I-Ninja (PS2) Review

As the budget required to make a triple-A caliber game steadily increases with each passing hardware cycle, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing less and less of the unknown gems which are so prevalent on systems like the NES and Genesis. It’s getting to the point where, just to recoup the costs of production, a game needs to be a million seller, and when a game crosses that threshold, the developers then focus all their efforts on “supporting their hot new IP,” which is PRspeak for “pumping out sequels.” Oftentimes developers speak openly about their plans for a trilogy before the first game has even been released.

Personally, unless a sequel is dramatically different than the first game, I’m really not interested, no matter how unsatisfying that cliffhanger ending is. I grew up during an era when “thank you for playing” was the norm, and seeing the credits roll in Contra was awesome cause it was “just like a movie!” So while the rest of the gaming populace is waiting with bated breath for something like God of War 3, I’m on the prowl for obscure games I missed the first time around. Increasingly, I’ve been finding enjoyment in the “failed franchises;” those big-budget games which were intended to be blockbusters, but somehow or another slipped through the mainstream cracks, to forever rot in the sewers of obscurity.

From the moment I booted it up, it was clear that I-Ninja was intended to be a major player. It had everything it needed, from fresh ideas to high production values, to stand with the big boys of the time like Jak and Ratchet. It could have been a contender, and we could be seeing the second or third sequel by now, but it simply wasn’t to be. Maybe this was because I-Ninja’s release was sandwiched between the much-hyped resurrections of the Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden series, but regardless of the reason, and despite mostly positive reviews from critics, the game just didn’t catch on.

Which was a crying shame for developer Argonaut, as the venerable developer (best known for SNES classic Star Fox) went belly up not long afterward. But for obscurity fetishists like yours truly, the game is a gold nugget hidden in the Playstation 2’s bloated library of generic platformers. Not pure gold, mind you; about 18 Karat, but that’s still pretty good.

The first couple hours I spent with I-Ninja were terrific. Every stage serves up fresh challenges, and while none of these break any new ground, it’s all very polished and well-executed. The writing is clever, the graphics are beautiful, and gameplay, while mostly sticking to it’s action-platform roots, also touches base with titles like Monkey Ball and Mystical Ninja. If you’ve played one platformer, you’ve played them all, but I-Ninja doesn’t make many of the obvious blunders – at least not right away. And best of all, the game speeds by at a hurried, action-packed pace.

Eventually though, the honeymoon was over, and the last third of I-Ninja’s 5-8 hour quest, while never taking a dive in terms of level design, nevertheless falls into a standard platformer trap; collecting. Like so many games before (and, sadly, after) it, it requires you to go back and replay levels with additional goals, to build up the necessary tokens needed to fight the level bosses. Initially I was happy to oblige this request, but before long it became clear that these added criteria were exactly the sort of things I HATE doing in a video game; scouring levels to collect all the red coins, killing a set amount (read: all) of the sometimes well-hidden enemies, and rushing to beat strict time limits. By the end of the game I was no longer enjoying myself, and began vehemently hurling unprintable curses at Mario 64, for setting such a vile precedent. Rubbing salt in this wound is the fact that, as your workload increases, the payoff decreases. While the initial few boss fights are creative and epic, the final two have been thoroughly marinated in weak sauce (though granted, none of them had the tenacity to actually kill me).

Despite quite spectacularly losing it’s steam in the final act, when viewed as a whole, I-Ninja had the right ingredients to be a hit. It’s a game that starts with a bang and ends with a fizzle, which sort of left a bitter taste in my mouth, but if I’d stopped playing when my gamer-instinct told me to, I’d be singing I-Ninja’s praises. Nevertheless, I was done with the game substantially earlier that it was done with me, and that’s such a shame, because if it weren’t for the botched attempt to make the game seem longer, the following score would be higher.

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~ by Krooze L-Roy on December 30, 2008.

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