One of the things I’ve always been rather fond of from the ’80s and early ’90s is how literal a lot of video game titles were, particularly on Atari consoles.
No, I’m not making that last one up. Indeed, for many people this 1990 release from BlueSky Software (who would later go on to develop Shadowrun and the two Vectorman games for Sega Mega Drive) is one of the crown jewels of the underappreciated Atari 7800’s library. And now you, too, can experience its highly entertaining gameplay thanks to the Evercade retro gaming system and its Atari Collection 1 cartridge!
In Ninja Golf, you are coming to the end of your ninja training. And, as surely everyone knows by now, the most dangerous part of all the official ninja training — and your last step before becoming a fully-qualified, card-carrying ninja — is nine holes of Ninja Golf.
Ninja Golf works quite a bit like regular golf. You tee off from one end of a course and attempt to hit the ball in order to land on the green while using as few shots as possible. Once you complete the hole, you move on to the next, until you have completed all nine holes. Very simple.
The golf mechanics eschew the popular “three tap” power and accuracy meter system seen in most modern golf games in favour of a heavily simplified system that works well. On the course map in the corner of the screen, you’ll see a shot marker emanating from your current position, moving out to a maximum range and then resetting to your current position. Wherever the mark is when you tap the 7800’s fire button, that’s where your shot will land. Easy enough — getting to the green in as few shots as possible is simply a matter of timing.
Well, there’s another factor to consider. In Ninja Golf, you have to run from where you took your shot to where your ball landed. And along the way, there are numerous… things trying to stop you. While running along the fairway, gophers and rival ninjas will attack you. While crossing sand traps, you’ll have to contend with poisonous snakes. And while traversing water hazards, there are, of course, sharks to deal with. As well as underwater ninjas.
With this in mind, the most direct route to the green isn’t always the best, since you always run in a straight line across the map from your shot position to the end point. Sometimes it can be safer to take a few more shots to stay on the fairway and deal with straightforward enemies — though bear in mind the fewer shots it takes you to reach the green, the bigger your bonus will be before moving on to the next hole.
There’s another obstacle between you and the hole, mind you; a giant dragon. You don’t actually have to sink the ball to beat a hole, but you do have to engage in a ranged combat duel with this fearsome beastie, who becomes faster and more ferocious the further you progress into the course. Battling the dragon involves deftly dodging its barrage of fireballs — they hurt! — while timing your shuriken throws so they hit it in the mouth as he passes by. It’s tricky at first, but you’ll soon get the rhythm down.
Ninja Golf is such a delight because it is wilfully absurd, but it fully commits to its absurdity. At no point does it feel like it’s making use of its ridiculous premise to provide wacky humour with no real substance; in fact, the game plays itself remarkably straight throughout, and that’s what makes it enjoyable. The design of Ninja Golf clearly started from the silly concept, but the developers decided to actually try and make a solid, enjoyable and addictive arcade-style game from that concept rather than relying purely on gimmicky absurdity.
And they succeeded for the most part. The game features good, responsive controls and doesn’t overcomplicate matters with different moves to worry about — a swift kick in the balls is sufficient to dispatch pretty much any enemy, and those that can’t be dealt with in this way can be jumped over. It might have been nice to see some form of jumping attack so you could score a few more points while you’re sailing over an enemy’s head — this would have also opened up the possibility for aerial enemies for greater variety — but as it stands, the game is easy to pick up, tricky to master. As you progress through the holes, the enemies become more and more relentless and it gets harder and harder to make forward progress, so those nine holes will take you a while to clear, even on the lower difficulty settings.
Ninja Golf’s only real issue is a bit of a lack of variety. Once you’ve seen all the different environments and enemy types, it really is just a case of dealing with a faster pace and more incoming foes. It was ever thus for classic Atari arcade games, of course, but when you consider other games that came out in 1990 — including legendary RPGs Ultima VI: The False Prophet and Phantasy Star II, long-beloved software toy SimCity and classic platformer Mega Man 3, it’s hard not to see Ninja Golf as a little simplistic when compared to its contemporaries.
At the same time, though, it really doesn’t matter, particularly today. Now that Ninja Golf is readily accessible on the Evercade, it’s ideally suited to whiling away ten minutes kicking ninjas in the bollocks while trying to perfect your drive. And you’ll probably be surprised quite how often that quick ten minutes becomes an hour or more…
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