Ninja Senki / Ninja Senki DX

A game by Jonathan Lavigne for PC, PS4, and Vita, originally released in 2010, with the DX version released in 2016.
Ninja Senki is a very traditional action platformer, harkening back to the glory days of the NES and GameBoy, where boys were boys and games were tough and all the best strategies were found in the pages of Nintendo Power. The story is as simple as they come: “Kinuhime was killed by a ninja demon. Now Hayate has become obsessed with revenge. But can revenge bring her back?”

You take on the role of the ninja Hayate who must travel across feudal Japan to avenge the death of his love. You are equipped with the standard 8-bit ninja skillset… a jump, double jump, and infinite shuriken.

You have a high 2.5x jump which can be extended a bit further with the double jump. In addition to jumping again in midair, you may also initiate a double jump while falling, which is used as an advanced technique to get Hayate between low overhangs and bottomless pits. Interestingly, the ninja can also perform a double jump after touching water, which opens up a small number of challenges where you must repeatedly jump across a body of water which otherwise acts as a bottomless pit.

You may only have three shuriken on the screen at a time. However, shuriken move quickly and the screen is quite small – mimicking the constraints of the Game Boy Color – so you can essentially fire them off as quickly as you can hit the button. Most basic enemies can be destroyed with a single shuriken, while common moderate enemies may take two or three hits, and there are a handful of tougher enemies that can absorb numerous hits before being destroyed. Interestingly, a few enemies can deflect your shuriken, and these deflected shots can still cause damage to any enemies they hit.

As with the games that inspired it, some enemies are simply palette swaps of one another, with different colors representing the difficulty and abilities of the enemy. For instance, the basic red ninja simply patrols back and forth and is destroyed in a single hit, where the yellow ninja is stationary but can toss shuriken of his own, and green ninjas can jump and also toss shuriken.

New enemies are introduced gradually throughout the 16-stage adventure, with the bulk of your enemies consisting of ninjas and sorcerers, with the occasional demon or ghost. However, there are also a couple of areas with more intricate theming, such as the bamboo forest, which is filled with creatures like frogs, turtles, and even deadly anthropomorphized bamboo sprouts. Other themed areas include caverns filled with insta-death spikes and falling platforms, plateaus and treetops mixed with long ascents and bottomless pits, and dungeons filled with moving platforms. You’ll also be running through a number of ninja-packed cities and Japanese domiciles.

The game has a somewhat odd structure when it comes to its system of lives and continues. The player has unlimited continues (at the cost of 100 points taken from his score), but only has three lives with which to complete each level. Hayate can absorb five hits before being killed, at which point he is returned to the last checkpoint, and losing all three lives sends him back to the start of the stage. Checkpoints appear at moderate intervals, in line with those found in NES-era titles, rather than modern releases which tend toward placing them at every screen transition and before every major challenge.

Levels aren’t terribly long, nor are they overly difficult, but you are likely to be surprised by the placement of an enemy, or drop into a bottomless pit during your first run, requiring that you return with the foreknowledge to overcome the challenge. Skilled players may blow through most levels on their first attempt, but may need to replay more challenging areas a couple of times before moving on. Each level has a timer that counts down as well, but you are able to continue even after it reaches zero, as it is in place to offer a score bonus to those who complete levels quickly. Making the game somewhat more difficult is the fact that you cannot save your game.

Going very old school in this design choice, there is no way to resume your progress once you leave the game, again harkening back to early NES-era titles where you had to slowly grow your skills and then attempt a run through the whole thing in one sitting. In this way, it may take days or weeks to master a game like Contra, but the game can easily be beaten in a single sitting by a player who has become skilled by replaying the game. That said, Ninja Senki isn’t quite as difficult as many of the old school games from which it takes its inspiration, so skilled players can certainly complete the game on their first attempt, while others may need to win by attrition.

Health is restored between levels, but not your number of lives. There is only one way to restore your health or earn extra lives within the game, and that is to earn 1,000 points. By collecting coins and killing enemies, your score gradually increases, and when you cross the 1,000 point threshold, your health is restored. However, if your health is already at its maximum, you gain an extra life instead.

Getting killed in a level not only returns you to the most recent checkpoint, but also returns your score to what it was at that time. This type of 1UP system is reminiscent of arcade titles, but those games reset your score with each dropped quarter. Here, it is possible to abuse the system a bit by going into a level with X,900 points and quickly earning enough points to gain a 1UP, with the freedom do grab another one should you fail before you reach the next checkpoint. However, there is also a second ending for skilled players who are able to execute their revenge flawlessly.

Boss battles appear every two levels, at the end of each of the eight themed areas. One of the bosses appears multiple times in slightly modified scenarios, but the others are unique and include some traditional ninja game foes like a fire-spitting dragon, a large oni mask, and a… rather well-endowed tanuki.

In 2016, the game was re-released by Tribute Games as Ninja Senki DX with a remixed soundtrack, a new Challenge Mode, Hardcore Mode, a boss rush, leaderboard support, and a more detailed HUD. The game also replaces several foes with new enemy types, although the gameplay is largely unchanged.

Ninja Senki was developed by Canadian developer Jonathan Lavigne using GameMaker, with music by Patrice Bourgeault and sound effects by Jean Chan. The game takes its inspiration from a number of classic NES titles, such as Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man, as well as the more recent retro throwback, Ninja Robot Haggleman, which appeared in Retro Game Challenge on the Nintendo DS. The game was released as freeware.

Jonathan Lavigne worked professionally in the industry on a number of noteworthy 2D games. He worked for several years at Ubisoft, working as a game designer on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, and as an artistic director for the GBA versions of TMNT, Open Season, Kong, and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. After self-publishing Ninja Senki, he went on to found Tribute Games and released Wizorb and Mercenary Kings.