ADK’s Ninja Combat is, as we’ve previously established, a game that is fun in principle but somewhat lacking in execution due to its extremely questionable difficulty balancing.
Two years after Ninja Combat helped to launch the Neo Geo, ADK returned to all things ninja with a spiritual successor. Enter Ninja Commando, which brought with it a shift in perspective from side-on to top-down, and a much more reasonable challenge for your average player — albeit one that still gets pretty tough in its latter levels!
Ninja Commando has been rereleased a few times over the years, and also forms part of the ADK Damashii collection for PlayStation 2, which is the version we’re primarily concerned with today. Let’s take a closer look!
In Ninja Commando, an evil dude named Spider is doing something nefarious with time travel. Naturally, this sort of thing doesn’t fly in the mid-’90s and thus it’s up to the world’s top three ninjas to sort out the problem by throwing pointy objects at it.
Joining us this time around are American ninja Joe Tiger, British kunoichi Rayar Dragon and the 23rd descendant of legendary Sengoku-era ninja Kotarō Fūma, Ryu Eagle. For those who enjoy pointless but pleasing bits of internal consistency between a developer’s various works, Kotarō Fūma is a playable character in ADK’s 1992 fighting game World Heroes, and in Ninja Commando there is a scene where Ryu avenges his ancestor’s death by killing Nobunaga Oda. On top of that, our three ninjas’ advisor Dr. Brown also appears in World Heroes as a non-playable character and time-travelling enthusiast. But I digress.
Once into gameplay, you’ll be in familiar territory if you ever played a top-down run-and-gun game. Tapping the attack button causes each of our heroes to shoot projectiles up the screen, with the attack increasing in power the longer you continuously tap. Each character has their own distinct attack pattern: Joe fires a spread of shuriken that widens as he powers up; Rayar fires a line of arrows straight up, with more arrows being added to the side as her attack increases in intensity; and Ryu shoots out pairs of large, powerful fireballs.
The twist on the usual top-down run-and-gun formula is that you can only fire upwards in Ninja Commando. This means that positioning is extremely important, and you need to strike a good balance between being able to avoid enemy shots while still being able to hit them. Thankfully, your basic attack isn’t your only option.
Each character is able to dodge with a dedicated button. Regrettably, this doesn’t appear to have any invincibility frames, so it’s simply a means of getting around the screen more quickly rather than being able to defy death with proper timing. However, it does have an additional trick that is frequently very useful: if you hit the attack button while dodging, your character will fling something sharp in the opposite direction to the way they’re dodging. In this way, you can put some distance between yourself and an enemy while still keeping on the offensive. This often comes in very handy during the challenging boss battles.
And it wouldn’t be an arcade game without some form of super desperation attack, would it? Here they’re known as Ninja Tricks, and can be pulled off with a simple tap of their own dedicated button — though as is genre convention, they cost a bit of life to use. They’re good for getting out of a pinch — but there’s an additional mechanic in Ninja Commando you should consider before sacrificing some health to clear the screen.
Unusually for a game of this type, each character has their own complement of three fighting game-style special moves, each accomplished by some sort of feverish joystick manipulation followed by a tap on the attack button.
Just to make things a little more complicated (or interesting, depending on how you look at it), the three characters’ inputs for these moves are all different. Rayar’s are the easiest to pull off, since one simply involves hammering the attack button as quickly as you possibly can and another is simply down and attack. Joe, meanwhile, has a special that requires you to do two quarter-circles in succession, one beginning in the upper-left and one beginning in the upper-right, while Ryu challenges you to push up, down-left, down-right, up-left, up-right, down then attack for the privilege of shooting energy waves out to the sides. All while fending off enemies and avoiding attacks. Fun!
Assuming you can pull off the inputs, you can use the special moves as much as you like, and they can really make a difference at times — particularly when dealing with enemies coming from the sides. As with fighting games, though, it’s often a matter of knowing when it’s best to use these and when you can safely depend on your more reliable normal attacks; finding a good balance is essential.
As the setup for the game suggests, each level takes place in a different time period, with thematically appropriate(ish) bosses such as fire-breathing robot dinosaurs and snake-armed pharaoh death masks along the way. Levels typically feature at least one slightly less ridiculous mid-boss on your way to the period’s final confrontation, and all of these encounters are heavily pattern-based. Attacks are clearly telegraphed through animations, so success in the game is a matter of learning what to watch for and how to get out of the way of whatever is about to try and kill you.
Some attacks might seem completely unavoidable, but there is usually a trick to discover; a good example comes in the boss battle against a gigantic Nobunaga Oda, whereby if you’re too far to the side of the screen you’ll most likely be hit by a near-unavoidable horizontal sword slash, while if you stay reasonably central and just sidestep at the right moment, you’ll only have to deal with a much narrower vertical swipe. Repeat playthroughs are essential to learn all these patterns; since using a continue allows you to pick right back up where you left off, you’re never forced to fully understand a boss’ mechanics before you can move on, so if you’re serious about pursuing high scores or one-credit clears, you’ll need to take some time to practice rather than credit-feeding.
Alternatively, if you just want to enjoy the abject silliness of the game as a whole without worrying about such frivolities as score, you can go nuts with the credit-feeding as much as you like; ADK Damashii’s port of Ninja Commando places no limitations on you in this regard, so it’s entirely up to you how you choose to approach the game.
Ninja Commando is a sure sign that ADK learned from its mistakes with Ninja Combat and took care to avoid them in this spiritual successor. While it’s still a stiff challenge even on the lower difficulties, it feels a lot more fair than its precursor, and is much more enjoyable to come back to for repeat visits as a result. It’s an enjoyable blastathon for one or two players — and an interesting example of what a Neo Geo top-down run-and-gun looked like prior to the outstanding Shock Troopers.
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