Ninja Five-O

A game by Hudson Soft for GBA, originally released in 2003.

Ninja Five-O was developed by Hudson Soft, and published by Konami in 2003. Hudson was once a standalone developer and publisher, which saw its heyday in the NES and Turbographx-16 era. But in 2001, Konami became its majority stakeholder.

Ninja Five-O flopped when it hit the market. This could be due in part to its fairly atrocious box art, or the name of the game, which referenced a 70’s television show that was likely unfamiliar to the GBA-playing public of 2003. The “O” in Ninja Five-O is the letter “O”, not the number zero (0), as it is often misrepresented (including the back of the game box). The European version fared a bit better with the name Ninja Cop, but the cover art wasn’t much of an improvement.

The game saw a small production run, with no reorders, so there aren’t too many cartridges floating around. However, despite its poor marketing and low production run, the title offers a lot of interesting and well-designed mechanics, not the least of which is its versatile grappling hook.

From the back of the box:

Take on the roll [sic] of Ninja Five-O as he uses all his skill, stealth and magic to rescue hostages and defeat his enemies. Master the art of ninja swords, shuriken throwing stars and ancient ninjitsu magic!

Basically, you are a ninja who fights terrorists. Ninja Five-O GO!



Jump / Grapple

Free camera movement

Sword slash

Hold A and B to use your ninja magic.

It’s impossible to discuss Ninja Five-O without mentioning the NES version of Bionic Commando. Bionic Commando hit the NES in 1988 and blew people away with its grapple mechanic. It offered a type of gameplay that wasn’t a straightforward shooter, nor was it a platformer in the traditional sense. Further, it was an absolute necessity that players not only become familiar with the use of the grapple arm, but to master it completely. The environments were designed in such a way that anything less than perfect precision would find death visited upon the player repeatedly.

That said, mastering the mechanics was extremely rewarding, and would essentially allow a skilled player to fly through the environments, make huge leaps, and make numerous last-minute saves based solely on training and reaction time.

It was then that players knew that they wanted more games with grappling hooks. “Give us Bionic Commando 2!” they shouted. But Capcom was quiet. Except for a couple of nicely done handheld games, it would take a couple of decades before they finally revisited the series. With each generation, gamers hoped that they would see a revival, or at least another company who was willing to steal the grapple mechanic and toss it in their own game. But no one delivered.

Outside of Umihara Kawase and Aquales, the best anyone seemed to be able to produce were games that had special grapple points in the environment, and which restricted the use of a grappling mechanics to specific areas of the game. Any other use of a grappling mechanic was stilted and limited at best. For 15 years, Bionic Commando stood as the sole example of how to implement a grappling hook in a fun way.

Bionic Commando                                Super Castlevania IV

Shinobi (Game Gear)                                          Super Metroid

That finally changed with the release of Ninja Five-O. Not only did the developers keep the “grapple anywhere” mentality of Bionic Commando; they also managed to construct an enjoyable grapple mechanic that operated in a completely different way. Instead of grappling onto platforms and swinging up through them, Ninja Five-O forces you to swing around them. Instead of making players choose between stationary or swinging motions, Ninja Five-O gives players the control to increase or decrease their swing speed at any time, extend or retract their grapple arm at will, and grapple onto vertical surfaces.

The gameplay feels completely different, and the controls are just as hard, if not harder, to master than they were in Bionic Commando. But the freedom of movement is all that much greater. It’s unfortunate that we had to wait so long for someone to steal such a good idea, when we should have been playing Super Bionic Commando on the SNES, or at least a 2.5D Viewtiful Commando on GameCube (thank the gods that no one thought to try a 3D Bionic Commando on the N64… that would have been a disaster).

(ed note: We are well aware that the plural of the word “ninja” is “ninja”. However, for ease of reading, we have referred to them as “ninjas”. Please do not fret.)

Your blue-clad warrior, Joe Osugi, starts the game with some basic ninja attacks, including the ability to toss shuriken and swing his sword. He also has the ability to slide across the ground by pressing DOWN and JUMP, and he has a ledge grab maneuver. Both of these are pretty standard moves in the repertoire of the latter-day 2D action hero, but they each have a second layer of depth that gives you additional control. The length of your dash is determined by how long you hold down the JUMP button, which allows you to make tiny bursts forward to avoid obstacles, such as the lasers and electrical fields that populate the later areas of the game. You can also crawl slowly, if you need more precise movement.

Most games which allow a ledge grab offer you two possible follow-up options: drop back off the ledge or climb up. This game offers both of those options, plus the ability to perform a full jump from your hanging position. So, rather than climbing slowly onto a platform, you can spring up quickly and perhaps get the drop on an enemy with a well placed spinning sword attack. This also keeps the pace of the from getting too slow while you constantly watch the character go through his climbing animation.

However, there is yet another layer of depth. If you climb up onto a ledge and keep pressing down, Osugi will not go into a standing animation, but will rather go directly into a crouch. This allows you to climb up onto a ledge beneath an enemy’s line of fire, and remain below the danger zone. It’s a small touch, but it gives you some additional control, and it comes into play for some of the stealth elements (which we’ll discuss shortly).

Of course, your ninja has the ability to jump as well, although your jump height is a bit lower than what you might expect from the ninjas you’ve controlled in the past. Joe Musashi this is not. However, your low jump height (also variable, depending on how long you hold the JUMP button) is offset by the fact that you have a kaginawa wire grappling hook that can latch onto practically any surface, and this is the crux of the gameplay. It is a difficult tool to master, but knowing how to use it properly is the largest factor in determining whether you will find the game to be enjoyable, or a frustrating mess.

The grappling hook in this game works differently than in most. First and foremost, it is faster and allows you much more control. By default, the hook shoots straight up, but it will shoot up in a 45 degree angle if you are pressing left or right. When swinging from a horizontal surface, you can reel the chain in and out by pressing up or down on the D-pad. You can also increase and decrease your swinging speed by pressing to the left or right. Additionally, you can quickly zip to the hook point by holding R (tap for a short retract), you can disengage the grapple at any time, and you can fire projectiles to the left or right while swinging, even while reeling the grapple chain in or out.

If you grapple onto a vertical surface, you can press away from the wall to swing in that direction, or you can press up to reel yourself in and stand with your feet planted against the wall. From here, you can either jump off, or let out a bit more chain so you can swing yourself higher, allowing you to triangle jump up through a narrow passageway. In later levels, use of this move is required to progress, and mastery of it will eventually be required simply to survive.

Now, let’s discuss attacks. You start with a sword, and it remains throughout the game with no changes in its abilities. You have a 2-strike combo, which occurs when you tap the R button twice in rapid succession. You also have a spinning sword attack, which you can initiate by jumping and pressing the R button in the air. It has a wide attack range, and it is one of the most powerful attacks in the game (twice as powerful as a standard sword slash, and equally as powerful as the plasma burst). In fact, a player who is well-skilled in using the sword and grapple mechanics could realistically complete the game using little else.

Sword attacks yield more points and increase your magic meter more quickly than projectiles. And, on the Easy and Normal difficulty levels, you get a full health restoration for every 50,000 points (the score will flash red when this occurs), thus further rewarding players who utilize their grappling hook and sword skills to their fullest. Performing a perfectly-timed sword strike to free a hostage from a gunman is extremely satisfying and goes a long way to supporting the badassedness of the main character.

The game also incorporates stealth elements, making this more than simply a straightforward action game that just so happens to place a ninja in the starring role. You are encouraged to be more ninja-like in your approach, as performing a stealth kill will net you additional points over a standard attack. If you manage to come up behind an enemy without him seeing you, and without making any noise (like using a projectile or landing hard from a jump), you can reward his lack of perception with a spinning sword strike to the back of the skull. Often, this will result in a high-flying spinning death animation that you would only otherwise see in a kung-fu movie.

Enemy death animations – and animation in general – is very fluid. There are numerous ways for enemies and the main character to die based on the environment. For instance, if an enemy is standing on a platform when killed, he might slump over the railing and fall to the ground below. Giant samurai enemies will fall to their knees, explode, and fall forward onto the ground. Osugi himself can die by drowning (after which, his body will float slowly to the surface), by falling into a pit of spikes, or even bursting into flames under the business end of an enemy flame thrower.

And if you find yourself an audience to your own death too frequently, it may be time to switch to projectile weapons, and start picking off some foes from a distance. Enemy AI is pretty good, so this isn’t as simple as just hitting the SHOOT button and watching the bad guy go bye-bye. Enemies can climb up over obstacles to pursue you, some can shoot or toss projectiles in multiple directions, and some will duck down to take advantage of the firing position and avoid being hit, so you’ll need to stay sharp even when attacking from a “safe” position.

Your basic projectile weapon is the shuriken, which can be tossed in a straight line. You can have up to 3 on the screen at once, and most of the weaker enemies will require at least 3 hits to be killed, so it can take a long time to get through a level if you’re relying on these and nothing else. Still, they’re good if you don’t want to put yourself at risk, and they do absorb most enemy projectiles.

By picking up a red lightning bolt, you will upgrade your projectile weapon from shuriken to fireballs. For some reason, you will also change out of your blue outfit and into a pink one. Red might have been a more appropriate color to indicate a fire-powered ninja, but if you see anyone making fun of your pink PJ’s, you are free to burn their marshmallows. Be aware that taking damage causes you to revert back to your previous power level, and it can be a difficult task to retain your powerups, especially if you’re trying to hold onto them for a boss fight.

Red fireballs come out 3 at a time, with one firing straight forward, and the other two angling up and down. You can have 2 sets of these on the screen at once. The projectiles are thicker than a standard shuriken, so not only do you have a wider damage range, but the center fireball can hit ducking enemies as well.

This weapon is slightly more powerful than the shuriken, but it’s damage range is really what makes it more useful. The angled projectiles allow you to pick off some enemies that aren’t able to reach you, and can absorb not only projectiles that are fired directly at you, but also those coming in at an angle. The damage for each fireball is calculated independently, so hitting an enemy with all 3 fireballs does triple the damage as only hitting him with one, rewarding the player who gets in a bit closer for the kill.

Grabbing another lightning bolt will upgrade your shot to the plasma burst. This projectile is just as strong as your spinning sword attack, which means that you can insta-kill most enemies from across the room.

It’s a very fast attack, and it can penetrate most small- and medium-sized enemies, and it is also unblockable. It’s very handy against a row of regular enemies, not to mention larger enemies and bosses, if you can manage to avoid taking damage long enough to hold onto it. Once again, due to the width of the projectile, even ducking enemies will be hit. Upgrading to the highest projectile level changes the color of your outfit to a darker and much more ninja-appropriate color.

Finally, you have some ninjitsu magic to help you take down the enemy. Your magic meter is represented by a green bar in the upper-left corner of the screen, beneath your health meter. It fills as you kill enemies – faster if using your sword – and when it fills up, you can hold down the A and B buttons to unleash an attack that will kill every enemy on the screen (except bosses, which will only take damage). The screen turns blue and Osugi flies quickly around the room, through walls and other obstacles, slicing through every enemy. You can even use this move to free hostages without killing them.

You can also use your magic before the meter is completely full. By holding A and B with a less-than-full magic meter, Osugi will simply turn blue. During this time, he is invincible. Not only will he not go undamaged by enemy attacks, he will not be pushed back when getting hit, meaning that you can simply walk forward and absorb damage while getting your kill on.

In addition to killing enemies to refill the meter, you can also find blue lightning bolt icons which will restore the meter to its max. If you already have a full meter, you can leave the powerup and come back for it later (and you’ll need to press down over a pickup to collect it; it will not be collected by simply walking over it). All powerups and health restoratives – including enemy drops – stay in place until you have finished the level. This gives you a bit of room to strategize, and means that you’ll never be “wasting” a pickup by grabbing it when you don’t need it. Of course, you can grab it anyway, and you’ll gain points.

Health restoratives appear in the form of hearts. Small hearts restore a small portion of your life bar, and large hearts restore half. You’ll also regain half of your life bar whenever you complete a level. Hearts and other pickups can be found in red crates, which are breakable with your sword, or sometimes as drops from enemies.

The only other pickups in the game are colored keys. Now, key-fetching is just the thing that your video game heritage has taught you to groan over. No one gets excited about the prospect of having to track down a colored key to open a colored door. But it’s not at all burdensome here; in fact, one might even go so far as to say that key-fetching works in this game’s favor, and here’s why…

First off, the levels are not overly large. You generally have one “main” area, with a few side areas which can be accessed via doors. Gray doors may be passed through at any time, while colored doors require keys. There is some backtracking, usually requiring you to go back through the door you entered, but the small size of the areas prevents this from becoming a chore.

Secondly, some enemies drop keys and other pickups, and killed enemies stay dead, thus encouraging you to take out every enemy you encounter. Since you can’t leave the level until you’ve rescued (or killed) all of the hostages, you’re going to need to plumb every corner of the environment anyway, and this is another excuse to do just that. While you do have to deal with the level’s obstacles when you return to a previous area, you will not have to fight any of the enemies again.

Finally, having different colored keys ensures that you’ll always know where to go next. This is a straight-up action game. The challenge should be from killing enemies and navigating the environment with your grappling hook, not pausing the game every 30 seconds to consult a map. If you just killed a giant magic-wielding samurai, and he dropped a blue key, then your next destination is probably the blue door, which will lead you to more hostages to rescue, and likely another key.

Not every color of key appears in every level, and you’re not always restricted to getting the keys in a particular order, giving you a bit of freedom as to how you tackle some levels. The red key is always the exit door, so once you have that, and no more hostages, you’re free to leave.

Most levels will challenge you to rescue a certain number of hostages, as indicated in the lower-right corner of the screen. These hostages are almost always held at gunpoint, and you must kill the hostage-taker when he exposes himself to attack, or you can stealth kill him by sneaking up from behind. Mess up the timing, and you’ll kill the hostage, and you won’t get your “rescue bonus” at the end of the level.

The difficulty level determines the results of improper hostage negotiation (i.e., killing the hostage). On Easy and Normal, you’ll suffer a health penalty for killing a hostage, which could potentially kill you depending on your health reserves. On the Hard difficulty, killing a hostage results in an instant game over, and you’ll have to start the level from scratch. This adds a great deal of intensity to hostage situations, and requires you to have very precise control over your in-game actions.

There are a few other notable differences between the 3 difficulty levels. There are 5 missions in total (with 3 levels and a boss in each), but if you’re playing on the Easy setting, you’ll only see the first 3 missions. The missions can be played in any order, but once you beat the last mission, you’ll get a message to try the game again in Normal mode.

While Easy mode is a great place to hone your ninja skills, someone who has mastered the game’s controls could blast through it in probably 20 minutes. On Normal and Hard mode, beating the first 3 missions opens up the 4th, and beating that opens up the 5th.

The difficulty settings also affect the number of enemies you’ll face, how many hits it takes to kill them, and how much damage you take when hit. More challenging enemies appear earlier in the game on harder levels. All enemies are faster, and obstacles such as flame spouts, electricity, and lasers will fire more quickly and more frequently. Additionally, your magic meter fills more slowly in the harder difficulties, further encouraging the player to attack with sword strikes rather than projectiles.

The difficulty setting also affects item placement and how often you’ll get health pickups or powerups. For instance, keys may be located in different places on Normal difficulty than on Easy. There will also be fewer red chests in the more difficult modes, and you’ll get fewer drops from enemies. Also, on Easy mode, most boss battles have a couple of hearts and a blue lightning bolt in the room with them. Boss fights in Normal mode might instead offer you one heart and no blue lightning bolt. And on Hard, you’re on your own.

In fact, Hard mode has no health restoratives even in the course of the levels themselves. Stop. Let’s do that again. What we said was: THERE ARE NO HEALTH RESTORATIVES IN HARD MODE! Yes, enemies are faster and harder to kill, Osugi loses more health when hit, killing hostages ends the level instantly, and once you lose some health, there’s no way to get it back until the end of the level.

You might be able to bumble your way through on Easy mode, and possibly scrape through on Normal after a few tries, but you are not beating Hard mode unless you are a true ninja (well, a video game ninja at any rate). You’ll need a near-perfect run, with 100% of the hostages rescued, and the only thing you can count on is having half of your life bar refilled upon the successful completion of a level. So yes, Hard mode is hard, but it’s also the ultimate test of your ninja abilities.

Fortunately, the game offers infinite continues. You do have to complete an entire level on a single life, but the game saves between levels, and you can pick up from the beginning of the level in a future play session. Also, you can restart a level at any time, and you’ll be back with all of the health and projectile powerups you had when you entered. So, if you mess up too badly – such as losing your level 3 projectile right before heading for the boss – you can opt out, and hop right back in from the start without further penalty. You can also quit the mission entirely, and start back at the beginning.

Each level introduces new gameplay elements. In the first level, assuming you’re playing through them in order, you’ll have to fight off a gang that’s robbing a bank. You won’t have any hostages to rescue, and you’ll only need to find one key in order to exit the next level. As you work your way through the mission, you’ll be introduced to levels with multiple keys, new enemy types, a few hostages, and eventually a boss fight.

The second mission places you at a harbor to stop an illegal weapons deal. Here you’ll encounter floating platforms and conveyor belts interspersed with spikes and flame spouts, so you’ll need to be much more mindful of your environment.

This level also introduces the triangle jump, where you’ll have to attach to a vertical surface, let out some line, swing up, and jump across to the opposite wall, all while avoiding a flame spout mounted to the ceiling.

You’re also introduced to round objects that work as grapple points, but not as platforms. You can swing 360 degrees around them, which allows you to fling yourself pretty far, but they’re often placed over dangerous gaps, and the second mission has you facing off against Bastard Class frogs (see below).

The third mission pits you against terrorists who have taken over an airport. Here, you’ll find situations where you’ll need to swing across the ceiling without falling, and do so while fighting enemies. You’ll find some walls and air ducts lined with electricity, preventing you from touching certain spots, and forcing you to use your dash move to slide through areas while the electricity has stopped.

The fourth mission changes up the environment entirely, placing you in a cave where you’ll be dealing with not only bad guys, but also snakes, spiders, and bats. Snakes are low to the ground and will pop out of holes to attack you, often while you’re standing on a narrow ledge. They’re too low to the ground to be hit with shuriken, and their small size makes them somewhat difficult to hit even with a sword attack.

Bats hang upside down and start flying when they see you, even dropping down the full length of the screen to come at you. They’re hard to hit, and if they fly off the screen before you kill them, they’ll reappear when you enter the section, and you’ll have to face them again. These enemies will often thwart your attempts to hold onto a fully-upgraded projectile weapon.

Spiders drop webs down in a couple of different arc patterns. Also, hostages are not held at gunpoint in this level; rather they are all in cages. At least this prevents you from accidentally killing them.

The final mission places you in the enemy base, which is basically just one huge obstacle course filled with lasers, enemies, and armored electricity emitting drones. There are no hostages to rescue here. Lasers will take off half of your health in a single hit, and the place is lined top-to-bottom with vertically- and horizontally-aligned lasers of all sizes. You’ll find yourself jumping over, ducking under, dashing through, and hanging between lasers throughout your journey to the end-level boss.

There are very few negative statements to be made against the game’s design. If you take the time to understand the mechanics and master the controls, you’ll find that there are few 2D action games out there that allow you the speed and flexibility that Ninja Five-O does, which goes a long way toward letting you be more ninja-like than most other action game ninjas.

That said, there’s a bit of a gripe in using the grappling hook under pressure. If you’re pressing to the left or right, your grappling hook will fire in a 45 degree angle in that direction. You can only fire straight up by letting off of the D-pad, or by pressing straight up. Pressing diagonally-up will result in your grappling hook firing diagonally in that direction. It can be quite difficult to shoot straight up when you’re busy dealing with enemies or dodging obstacles which require you to push in one direction or the other.

The grapple line is also extremely long, which is a benefit over the grappling hooks in other games, but it also means that it takes much longer to extend and retract if you miss your mark. As such, you’ll almost always need to nail your grapple target on the first try, because you usually won’t get a chance to try again. This is in contrast to a game like Bionic Commando, where the shorter faster arm usually lets you get in 2, or sometimes 3, attempts at a grapple while you’re flying through the air.

Also, despite being indoors, many of the levels in the first 3 missions have no ceiling. So, once you get to the highest platform in the level, you’re no longer able to utilize your grappling hook. This is a minor annoyance, but it would help you to get the jump on some enemies that are under cover or who have hostages, rather than waiting for them to pop up so that you can attack.

Joe Osugi is a ninja, but most of the enemies he encounters are thugs with knives or guns. Sure, there are some variations, with enemies who use machine guns, lasers, flamethrowers, or sticks of dynamite, who offer dangers in their own right, but there are strategies for dealing with each of them.

You’ll even find yourself going up against hulking samurai as early as the first mission. Some of these can fire arcing explosive projectiles, others toss boomerangs, and still others can summon floating balls of flaming purple spirit energy. These guys are huge, and take a lot of hits, but they are slow and ultimately ineffective against your speed and agility, so long as you are mindful of their abilities and the environment.

However, there are a couple of enemies that are particularly bastardly, and no amount of ninja training will prevent you from taking some damage at their hands.

Red / Yellow / White Ninjas Ah yes, ninja-on-ninja action. It happens when you least expect it. There are 3 standard types of ninja, each of whom has his own attack pattern and level of aggression. The red ones like to jump and attack with spinning sword slashes, yellow ones tend to run straight at you, and white ones duck and slide across the ground with a spinning sword attack and then jump away to safety.

So it’s only right that one ninja has to fight another ninja from time to time, is it not? Well, you may disagree when you see how bastardly they can be. First and foremost, the thing that makes them difficult is the fact that they can materialize out of thin air. So, while all other enemies appear on the screen and follow specific patrol routes, the multi-colored ninja brigade can appear in the middle of an otherwise empty room, right in front of you, or even directly behind you. You’ll have about a second to soak this in before they set upon you with sword-swinging death.

The second bit of joy comes from the fact that they often appear in pairs, with one on either side of the room, and there are frequently two different types of ninja attacking you at once. So, while you’re jumping to strike down a yellow ninja, a white ninja might be rolling under your feet to slice you from below. To make things even more fun, you can enter a room, have 2 ninjas appear, kill them both, and then have 2 more ninjas appear. There are only a set number that appear, but being unable to see them at the outset makes it difficult to plan for an attack.

They’re quite fast, so you may think that using your projectiles would be the best way to hold them at bay. Well, they can block your shuriken and your fireballs, so you might only succeed in slowing them down. If you have the plasma burst, that will kill them in one shot, but otherwise, the best way to go is with the spinning sword slash. That’s a one-hit kill, provided you can get a hold of the nimble suckers, and remember how each of them moves and attacks.

You might want to avoid them, but they often hold keys you need to progress, or stand guard over an area that you must pass through to continue. Best to hop on them when they first appear and give them a free lesson in Osuginomics.

Frogs This is the point where you might find yourself standing unimpressed at our ability to recognize a challenging enemy. Bastard Class Enemy #1 is a trio of skilled ninjas. Bastard Class Enemy #2 tastes good with oregano and rosemary.

All we can say is that they’re low to the ground, hop very high, and travel in groups. They don’t cause much damage, but they will sure as hell cause you to lose that powered-up projectile when they’re hopping all over your face.

As difficult as they are to hit, it is not shameful to use your ninja magic against them. The final boss of the area is also a guy riding a giant frog, so someone knew what bastards they were, because they chose to rub it in.


Mission 1: Bank
Kabuki (Warrior)
Ninpo: Hanabi Magic

While the preceding levels took place inside of a bank, the battle against Kabuki takes place at the harbor (which transitions you to the next level, though it is otherwise unexplained). He’ll start at the top of a tall structure and eventually walk off the side. On the ground, he will walk toward you to unleash a melee attack.

However, his movement is extremely slow, and he is a large target, so he essentially just walks toward you and absorbs projectiles. Once he takes enough damage, he’ll return to the top of the structure and summon waves of fireballs.

During this time, you can technically swing your way onto the structure and hit him for more damage, but the steady stream of fireballs makes it difficult to hold a grapple, and you can still be hit once you’re up there. You are better off dodging the fireballs and waiting for him to come back down to the ground again.

Once you beat the boss, his mask splits open and falls from his face, and he slumps over. This actually occurs at the end of all boss fights, except on the third mission.

Mission 2: Harbor
Hannya (Sniper)
Ninpo: Toad Magic

As mentioned above, someone knew what bastards the frogs were, because the boss is a ninja riding a huge frog (actually, it’s a toad, but we’re going to call it a frog because seriously, how much difference does it make? It’s not like we’re offending an actual species of 2-ton toads…). The frog and its rider each have their own set of attacks, although you can only cause damage by hitting the rider.

If you’re standing on the ground, the frog will make high short jumps, pausing periodically to open its mouth and breathe fire at you (!!). Each side of the room has a pool of water with spikes at the bottom. It’s not instant death to fall in, but it will slow you down and cause continuous damage, so it encourages you to stay away from the edges. The frog’s jumps are high enough that you can run under it when necessary.

You don’t have to stay on the ground, however. There are several grapple points at the top of the screen, and if you’re quick, you can dodge the frog and start swinging up to the top of the level, and there is a platform up there (with pickups on Easy or Normal mode) if you can make it up quickly enough. The frog can’t jump that high… but its rider can.

Hannya will jump off the frog and pursue you. He can jump higher than the frog (which makes one wonder why he keeps it around, but if we had an invincible, fire-breathing frog, we might be inclined to bring it out for show from time to time), and he is considerably faster. He can keep jumping up from the bottom of the screen, attacking you and dropping back down, leaving you little time to avoid his attacks or retaliate. As such, this is not the preferred method to deal with him; you’re better off sticking to the ground.

But, even on the ground, you’ll have to deal with Hannya eventually. Once you inflict enough damage on him, his frog will take a bit of a nap, and Hannya will come at you on his own. Once again, he is extremely fast. He makes very quick high jumps, which give you a narrow window of opportunity to get under him.

He is susceptible to damage during this time, so it’s a matter of timing your dodges and getting in some attacks, either from a safe distance with projectiles, or right in the danger zone with your sword. After you hit him enough, he’ll hop back on his frog, and the cycle will repeat.

Mission 3: Airport
Shadow Master
Ninpo: Dragon Magic

A couple of things to note here... This is actually the final boss on the Easy mode, since the game ends after the third mission on that difficulty setting, and the boss actually goes unnamed at this point. However, once you defeat him, he disappears and leaves his cape to float to the ground. In the Normal or Hard difficulty modes, he will reappear again in Mission 5 as the game’s final boss, where you learn that he is called the Shadow Master.

Also of note is the level leading up to this boss encounter. The first two levels in this mission take place in an airport, where your goal is to make it to a plane. The third level – and the eventual boss fight – takes place entirely within the confines of the plane itself, while it is in flight. It’s a much more cramped level than any before it, and the passenger compartment is the main area.

You can walk from one end of the plane to the other from the outset of the level with just a couple of small compartments outside of this area. All of the hostages are mixed in with the regular passengers, so you have to look closely to see where the gunmen are seated. When you get close to them, they’ll stand up – sometimes in front of you and sometimes behind – and use their hostages as shields while they fire at you.

Also in this confined area are a few Bastard Class ninjas who will materialize at given points, and who will regularly hose your battle plans. Oddly, there are also some dynamite-tossing guys. While using a gun on a high-altitude plane is pretty dangerous in its own right, it’s hard to imagine someone trying to kill you by tossing sticks of dynamite on a plane. But the presence of materializing ninjas, giant fire-breathing frogs, and 10-foot tall samurai effectively nullifies this argument.

Your first encounter with the Shadow Master takes place in the cockpit. He flies into the room in his flame dragon form, turns into a human, and takes the pilot hostage. The pilot has his own life bar, so you have to be careful when attacking the boss that you don’t accidentally kill the pilot, because that’s an instant game over.

In his human form (wearing a red dragon mask), the Shadow Master carries a huge sword, which he can swing to hit you and to send purple energy blasts across the room at mid-screen, or across the ground. He swings down to send a mid-screen blast, and swings up to send one across the ground, so that’s the telegraph that lets you know whether you should quickly grapple to the ceiling, or make a well-timed jump and get in some sword-on-face action while you have a few seconds.

Trying to get in as many hits as possible without hurting the pilot can be particularly difficult if you have the fireballs, since they can angle down and hit him if you’re not careful, so it may be more wise to get in close, deal some sword strikes, and then step back to dodge the next projectile attack.

Eventually, the Shadow Master will resume his flaming dragon form and start flying around the room. He’s difficult to avoid and he can only be damaged by hitting him in the head. During this time, the pilot cowers on the ground in fear, and yes, you can still kill him, so you’ll need to be mindful of your attacks.

Using your ninja magic doesn’t hurt hostages, so you can feel free to use it any time without harming the pilot. Also, the sword attack is significantly more powerful than most projectiles, and this boss offers plenty of opportunities to get in close and cause heavy damage. This is especially true when he’s in his human form, but there are a few chances even when he’s in his flame serpent form, especially since he spins around in a circle a couple of times before becoming human again.

The Shadow Master will continue to cycle between his forms until he is killed… or at least until he laughs and disappears to be fought again at the end of the game.

Mission 4: Cave
Tengu (Hunter)
Ninpo: Bat Magic

OK, so we’ve left the sterile hallways of the bank and airport, and the slightly dank harbor, and we’ve entered a whole other world. In the cave, the rules of engagement have changed a bit. Sure, you’ll still be fighting thugs, ninjas, and giant samurai, but you’ll also have to deal with snakes, bats, and spiders. And the final boss is a bat-like ninja who can hang from the ceiling.

At the start of the encounter, a group of bats fly into the room and combine to form Tengu. Tengu has a couple of attacks. First off, he can let off a sonic pulse which will summon bats in from all edges of the room. This may not sound like much of an attack, since bats are very weak, but they are nearly as dastardly as the Medusa heads from Castlevania.

The large number of bats will fill much of the available space in the room, making it difficult to navigate, and extremely difficult to connect or hold a grapple, since getting hit will detach the grappling hook and knock you down. You can basically say goodbye to whatever powered-up projectile you brought with you, because the horde of leathery-winged mammals will quickly wrest it from your grasp. The bats fly to the left or right, but will occasionally swarm your position. Spinning sword slashes will kill several at once, but even these can be difficult to pull off when you’re completely surrounded.

And while you’re contending with his blind helpers, Tengu will come in for an attack. There are 3 possible positions where he can hang from the ceiling – either at the top-center of the room, or on one of the lower platforms on either side – and he will alternate between these points frequently. When he jumps from one to the next, he will spin quickly, and you’d better be out of his way when this happens, because you’ll take a goodly amount of damage. Plus, the room has pits of water and spikes lining the floor, so there’s a good chance you’ll get knocked into one of them, and you’ll be fighting both the water and the bats if you want to get back out.

Tengu can also pause and send a pair of spinning blades straight out to the left or right. These are fairly easy to avoid, and a good opportunity to get in a sword slash. Just be sure you’re not standing between him and his next perch, because he’ll jump back to his previous position once he gets hit, spinning and hitting you along the way.

The most advantageous position during this battle is standing on top of one of the platforms on either side of the room. Sure, the bats will make it difficult for you to grapple up there, and will keep trying to knock you off, but from a standing position, you cannot be hit by Tengu’s blades nor his spinning jump when he moves from one part of the room to another. When he’s hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room, you can perform spinning sword slashes between his attacks and the waves of bats.

From this position, you will not be able to reach him while he is hanging on the bottom of a platform, but he will eventually return to the center of the room. Unfortunately, he can still summon bats while hanging from one of the platforms, so that will give you more than enough to deal with.

Since all of Tengu’s possible perches are over water, you will have the pleasure of watching him fall down and splash into a spike-filled water pit at the end of the battle.

Mission 5: Base
Shadow Master
Ninpo: Dragon Magic

OK, so you get to take on the Shadow Master again, after having fought your way through a veritable obstacle course of lasers and other assorted death-dealers in the previous 2 levels. This time, he can’t turn into a flaming serpent, but he can summon them. He’ll start out on the ground – sans hostage this time, thankfully – and strike out with the same sword attacks he used on the plane, sending a blast of purple energy across the center of the screen or across the ground.

He now has the ability to disappear and reappear in one of 4 positions on either side of the room, either on the ground or standing on top of a console rack. However, this doesn’t make his attacks any more difficult to dodge, so you should have no trouble besting him here using the same strategies you did on the plane.

Once you cause enough damage, the Shadow Master will disappear and reappear in the center of the screen, and he will summon some flame serpents. He will make either an upward or downward hand motion. If he moves his hands up, then 2 serpents will come up from the bottom of the screen, so you’ll need to dodge to the left or right. If he moves his hands down, then 3 serpents will come down from the top of the screen, giving you a more narrow area to dodge.

Watching his hand motions is important to determine which attack he is going to use, but if you forget, it’s best to just stay at the edge of the screen. You have a lot less time to react if 2 serpents come up from below, and you’ll already be standing in the correct position to avoid them. If 3 come down from the top, you’ll have time dodge.

It’s a good idea to use this technique regardless, because as the battle goes on, he can do 2 summons in a row, and the second summon will always come from the opposite side of the screen as the first. The serpents cause a lot of damage, so get used to dodging, and then getting ready to dodge again immediately.

Toward the very end of the battle, he will have the ability to do 3 summons in a row, and can summon 4 serpents at a time, filling almost the entire screen.

The only other attack he has is the ability to split into separate versions of himself and summon balls of electricity from each form that will shoot straight toward you. Only one of the forms is his true self, so attacking a shadow version simply makes it disappear, while attacking the Shadow Master’s true self will cause damage. This is a good spot to use projectile weapons, because it lets you quickly destroy some of the false forms, and thus reduce the number of balls of electricity that would be coming at you at once. Also, on Normal mode, the Shadow Master splits into 3 forms, while on Hard, he splits into 5.

Once you finally bring him down, a self-destruct sequence is initiated. Sure, escape sequences have become a bit cliché in gaming, but they keep showing up because gamers have loved them ever since their first palm-sweating victory against Mother Brain. Heck, the NES version of Bionic Commando had one as well – where you had to get out quickly because the base was about to “explod” – so there’s another similarity.

Latter-day escape sequences tend to give you plenty of time to make it to the exit. Sure, it might be a bit tense the first time, but usually your basic skills will get you through with plenty of time to spare.

Not here. The escape sequence in Ninja Five-O just as hard as you remember it from Metroid, and you will need all of your grappling skills to make it out in time.

In Normal mode, you get 90 seconds to escape. This will seem like an impossibly short time on your first couple of attempts, but know that Hard mode reduces this timer to 60 seconds. Yes, unless you are in top form, this level will spank you like an ugly baby.

There are no enemies to fight here, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll find death aplenty amongst the electrically charged passageways, laser-lined corridors, and flaming fixtures. Even the beginning of the area will require that you pull off some well-timed dash moves and a ledge grab between electrical surges.

After that, you’ll need to climb a vertical shaft with no grapple points. So you’ll need to grab the vertical surface, kick off, and grapple to the other side. Meanwhile, lasers will alternate between each wall, so you’ll have just a couple of seconds of leeway before half of your energy is taken away.

Follow this with some tight corridors of flaming, zapping, and otherwise laser-ridden deathtraps, and you’ll face a vertical ascent, filled with rows of suspended grapple points, with no platforms, interspersed with lasers and electrically-charged walls.

Move up too quickly, and you’ll get fried, too slowly and you’ll run out of time. Oh, and if you let your grapple out too far, you risk hitting a laser, but if it’s not out far enough you won’t have the momentum required to get up to the next set of grapple points.

When there are less than 30 seconds on the clock, the screen will start to flash red and an alarm will sound. Yep, that should help you concentrate.

Once you finally reach the top, you’ll need to destroy a control panel. Hopefully you have a bit of time left, because this can take a few seconds as well. That’s all there is to it. Now that you’re a true ninja, you can go back through all of the levels in the Time Trial mode.

Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • One of the best video game grappling hooks of all time, with precise control, high speed, and a tremendous freedom of movement.
  • Lots of small touches in the controls allow additional options for skilled players.
  • Ninja-like gameplay is encouraged and rewarded.
  • No penalty for restarting a level.
The downside:
  • Narrow control window for grappling straight up.
  • Long grapple retraction time makes it difficult to recover from a miss.
  • Lack of ceilings in some areas limits use of grapple.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

This is one of the most detailed and heavily pictured online reviews I've ever read. It's so good that I think about making a game with similar mechanics because you explained them very well.

Thanks for this one!


AJ Johnson said...

Thank you. I had played through the game a few years back and thought it would be a great addition to the site.

After extensive research, I'm fairly certain that this article constitutes the single greatest amount of information available on Ninja Five-O.

And yes, by all means, please make a game with a grappling hook. Outsde of Grapple Buggy (go Mommy's Best Games!) and the Bionic Commando update, there's really nothing else. We should have been knee deep in 2D grappling hook games by now!

Unknown said...

I've inspected your other reviews. They are really well done and very detailed. Keep on the good work.

As a game producer I'm always interested in niche genres and rare features. So your feed is on my list.


AJ Johnson said...

That's definitely one of our goals... to offer a comprehensive look at the design of 2D games that feature noteworthy mechanics.

Our hope is that this will not only be entertaining to the 2D gaming audience at large, but that it will become a resource for 2D game developers as well. I am pleased that you have found value in our site to that capacity.

Unknown said...

Great analysis AJ!

Zauron said...

I based the web swinging mechanics for Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (Nintendo DS version) on this game. A real gem in my GBA library!

AJ Johnson said...

That's awesome! Glad to find another person who appreciates this fine game. I've never met anyone else who has ever played it... It's nice to see that it at least had some influence another game in the "swinging" sub-sub-genre.