Many games over the years have attempted to provide players with the experience of being the stereotypical ninja, dashing around at high speeds, performing acrobatics, running up walls, and deftly taking out your opponents before they have a chance to react. Few games have truly achieved this goal, but there is still the odd game that attempts to join the ranks of those that have. The latest of these is Bitmap Bureau’s local multiplayer arena brawler Ninja Shodown.
From the very moment you load it up, you will likely notice that Ninja Shodown really captures the level of speed that you would expect from a game in which you play as a ninja. Combined with double jumping, wall running, and the ability to hold onto any surface, the game really gives you tools needed to dart around its maps fairly effortlessly. It’s rare that a game succeeds in simply making movement feel fun, but Ninja Shodown has done so and done quite well in that regard.
That being said, jumping around alone won’t win battles. The core of your move set is a quick sword strike, which can transition into a three-strike combo; a straight-shot shuriken throw in any cardinal direction, which is limited by the amount of shurikens that you have picked up from shuriken crates that are scattered around the arena; a special attack of sorts, which depends on the last special weapon that you picked up from a special weapons crate; and a dodge. This simple move set offers a surprising amount of depth. Sword strikes are extremely limited in range and, thanks to players’ fast movement speed, have to be timed nearly perfectly in order to hit your target. Shurikens are fairly quick, but ammo is limited and they can be deflected by a sword strike or another shuriken.
Special weapons include more advanced weapons than a ninja might use, such as an uzi or a rocket launcher, but their ammo is extremely limited and you can kill yourself with them. For example, one special weapon is a landmine, which is automatically placed at your feet when you use it. If you stand on it for too long, you will trigger it and it will kill you. Similarly, thrown explosives are great AoE attacks, but they will kill you if you are within their blast radius.
The game’s dodge mechanic is implemented in a fairly interesting way. It’s less of a full-on dodge and more of a short-range backstep. It appears as if it was made to be comboed with a forward slash exclusively as a method of performing a counterattack. Because of this, dodge-counterattack combos are fairly hard to pull off, but rewarding when executed successfully.
Unlike many other local multiplayer arena-based titles, Ninja Shodown offers two variations of arcade-styled mode, Arcade and Infinite, that can be played in both single-player and co-op forms in addition to the obligatory Versus mode. The Arcade and Infinite modes both take place on static, single-screen maps that utilize the same tileset, but slightly different layouts. Each ode pits players against waves of enemies that simply walk around the arena and attempt to kill the player by running into them. The modes share similar enemy progressions, but their scoring mechanics are different.
Arcade mode is broken into different “levels,” or waves of set numbers of each type of enemy, and scored similarly to classic arcade games with an added letter ranking, which is mostly based on how many times you died. You start with three lives and are awarded more lives upon reaching set scores, which is also similar to classic arcade games. Killing multiple enemies in quick succession will award a combo multiplier, which will in turn multiply the amount of points awarded by each kill. When you run out of lives, your score is set and your letter rankings for all of the levels you completed are averaged together for a final letter ranking.
Infinite mode is simply a never-ending stream of enemies. For each kill you score, you earn one point. Due to the simplified scoring system, combos are meaningless, although the Infinite mode does still feature a combo meter. You start with three lives and cannot earn more. When you run out of lives, your score is set and you are awarded a letter ranking seemingly entirely based on your score.
Again seemingly taking from classic arcade games, the third level of the Arcade mode and its Infinite mode equivalent are where the difficulty ramps up significantly. Enemies in both modes simply walk in one direction until they hit a wall, at which point they turn around. If they hit the edge of a platform, they jump down. Rather than allow them to pool at the bottom of the map, both modes’ maps feature doorways that the AI can use to move around the map, seemingly arriving at a randomly-chosen door upon entering one. The first level simply features basic enemies that do naught but walk. The second level introduces an enemy that will charge at you at an increased speed when it is facing you and on the same platform as you are. The third level introduces yet another enemy that can only be killed by attacking it from behind and it introduces them in bulk, making it hard to get behind any of them, as they often have another following closely behind them. After hours of play, I’ve only successfully made it to the fourth level once and was quickly dispatched afterwards, granted I played alone for the grand majority of my time in the Arcade and Infinite modes.
An interesting aspect of the Arcade and Infinite modes is that there is no health, so enemies simply kill you upon any contact with them. If your toe so much as clips them, much less their toe clips you, you will die. This makes it so that timing is of the utmost importance; I’ve died more than a few times due exclusively to mistiming an attack in midair, swinging right over an enemy’s head, and clipping them with my leg. It also makes it so that simply having a co-op partner or two doesn’t make either mode easier, as they have to know what they’re doing or they will simply die alongside you.
That all being said, the bulk of the game’s content is in the Versus mode. Both the Arcade and Infinite modes feature but one map each and share a tileset, whereas the Versus mode features five different tilesets, each of which has five different maps, and four modes of its own: Battle, Coin, Crown, and Last Ninja. Battle is a three-minute battle to obtain the most points; kills award one point, while deaths subtract one point. Coin is a three-minute mad dash to see who can obtain the most coins; lucky cats found around the arena drop 10 coins each and players will drop up to 10 coins each upon death, depending on how many they have at the time of death. Crown is a three-minute fight to see who can hold onto a crown longest; the crown awards a point per second held, is dropped on death, and keeps the player who is holding it from fighting back. Last Ninja is a battle to see who runs out of lives first; this mode is not timed.
The Versus mode’s maps are surprisingly varied. Some are larger, more open maps with multiple floors while others are smaller, more condensed maps that are largely a single floor. There are even some that don’t have walls, meaning that you can fall off of them if you aren’t careful. Additionally, each tileset has its own unique elements that add to the atmosphere. The Dojo tileset has shōji, which cause player characters to turn into silhouettes when they walk behind them, whereas the Area 88 tileset has snowfall in the background and the Museum tileset has rain in the background. There are a few maps that can be awkward to play on, such as one that is separated into two larger chambers that are connected by only a single platform in the middle of the map, but most are well-designed and offer the freedom of movement that helps the combat system flourish.
In addition to the mechanics mentioned above, the Versus mode has a system for dealing with situations in which two players strike each other at the same time. Should this happen, both players will be pulled into an event in which they are required to quickly tap the attack button repeatedly. The player that taps the attack button faster will win the event and kill their opponent.
After only a few minutes in Versus mode, it is fairly evident that it is the game’s definitive mode, the way that it was meant to be played. While the Arcade and Infinite modes are enjoyable, facing off against an opponent that has the same move set that you do and can react to your attacks is simply exhilarating. The fast-paced battle of jumping back and forth, trying to land hits with both melee and ranged attacks, is insanely intense. The game’s one-hit kills make matches intense and involved. Trying to anticipate what your opponent will do while lining up attacks, deflections, and counterattacks that demand near-perfect timing is an experience that is rarely matched.
There are, however, a few issues. Each tileset has but one accompanying track of music; because the Arcade and Infinite mode share a tileset, which is also used in the Versus mode, there is one track that you will be hearing a lot. The Nintendo Switch version has some framerate issues when there is a lot going on, particularly when there is a lot of blood splatter. There is a dedicated “dab” button, which can be used as a taunt, but the dab animation isn’t different enough from the standing animation to be able to tell that a player is dabbing during your average match.
Furthermore, due to how small many of the sprites are, playing the Switch version of the game in handheld mode can be fairly uncomfortable. When playing in handheld mode, I often had issues tracking minute details once the action picked up, which can be problematic due to the precision the game demands. This is unfortunate, granted one of the Switch’s major strengths is its portability, but I definitely found the game to be far more comfortable to play on a TV.
Ninja Shodown succeeds where many other games fail. It manages to really capture the feeling of being a ninja while simultaneously distilling it down to a few simple, but nuanced, mechanics. It is an insanely fast-paced experience that demands precision and punishes even the slightest failures. If you’re looking for a deep single-player experience, I would definitely recommend passing on Ninja Shodown, as the real meat of the game is in its competitive multiplayer experience. However, if you’re looking for a brawler with a higher skill cap than many others and have a few friends to play it with, this is one that is well worth picking up.
Important note: Publisher Rising Star Games sent us a copy of the Nintendo Switch version of Ninja Shodown for the purpose of writing this article.