Game Gear’s batteries die, and you forgot to pack spares. Adam didn’t see that coming.

Johnny, now he’s been clued in on his Kungfu origins remembers he’s a martial arts expert, and overnight, together they become an unstoppable brawling force to be reckoned with. One that makes even the waves quiver in terror! It’s practically a kiddified History of Violence. No doubt Viggo Mortensen studied Surf Ninjas in exquisite detail in preparation for his starring role.

While the game screens shown in the movie had to be mocked up as a prop, they’re not related to the title released to the public for the Game Gear for realsies. Even so, they were both developed by Illinois-based studio NuFX Inc. and the genuine game published of course by SEGA, for the first time ever to coincide with the release of the movie.

“My son owns both a SEGA Game Gear and a SEGA Genesis and the writer’s sons also own both SEGA systems. So even though we were more familiar with the Game Gear, we looked at both Game Boy and Game Gear. Game Boy’s screen is too small, it’s a black-and-white system and the clarity of the graphics isn’t good enough for what we needed. Because the hand-held video game system plays such an important part in the film, we thought the SEGA Game Gear would fit better into the story-line. The Game Gear is visually more attractive, it has a bigger screen, clearer graphics AND it’s a color system. For the purpose of our film, we needed to be able to photograph the portable video game screen directly with our cameras. So clarity and size were very important issues.”

Evzen Kolar (SEGA Visions issue 14, August/September 1993)

NuFX’s reiteration is a 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up in which you play one brother or the other. Our ninja trainees can exploit various hand to hand combat manoeuvres as well as traditional oriental weaponry such as shurikens, death stars and katanas. Exploring the most prominent locales from the movie we can tap Adam’s prophetic Game Gear for helpful hints, as well as call upon the services of veteran chaperone ninja, Zatch. Bumping off Colonel Chi’s goons spawns cash used to buy power-ups. That doesn’t sound too spiritual or divine. I doubt the Dalai Lama would approve.

In the same SEGA Visions article entitled ‘Behind the Scenes: The Making of Surf Ninjas’ can be found an interesting interview with one of the producers of the Game Gear tie-in title, Carl Mey. Luckily for you dear reader, following many years of intensive, gruelling training in the dark arts, I’ve managed to master the nimble copy and paste manoeuvre…

SV: How did you get involved with this project?

CM: I was sent a script from our Licensing Dept, asking me to review it and make comments on the possibility of developing a game in conjunction with the movie. As I read the script and saw that the hand-held video game would play such a big part in the movie, I thought what a great opportunity to develop a game with the same story-line. But the best part of the deal would be the opportunity to participate in creating the sequences of the movie that show the game.

SV: What did you enjoy most about the project?

CM: When SEGA accepted the idea and agreed to participate not only in the movie but also in developing a game based on the story-line. Evzen Kolar mentioned that SEGA was a very well-known name and that our newly-found relationship would be a really big deal. I was excited to learn that New Line Cinema was just as interested in getting to know the video game industry as we were in getting to know the film industry. It’s like two separate ends of the same entertainment industry coming together and making an explosive reaction. It was a great opportunity for both of us to learn from each other.

SV: Did you have any input in the use of the Game Gear and what would be shown on the screen?

CM: Definitely. Since the Game Gear’s role in the movie had not yet been defined, the actual ‘action scenes’ seen on a Game Gear unit had to be specially created. I worked very closely with NuFX, (the developer of the game) and together we created storyboards sequencing the game segments that would be shown in the film. New line Cinema sent us footage from the film which gave us the direction we needed to modify the game sequences. We created individual cartridges for each sequence. We color-tested each sequence and adjusted the carts for better visibility. Then New line Cinema shot the game footage directly from the Game Gear System – it was not superimposed! In fact, they were so impressed with the clarity of the Game Gear footage that they actually increased the number of scenes featuring the Game Gear and the amount of game footage that was originally scripted. What great exposure!

SV: What is your overall feeling about the development of this game?

CM: Well, I’m really happy with the way the game developed. Everything went smoothly and the timing was incredible. This was the first time that we were able to develop a game in conjunction with the filming of a movie, and we did it in less than ten months. That’s because all of us involved in the project were very dedicated. Usually it takes a year or more to develop a game.

SV: What are your comments about the finished product?

CM: I’m really excited. The game tested extremely well. The reactions from focus groups were very positive – comments centred on the great graphics, the wide variety of special fighting moves, the large number of enemies and the fact that they grow increasingly harder to beat with each level, and the level of challenge. In this game you need to think strategically through every level. For example, you pick up Gold Coins and YOU decide how to spend your money. If you don’t spend it on the right thing, you’ll never finish the game.

SV: Do you have any tips for our readers?

CM: Yeah. Get the weapons of Kwantzu!

As for the Amiga 1200/CD32 and DOS game published the following year by MicroValue and Capstone Software respectively, erm, well, the kindest thing I can say about it is that it exists. It’s all very Dangerous Streets (also published by Flair/MicroValue) only with worse graphics and more ninjas.

Very few Amiga magazine critics dared/cared to review it upon release in the summer of 1994… and those who did, hated its guts with a passion…

“Hmm, it’s games like this which bring home the restrictions of working on a ‘family’ magazine, and to be honest with you it’s getting me down. Ever since The One was launched (way back in 1987, fact fans), the editorial team has managed (often under extreme provocation) to offer opinions on games without resorting to the kind of profanity you kids use in the playground.

Whenever games like Surf Ninjas are featured, the accompanying text has been artificially tarted up with flowery adjectives interspersed with the occasional ‘crap’. We’d probably say something like: “This is awful. Like Last Action Hero, it’s often possible to last for hours just holding the fire button down whilst waiting for the moronic Ninjas to wander into your blows. ‘The adventure’ side of things is nothing short of pathetic – someone will request an object and you’ll miraculously discover it a few screens away. Brilliant. But whereas games like Dizzy are quite sophisticated (at times), Surf Ninjas is just embarrassing. Give an object to someone and they’ll respond with a single sentence. Approach them again and they’ll say the same thing. Which is inexcusable. I know very little about programming, but I do understand that it’s very easy to assign flags to characters to avoid this kind of repetition. The graphics are laughable and some of the moves even more rib-tickling, but for all the wrong reasons. And the gameplay is monotonous at best. Basically, this isn’t very good at all.”

But this time I’m going to go out on a limb because there is one word which sums up Surf Ninjas, and I’m going to say it. Even if it costs me my job. I feel that strongly. This game is utter, utter bol”

27% – The One (July 1994)

Bizarrely, another magazine showed no indication that they were aware Surf Ninjas is based on a movie (they thought the Surf Ninjas were the baddies for a start), waffled on about the origins of ninjas, went on to make the suggestion that dungarees can be politically correct (?), and finally awarded Surf Ninjas a respectable grade…

“Let us accept the fact that if you can have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles you can have Surf Ninjas. For those of you who are not precisely clear what ninjas are, I should perhaps mention that they were an offshoot of a Buddhist sect in Japan. They were trained in assassination as a religious end. If they were sent on a job and succeeded, when they returned they were allowed to commit suicide among much general rejoicing.

They were experts in working in the dark and using small concealed weapons to see off the unwilling object of their attentions. Strangely enough they were not kung fu fighters and would always use a weapon rather than their bare hands or feet.

That was in the real world. In the world of video games, ninjas have kept the distinctive dark clothing of the original ninjas but abandoned weapons in favour of kung fu.

The story line in Surf Ninjas does not matter over much – just beat the crap out of anyone – always ninjas who come in pairs – who get in your way. Yes, there are clues and problems and these are amusing and show that the programmers are young Brits. Who else would suggest that you, the hero, find a copy of the magazine Euro Soccer?

This game has good graphics and has you, the hero, as a muscle bound bruiser who looks as thick as two short planks – and is probably a neo-nazi with it. Dressed in Doc Martens bovver boots and politically correct dungarees you wander off in search of adventure.

For the DOS version Johnny shook off the shackles of fashion fascism, abandoning his ‘politically correct dungarees’ in the process.

Basically it is all biff and bash and some nasty Romper Stomper techniques including head butting and partial disembowelling. But, hey, if you are going to fight Surf Ninjas you can’t afford to be
squeamish.

From playing this game I have managed to work out the following points:

– If you hit a ninja four times with a baseball bat it discourages the ninja.

– There is an apparently endless supply of ninjas.

– You have to wait for a jumping ninja to descend before you can thump him.

– You can always walk away from a ninja – but there are two more waiting for you down the block.

– When in doubt leap in the air. Most ninjas seem to spend their time trying flying kicks.

– Do not dine at the Imperial Palace restaurant if you want good service. Every time you look at the menu two ninjas come in and kick the crap out of you. This is not an aid to digestion.

– The Surf Ninja gang seems to hang around Sydney Harbour a lot. Is one of the programmers Australian?

– Ripping ninjas’ guts out may sound revolting but it discourages them permanently.

– Ninjas do not like being punched in the nuts.

That should see you through. Go for it. May the force be with you.”

73% – Australian Commodore and Amiga Review volume 11, no 6 (June 1994)

With no explanation provided for anyone who hasn’t seen the $4.9m grossing mega-flop movie, the Amiga game launches straight into the frantic (cough) action. In another horizontally scrolling beat ’em up we adopt the role of Johnny, not that you’d ever guess judging by the Caucasian, meat-headed main sprite who looks more like Arnie with a crew cut than a slender teenage boy.

Somewhere during the transition from movie to game Johnny became Johnny McQuinn as in the Game Gear release. The producer and co-designer of this earlier console interpretation of the movie is called Patrick Quinn. That’s the best albeit nebulous connection I can come up with, sorry. (You have a delete key you know, idiot!). Who said that? Get out of my head. What muddies the waters even further is that in the novelisation by A.L. Singer, the brothers are known as Adam and Johnny McGrath.

Given Surf Ninjas is supposed to be a fighting game it defies belief that it can be beaten simply by jumping past and running away from Colonel Chi’s henchmen like Scooby-Doo in a ghost house! Then again, perhaps that’s the most logical approach to take given how abysmal the collision detection is. The only penalty for not playing by the rules is that you’re ineligible for a place in the high score table having crossed the finish line. In any case, enemies respawn so killing them is pointless. Ignoring everything except critical pick-ups, the game can be completed in just over twenty minutes.

This being an ‘action-adventure’ there are also objects to collect and swap with the locals for other useful gizmos related to events that occur in the movie. It may be a token effort towards artificially augmenting the depth, but… well… erm. Sorry, there are no rational qualifiers to let the ‘Edgies’ off the hook. It’s just feeble, especially for an AGA/CD title released during Commodore’s dotage.

To their credit, Dunediners, Creative Edge, managed to cram in some of the authentic locations from the movie, even helpfully annotating the finer details in case you couldn’t recognised their significance; the Caves of Kwantzu, Mee-Grob village, and the Dungeons of Sri-Wan where we’re required to free the chained/caged captives (we have to use our imagination because the animator couldn’t be bothered, making you wonder why the prisoners are thanking us).

It’s just like an extraordinarily vivid, virtual reality guided tour, better than a holiday to the island paradise itself really. Psyche! It’s still twoddle. ‘Inside the Imperial Palace’ we pass through the ‘Imperial Palace Kitchen’ and the subtitle ‘Dum Dee Bloody Dum…’ appears (?).

Then, if it hadn’t been for the subtitles we’d never have known we needed to source and deliver about 72 wooden boxes to some bloke standing around at the ‘Harbour Loading Bay’ with his arms folded blocking our path to the ‘Harbour Dock’. Once he’s satisfied he disappears, taking his truck with him. Could we not just have thrown him in the sea and then walked around it?

Also by virtue of the captions we learn that ‘Shaba’ (is that you ‘Mr. Loverman’?) is waiting in a hut to build surf boards for us. Not quite Surf Ninja canon; in the movie it’s the Patusani villagers who carve them from the forest’s trees so they can reach Colonel Chi’s royal city island and duff him up. If we provide Shaba with the ready-shaped, sanded and decorated top, middle and bottom parts of a single board he’ll happily connect the pieces for us. Wow, talented guy! Now multiply it by about three dozen so each member of the insurgents can join the revolution.

And who the heck is ‘Vindaloo the Blacksmith’ and why is he calling us ‘Cat’? You were just making this up as you went along weren’t you? I bet that’s what was on the lunch menu that afternoon. Not cannibalism, the first bit. Oh you know what I mean, there’s no need to be facetious.

Huh? We don’t look a bit like Danny John-Jules.

Our core objective is to defeat half-man, half-machine, Colonel Chi, having waded through a cascade of his obsequious Tiger Ninjas, which makes sense. If you can be bothered, Mortal Kombat style head butts and heart-ripping finishing moves are an option. Yes, in a game based on a PG graded movie aimed at kids. Oddly, no such extreme violence is levelled at two-faced Colonel Chi because he’s not even featured in the game, only alluded to. Reaching his lair is sufficient to consider him dealt with! They dropped the movie’s culminating ‘epic finale’ struggle of good versus evil entirely.

Technically our almighty nemesis is annihilated by returning a book to ‘The King’s Library’. It’s true – we fetch roughly a zillion and three precious stones for ‘The King’s Jewelmaker’ and in exchange he gives us a book to re-home, granting us access to the room adjacent to ‘The King’s Quarters’. Cheekily we nip through and somehow succeed in reclaiming our rightful place on the throne by… looking out the window in a threatening pose!

The balcony is the window to the soul!

You’d imagine the CD32 edition might incorporate some impressive enhancements here and there given the extra storage capacity available. And if so, you’d be dead wrong – the minor changes amount to a few extra colours applied to certain collectables, an additional character with which to ‘interact’, and some superfluous scenery; none of which would demand CD technology to execute. That said, the CD32’s title screen is animated with spinney-rotatey 3D text, is cut with a two second clip of a surfer riding the tubes, while a revamped ditty plays in the background. Bodacious!

Left: Dare you unleash the AGA floppy edition? Right: The rehashed CD32 title screen in all its …textiness.

In-game you have a choice of either sound effects or music, not both; inexcusable in a mid-nineties title. It’s also so glitchy it looks down its nose at ‘Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing’, taunting the amateur upstart.

Enemies flicker upon defeat as if about to perish, yet can be revived if you whack them again while in this state. It’s possible to be accidentally teleported elsewhere when attempting to enter a building, and also repeatedly rip out the heart of an opponent who has already met his maker.

As if to underline how little Creative Edge cared about Surf Ninjas, a poster for ‘Baldies’ – another title of theirs (released a year later) – can be seen attached to a wall on the ‘Main Sidewalk’. What’s funnier still is that they spell it ‘Baldy’, so they either couldn’t spell the name of their own game, or they were referring to this instead. Neither option makes much sense.

It’s actually the vagrant behind Johnny’s flying leg asking the question, though it’s appropriate either way. 😉

By the time Creative Edge began work on the DOS version they were moonlighting as Italian holiday reps.

I expect ‘Dave’ refers to David Wightman, founder of Creative Edge and producer of Surf Ninjas.

‘Outside the Imperial Palace’ they’ve shoe-horned in an ‘Edge Tower’ building, there’s an area called ‘Edge Alleyway’ off the ‘Main Sidewalk’, and even a self-promotional name-drop appears in the finale’s congratulations screen! Somehow I don’t think their minds were on the job in hand.

 

Which incidentally parallels how I’m feeling towards it after this insipid exercise in masochistic drudgery. As atrocious as the movie is, if it’s a choice between playing the Amiga game and a spot of vicarious moto-surfing with Adam, Johnny and Iggy… Kwantsu, dudes!

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