Review: Ninja Senki DX

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Originally a freeware game dating back to 2010 (you can still download it here), Ninja Senki is back in a freshly minted release for PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita, now with a ‘DX’ in the title. Turns out that ‘DX’ makes a world of difference.

Okay, so even with the ‘DX’ Ninja Senki is basically the same core game that it was half a decade ago. It’s a 16 level 2D retro platformer that pays proper tribute (that’s what Tribute Games is all about after all) to the giants of the genre. Mostly the game offers a fast action-platforming vibe reminiscent of Mega Man, but it also mixes in the coin collecting of a Super Mario Bros. and the shuriken-flinging ninja stylings of classics like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden. Unlike a lot of games that attempt the whole retro redux thing, Ninja Senki DX feels deeply rooted in the nuances of 8-bit game design, yet does so in a way that subtly blends in elements of modernity without breaking its faithful vow to the classics.

The gameplay centers on a straightforward two-button control scheme–one button to jump (and double jump), one button to throw shurikens. Though not mandatory, this is definitely the type of game you’ll want to play with a gamepad, particularly one with a good D-pad. Regardless, the controls are snappy and precise, without any of the “floatiness” that makes certain games from the olden days difficult to stomach by today’s standards. The game does have stunlock, that momentary period of invulnerability when the character is knocked back and not able to be moved upon taking damage, but its use never feels penalizing in a cheap or unfair way. The level design is challenging yet incredibly fair overall, striking an even balance between skill, classic enemy pattern recognition, and predicting the game’s attempts to throw “cheap shots” at you. Like when you jump forward to a tiny platform only to be greeted by the sudden appearance of an enemy flying at you from off the screen.

You’re given two lives to start the game, with five health bubbles per life to absorb regular enemy damage as well as unlimited continues. (Of course there are plenty of insta-kill spikes and pits to avoid.) A health refill is earned for every 1000 points earned–or, if health is full at the time, an extra life is awarded. Each level has a midway checkpoint to refresh from and help mitigate some of the pain of frequent die-and-retry attempts (and you will die a lot), but once you run out of lives and use a continue you are restarted at the very beginning of the current stage with a new supply of two lives. If you don’t take advantage of opportunities to pull off perfect runs and stock up some extra lives, levels near the end can be pretty tough to beat within a couple tries.

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The only thing lacking about the gameplay, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t do enough with the ninja theme. Early on, there are a couple instances of an interesting water walking mechanic that, with proper timing, allows you to essentially double-jump off the surface without sinking to a watery insta-death. These moments have a nice flow to them and make you feel like a master ninja, but there really aren’t any other unique mechanics like that throughout the rest of the game.

Ninja Senki‘s 16 levels take approximately two hours to beat, give or take depending on your proficiency with this style of game and how many continues it takes to beat some of the game’s trickier bosses (the final boss is appropriately devilish). But that’s where the whole ‘DX’ moniker comes in. This new version heaps on a wealth of content to elevate the replayability factor. The game now includes both Normal and Hardcore story modes, with the Normal mode allowing for automatic progress saves between levels and no continue penalty versus the much tougher Hardcore mode, which does not allow saves (meaning it must be completed in one session) and inflicts a score penalty for using a continue. Beating the game unlocks a Boss Rush mode, and supposedly there is another secret mode that I have yet to discover. The Boss Rush, Normal, and Hardcore modes also feature online leaderboards for high scores and best completion times, though sadly the leaderboards aren’t directly accessible from within the game (at least not that I saw). Instead, there is a Steam Community leaderboard link to click through from the game’s Steam page.

The primary source of replay value, however, comes from the new Challenge mode. Each stage now has four different optional challenge titles to earn: Perfect, for completing a no-hits run; Collector, for finding all of the koban coins; Assassin, for killing all enemies; and Speed Runner, for beating the target completion time. These challenges can be achieved within the main continuity of the story mode, plus there is a separate Challenge mode that lets you revisit any level to attempt remaining challenges that have not been mastered yet. Even the game’s achievements offer interesting “you wouldn’t normally attempt to do this” types of feats that add meaningful replay. Average players are likely to only get one of the 26 achievements from the first playthrough.

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Cosmetically, this ‘DX’ version features some minor alterations from the original. At the most basic, the game has full screen and scalable windowed views. The soundtrack has been remixed with a new score, while the original music remains available as a secondary option. Both offer some awesome chiptunes, so you really can’t go wrong either way. Strangely, some of the enemy sprites and particle effects have been redrawn, and I have to say, after going back and replaying the original, I kind of prefer the designs from the freeware version. For example, enemies now pop into a plume of smoke when killed whereas in the original game they explode into particles of blood with a gushier “thwack!” sound. I wish there was an option to toggle the original sprites in similar fashion to the soundtrack (though perhaps since the new version is on consoles there was a conflict with maintaining an E10+ ESRB rating if the blood effect was kept).

My only other comment has to do with the implementation of controller vibration. It seems to be bugged for me. One time I was playing and the controller went into a spasm where every few seconds it would start to pulse on its own, not tied to any direct feedback from actions in the game. On another occasion the spasm continued even after I quit the game and carried on until I unplugged the controller entirely. Maybe it was a random hardware error on my end, however it’s never happened before with other games I’ve played. Fortunately, the game provides an option to disable controller vibration. It’s not the type of game that necessarily benefits from force feedback any way.

At first blush, the thought of paying to play a game that is already available for free might not sound all that appealing. However, once you consider the volume of extra content Tribute Games is now offering it’s really a no-brainer to make the upgrade. If the newfangled frills don’t do anything for you, sure, the freeware version is plenty of fun. But with the additional challenges, modes, and achievements, Ninja Senki DX is well worth dropping a fiver on.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Exquisitely designed two-button retro platforming
+ Fairly balanced difficulty curve
+ New challenges, modes, and achievements add tremendous replay value
+ Fun boss battles

Cons:
– I actually prefer some of the enemy and effect sprites of the freeware game
– Platforming could be “ninja-ier”

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available on PS4 and Vita
Publisher: Tribute Games
Developer: Tribute Games
Release Date: 2/23/2016
Genre: 2D Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: PlayStation Store, Steam, Humble Store

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!