A wise man once told me that the key to writing comedy is that the first person your story should make laugh is yourself, otherwise, you end up writing for what you think other people think is funny, and that’s how we get crap like Scary Movie. I’d like to think the same holds true for video games, and if you make games for what other people think is entertaining, well, let’s just say there’s guaranteed to be another Call of Duty game coming out soon (regardless of when you read this). If that’s the case, then the designers of today’s game, Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo, made good and bloody damned sure that it made them smile, because this game might be the least pretentious, and more importantly, just plain enjoyable experience in the entire SNES lineup.
The premise is simple enough; Princess Yuki has been kidnapped by a gang of bandits, and it’s up to the scrappy Kid Ying and the portly Dr. Yang to rescue her. Two players can team up to fight the good fight, although certain moments will force you to split up and leave one character behind. Most of the game takes place in an overhead-style view, exploring the area for various clues, stores where you can buy helpful items, enemies to waylay for cash or other pickups, and other various locales we’ll get to a bit later. Near the end of the level, marked by an encounter with…um…a raccoon dog thing, I believe is what it’s referred to as, it turns from an overhead action-adventure to a traditional side-scroller, and eventually the boss faceoff.
It sounds very by the numbers, to be sure, but what sets Mystical Ninja apart is the sheer charm and character of it all. Everything is drawn in a very cartoonish manner, with everyone’s head as large as the rest of their bodies, but with a softer style of art than say, Super Mario World, that allows for a bit more fluid animation. It’s obviously very Japanese, style-wise, with exaggerated reactions for damage and some wacky enemy designs, like the man who carries a fish around (and yes, you have to defeat both the man and the flopping, wriggling fish after he drops it), or the fat kabuki actors that waddle about the amusement park level and like to pop out from those cardboard cutout things you stick your head in that make you look like you’re posing as something else.
Little cutscenes after each level help push the story along, usually with Dr. Yang being given the business in a sort of Vaudeville, slapstick manner, and oh yes, there will be talking magical cats that nobody ever mentions being weird because…well, Japan. Even store owners get hilariously pissy at you if you tell them you’re not there to buy anything. Backgrounds are well-detailed; there’s some clever use of parallax scrolling and other visual effects to pull you in as well, which was really well-executed, especially for 1991, and sound is also high-quality, as to be expected from Konami, with a whimsical soundtrack that fits the whole lighthearted motif.
Perhaps, though, the biggest draw Mystical Ninja has is the number of enjoyable ways to screw around and deviate wildly from the task at hand. For instance, the first level features a maze you can trawl through for bonus items in a first person view reminiscent of a game like Dungeon Master. The second level features a building where you can play a round of Breakout, or, if you’re in two-player mode, you and your traveling companion can square off in a Pong-esque air hockey game (!). Need cash for items but don’t feel like bonking scores of enemies? Get a job as a painter in a game similar to Snake, or get paid for your rodent removal skills with a furious game of Whack-a-Mole. Not only that, but the third level takes place in an amusement park.
And not just for show, either, a fully functioning amusement park with attractions ranging from a quiz show about the game itself, complete with moving platforms for the contestants and a confetti shower for the winner, to horse races you can bet on with an adorable barnyard ditty playing in the background and clacking horse hooves, to a booth where you can play the first level of FREAKING GRADIUS (Uncle Dave fist pump).
Assuming you can pull yourself away from the side attractions, you may come to find out that the actual game is quite good. The learning curve is fairly gentle; you probably won’t notice any blisteringly difficult sections, and very rarely are you really crowded in by enemies or asked to perform precision jumps, normally the bane of Super NES action games. You start out with a dinky little pipe, with barely any reach, but still capable of conking enemies, which can be upgraded by scooping up silver cat dolls into a larger pipe and eventually a yo-yo with which you can thrash enemies from a good distance with relative impunity. If you take damage, however, your weapon reverts to the next lowest level, and in a real pinch, you can fling money at the enemies, but it will come out of your own pocket.
Most of the enemies can be taken out in one hit, while you yourself can take a few licks before dying, so you’re never overmatched by a swarm of enemies. Bosses range from the ghost that launches dishes at you that you have to beat back into her to the very next level where you fight an angry red…thing…being assisted by a giant rack of evil lanterns. They’re very bizarre, to say the least, but nothing quick fingers and good ol’ pattern recognition can’t overcome. Each stage is also timed, but levels tend to be short and fairly linear, so aside from the amusement park level, you’ll probably never be in danger of running out of time, and in fact, you’d be well advised to do a bit of poking around, as there are frequently hidden areas, especially in the side-scrolling areas, where you can find powerups and other collectibles to help your cause.
Alas, I do have some nitpicks. The game itself isn’t very long, and you can whip through it pretty quickly if you don’t sidetrack yourself, especially if you’re playing the co-op mode, but then again, the journey matters more here than the destination. Also, in one-player mode, you’re stuck playing as Kid Ying, which really doesn’t make much difference, but having the choice would have been nice. It should also be mentioned that if you’re playing this legit, the password system is a friggin’ nightmare, requiring you to track down buildings where you receive “logbook entries” for passwords, and you’d be well-advised to have pen and paper handy, because the length and complexity of these passwords rival nuclear launch codes.
Legend of the Mystical Ninja is a wildly underrated title that deserves a lofty spot in the SNES hit parade. It’s an extremely well-balanced action-adventure romp, with quite a few pleasant distractions to keep things interesting for those who like to venture off the beaten path. I’d like to believe that the designers had a ton of fun putting the game together and sprinkling in all the fun little additions, and I can easily imagine a group of them huddling around the table and having one of them blurt out “what if we had a little spot where you could take a break and play air hockey with the second player?” or “what if we had a boss that was just a giant kabuki face that bounces around and grows when you hit it?” while the others giggle and approve boisterously. I’m a little disappointed this franchise wasn’t resurrected for such a long time (it would take until a few years after the launch of the N64, in fact), but this game stands pretty strongly on its own. I highly recommend tracking this one down, and if this game can’t make you chuckle or at least crack a smile, you need to set a doctor’s appointment immediately to have the stick removed from your ass.
Any game where you can take time out from your quest for Whack-a-Mole and/or Gradius deserves high praise, and aside from that, simply an extremely enjoyable hop ‘n’ bop experience that’s just unapologetically fun.
A bit on the short side, not terribly challenging, and whooo boy, that password system.