If you’ve ever watched a badly dubbed, low-budget Kung Fu movie, the theme of Master Ninja: Shadow Warrior of Death should be familiar. Someone or something (in this case, a magic sword) has to be saved from an evil warlord. As an expert in the martial arts, you must perform the rescue while battling hordes of guards who are firing arrows and darts, swinging sabers and staves, throwing knives and shuriken—all aimed at you.
OK, so much for originality. But no matter how overused or unrealistic its plot may be, everyone loves a good, fast-paced action movie once in a while; the same goes for computer games. The designers of Master Ninja, a one-player martial arts game, have included some unique and interesting elements.
Many video games in this genre have a common defect: I always lose. Call me forgetful, but I simply cannot remember which permutation of joystick jiggling and fire-button jamming will result in the execution of a kick, punch, or jump. Nor can I recall precisely what the difference is between a spinning back kick and a kicking back spin. While I frantically consult the 20 page manual, the other player calmly pounds my poor video alter ego into a pulp. Master Ninja allows the player to execute 21 assorted attacks, defenses, and jumps, as well as use three weapons; yet it mercifully manages to keep the controls simple and easy to memorize.
In spite of this, I had a bit of trouble learning how to play the game because of its terrible manual. It gave me instructions for loading the game that were incorrect, a guide to joystick control that was inaccurate, and a lot of background on the game that I didn’t need. Fortunately, the game gives beginning players a practice session and an onscreen guide to correct joystick functions.
One of the major problems with Master Ninja is that whenever your character dies, your character is really dead. Instead of having a few additional lives to spare, you are given a limited number of strength points. These are gradually bludgeoned away by repeated encounters with guards.
"What’s this?" you cry. "Realism intruding into an action game?" Well, not really. But it is frustrating when your character dies, because it forces you to start again at the beginning of the game. Since there’s no way to save a game, you either finish it in one sitting or you fail. This can be exasperating.
Despite my objections, I can say the designers of Master Ninja have managed to keep the game exciting by offering a variety of thoughtful considerations. In the manual, a map of the warlord’s fortress shows clearly the location of your goal. Using the map, you can see that the fortress is divided into 26 separate rooms, two of which are outdoors. This permits you to choose different paths to your goal. Some paths are shorter but more dangerous; others are longer but safer. Instead of forcing a frustrated player to repeat the same mistakes each time, the game allows a player who cannot get past a certain point, or even someone who has reached the goal and won the game, to go back and try a different path. This helps keep the game fresh and surprising, even for an experienced player.
Magic is used in a similar way. Curses and hexes stalk certain rooms in the fortress, and it is impossible to counter them. They can be avoided, however, and that’s half of the game’s challenge. At one point, for instance, I faced a choice between two routes; one led through three rooms and at least one rather nasty guard, while the other led through only one unknown room, the Mystical Garden. The choice seemed easy, but the moment I stepped into the Garden, an evil priest in red robes emerged and cast a spell on me. I was held powerless against his curse, even though he withdrew after a moment. The next time I checked my strength, I discovered the spell had sapped all of it. I died a short time later.
Overall, I would say the game’s designers have tried to combine a rough-and-tumble adventure game with a game of strategy and tactics, and they’ve done a fairly good job with it. The program’s worst problem is its slow speed. The rooms load too slowly from disk, wasting the game’s excitement and the player’s adrenaline.
Master Ninja’s graphics and sound effects won’t dazzle you, and the game’s story line will not thrill you. But its flexibility and the size and complexity of the fortress will keep you guessing, something many other games fail to do.
COMPUTE!'s Gazette November 1988