Ninja Combat: From a Distance

One cool thing that we’ve started to see in the last couple of console generations is publishers bringing formerly Japan-only releases to the West — not necessarily fully translated, but simply providing us access to games that were previously difficult or impractical to get hold of.

One such example is ADK Damashiia compilation of Neo Geo games that was released for PlayStation 2 back in 2008. It was ported to PlayStation 4 in 2015 for Japanese players — then, two years later, it got a surprise Western release via digital download, followed by a limited packaged release courtesy of Limited Run Games at the tail end of 2019.

ADK Damashii features five games to enjoy, all developed by former SNK partner Alpha Denshi Kabushiki Gaisha, also known as Alpha Denshi Corporation or, you guessed it, ADK. Let’s begin with a look at the rather literally titled Ninja Combat.

Ninja Combat was first released in 1990 as a launch title for both incarnations of the Neo Geo: the arcade-based MVS and the home-based AES. Alongside Magician Lord, a fellow launch game also developed by ADK, it was one of the company’s first titles for the new platform.

ADK had been operating in exclusive partnership with SNK since 1987, and they had a significant role in the design process for the Neo Geo hardware. As such, while many of their titles are perhaps not the best available for the Neo Geo, they are all a very important part of the platform’s history — and, in some cases, are the most sought-after and/or expensive Neo Geo games out there in their original cartridge form.

Ninja Combat is absolutely not a favourite ADK title for many people — for a variety of reasons that we’ll come on to in a moment — but it is an interesting game that shows how ADK was a company willing to experiment with the conventions of a genre and try to do things a little bit differently to the norm. This is a pattern seen throughout all of the ADK Damashii collection, which makes it a fascinating bundle of games to explore; those experiments don’t always come to complete fruition, but it’s intriguing to see what they tried.

In Ninja Combat you (and, optionally, a friend) take on the role of a ninja named Joe (and, optionally, his suspiciously identical-looking friend Hayabusa) in an attempt to investigate the mysterious “Ninja Tower” that has appeared in the middle of New York City. Said Ninja Tower is, of course, the home of the evil Kage Ichizoku (“Shadow Family”) clan, because Ninja Towers that appear suddenly in the middle of American cities in Japanese video games are never home to, say, the Wan-Wan HAPPY PUPPY Kazoku; there always has to be dark magic and death involved somewhere, doesn’t there?

Anyway, upshot of all this is that Joe has to fight his way into the Ninja Tower (starting from an amusement park, bizarrely, which I guess is where he was hanging out when he got the news) and defeat the inevitable resurrected dark sorcerer Genyousai.

So far, so beat ’em up, you might think, but not quite. Ninja Combat is not a conventional beat ’em up — it is an example of an offshoot that we don’t see all that often, but which is a fun twist on the “punching lots of dudes” formula. It’s a beat ’em up that primarily focuses on ranged attacks rather than close-quarters combat. In other words, you don’t have to be right next to your enemies to deal damage to them, since Joe and Hayabusa throw a spread of shuriken with every tap of the attack button, but the game is otherwise based around many of the same design principles of the genre: controlling space, making effective use of hitstun, trying not to get surrounded and beaten to a pulp.

It’s that latter aspect where Ninja Combat presents some difficulties. Each of the playable characters — you unlock three others besides Joe and Hayabusa after recruiting them throughout the game — controls rather sluggishly, with a very slow default walk speed. A tap of the “special” button does allow some form of dodge, but unlike a lot of implementations of a move like this in later games, there do not appear to be any invincibility frames — as such, you ideally need to dodge out of the way before rather than during an incoming attack from an enemy.

You could make the argument that this is in keeping with the ranged combat — it makes sense to keep enemies beyond arms’ reach. But it’s not quite that simple; many of the enemies are considerably more agile or have a much greater reach than you, making it very difficult to get out of the way of some attacks. And the health each character has is extremely stingy: you have just four units of energy per life, and later in the game, many enemy attacks take away up to three of these in a single hit!

Like more conventional beat ’em ups, you don’t have to rely exclusively on your basic attacks and dodging; each character also has a unique special attack that can be unleashed by holding down the attack button to charge a power bar, then releasing it after the character has mumbled some sort of chant. There are a couple of issues with these, too, though — most notably the fact that despite unleashing one of these special moves costing a point of health, they’re by no means guaranteed to hit, and it’s often unclear how much damage they do. Worse, one of the bosses is capable of absorbing and reflecting these back at you.

The fact that these moves require you to charge and release rather than just being mapped to a dedicated button also causes problems at times. The function of a special move in a beat ’em up is typically to provide your character with a bit of breathing room by knocking back or dealing significant damage to surrounding enemies — the fact that they often cost health is intended to make the player decide between losing a bit of health for a mostly guaranteed escape from a difficult situation, and potentially losing a lot of health by attempting to fight their way out with regular moves.

The trouble with requiring a charge-up for a move like this is that it makes it difficult to pull off when placed under significant pressure by surrounding enemies — particularly as your charge resets when you take damage. The intention was clearly to provide something akin to a charged shot in a shoot ’em up — the various implementations of the ranged combat in the regular moves are very much like different types of shoot ’em up weapons, to lend further credence to this theory — but the problem there is that charged shots in shoot ’em ups are used for a different purpose to special moves in beat ’em ups. And they tend not to blow a piece off your ship when you do them!

It’s easy to see why Ninja Combat has drawn plenty of criticism over the years. It’s an unbalanced mess that would have been an absolute nightmare to play in the arcades — it’s not at all unusual to have a credit last less than 15 seconds later in the game, through what feels like no fault of your own — but in a home incarnation such as the one found in ADK Damashii, we can at least explore and appreciate it for what it is: a bold and not-quite-successful experiment to do something a bit different with the beat ’em up genre.

Is it worth playing? Sure; despite all the issues, it’s still a cool game, and in two-player mode the never-ending cycle of deaths matters somewhat less, since the pair of you can compete for overall score over the course of the whole game, making for a rather more enjoyable experience than trudging through single-player, credit-feeding your way to victory.

But is it worth making the effort to try and truly learn in an attempt to one-credit clear it as a solo fighter? Probably not… unless you are the most masochistic kind of masochist there is… in which case I, most sincerely, wish you the very best of luck — and I’ll have some sort of soothing balm and a nice relaxing video game waiting for you at the finish line!

More about Ninja Combat
More about ADK Damashii

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