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Score: 8.3 / 10
Discounting brief appearances in Dead or
Alive 3 and Kung Fu Chaos, finding a ninja character in an Xbox game up
until now has been harder than locating a shuriken in a 100-foot deep
haystack. The release of I-Ninja has given the Xbox its first game
starring a bona fide ninja as the main character. (Soon to be joined by
fellow members of the ninja clan in the pending releases of Tenchu:
Return From Darkness and Ninja Gaiden). From its cartoony characters to
its typical platformer gameplay, at first glance I-Ninja seems to share
more in common with games such as Mario Sunshine and Ratchet & Clank:
Going Commando than the usual ninja fare like Shinobi (PS2).
But I-Ninja does employ some very interesting ninja-related tactics and
elements including stealth, wall running in the spirit of Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a deadly accurate ninja sword that slices and
dices anyone foolish enough to get in its path. Still, in the end after
a strong beginning that proves to be a lot of fun and has you believing
in the potential of I-Ninja to be an A-list title, you’ll eventually get
disinterested with gameplay that starts to
rely too heavily on many common platform game conventions.
The game begins with you, a hot-shot rookie ninja-in-training,
recklessly killing your sensei after not heeding his warning to avoid
touching one of the mysterious rage stones. Not good timing either,
because his experience would have come in
handy in the battle against Master O-Dor and his Ranx army, who you had
just rescued sensei from and who has already disposed of most of your
ninja clan. But the ghost of sensei comes in true Obi-Wan style to guide
you through your ongoing ninja training and to seek out an ally, the
Ninja Guardian, to help you defeat O-Dor and his pungent forces.
Here’s where I-Ninja reaches it “huh?” moment. You would think a ninja
game, even a Teen-rated one with cute characters, would be based in an
orient landscape from which the ninja originated. But no, you fight O-Dor
in a strangely mechanized land of robots that looks like something right
out of a Mega Man game. If you’re thinking, “Huh? Robots and ninjas?
What’s that all about?” you’re definitely not the only one. Throw in the
fact that I-Ninja’s lead hero and many of his enemies have a
definitively big-head-little-body cartoon character style that copies
another Xbox martial arts title, Kung Fu Chaos, rather closely, and
I-Ninja begins to seem less of a ninja game than an average platform
game that just happens to have a ninja in it.
But even with the strange melding of robots, the ancient code of ninja
revenge, and toony-looking characters, I-Ninja’s innovative features
carry the early gameplay and raise it to a high level of enjoyment.
There are a few surprising moves among an unexpectedly large collection
of moves that your little I-Ninja can accomplish. Instead of your basic
jump-and-slash that normally is hand-in-hand with these types of games,
I-Ninja sports some interesting additions including the right-out-of
Shinobi wall run, the sword hover (fly helicopter-style with your trusty
sword) and the chain swing that comes in real handy to get past large
gaps and jumps and also the Tele-Orb tracks.
The “rage meter” is a cool little touch, unlocking a “rage” ability for
you once your anger is suitably increased. You can use four “rage’
powers that either help you defeat enemies or revive your health. There
are also stylized kill and attack moves that you can use, depending on
which buttons you hit. Control is solid throughout most of the game, but
like most platformers, has some exasperating high falls while attempting
some of the annoying platform jumps that are par for the genre.
There are your everyday platform game moves too, such as
platform-jumping, kick-jumping, and the usual sword slashing. Missions
are set up much like Mario 64 or last year’s Vexx. There are five
worlds, each with doorways that lead to ninja-robot infested
mechanically-inclined levels. Each level requires defeating enemies and
the usual coin collecting. But once a level is complete the first time,
you must revisit again later when your skills have increased.
After completing each level, you attain another grade that moves you
closer to a higher belt (thereby increasing your skills) and also can
get a newer, more powerful katana after putting a required number of
enemies out of commission. Other weapons that are found through the
game’s levels are not as powerful as your katana, but can be effective
and in certain instances crucial to success at passing a particular
section, including blow darts and shurikens.
The next time you return to a mission after increasing in grade level
your goal is to find all the red coins in each level and beat a timer.
And some of these red coin and timed missions have frustratingly
impossible-to-find coins or require you to not even make the slightest
mistake in order to pass within the required timeframe. This is where
I-Ninja gets monotonous and the fun factor drops precipitously. There
are also bonus missions that are so obnoxiously hard, it took me maybe
100 attempts to complete some.
But other elements help carry I-Ninja at least partly past this
repetition and aggravation. Each level has a Big Boss battle to
complete. And these are BIG bosses, dwarfing your tough little ninja at
over 100 times his size, (not counting the final boss, Malakai)
including one massive Mech on Robot Beach that you have to square off
against in a Rock’em-Sock’em Robot boxing match. All have vulnerable
points to attack, so while defeating each isn’t easy, it is possible
after a long and drawn out battle. Most of the other enemies encountered
in I-Ninja aren’t terribly difficult to annihilate until the game’s
latter stages, especially as you upgrade your ninja skills and katana.
Levels you’ll traverse through aren’t too creatively designed, all
having some sort of mechanized feel to them once you enter through a
doorway (even the jungle level covered in jungle-thick vegetation).
I-Ninja is sharp as a sword in its character rendering, and benefits
from the involvement of Don Bluth’s animation mastery in its cinematic
scenes. The levels themselves have that I’ve-seen-this-before feel, and
are average platformer quality. A big plus for I-Ninja’s sound
presentation is the stellar voice-acting that creates the grows-on-you
smart-aleckey personality of the game’s lead character. If that voice
sounds familiar to you, it should: It’s the legendary Billy West from
“Ren and Stimpy” and “Futurama” among many other credits.
After starting out with some interesting gameplay and moves, including a
adventurous amount of big Boss battles, I-Ninja falls back on a few too
many standards of the genre that go back to the granddaddy of the modern
platformer, Super Mario 64. That doesn’t mean that I-Ninja isn’t a
quality good time, because it really doesn’t have any flaws that hold it
back other than a harder-than-hard challenge level in certain areas and
a way-too-familiar gameplay once you’ve delved into the game a bit. But
it only tallies in as a slightly above-average game of the genre that
could have been much better. Fun while it lasts, but most of what you’ll
find in I-Ninja becomes a tad too déjà vu in the end.