Before I even got past the title screen, today’s game has taught me something: namely, that I can’t see the word “crusaders” without mentally recreating the theme tune from the nineties Toxic Crusaders cartoon. It’s a good job I didn’t study the medieval history of the Middle East at university, huh? Anyway, here’s NMK and Sammy’s 1990 NES adventure Ninja Crusaders!
Or Ninja Crusaders Ryuga, if you prefer the Japanese title. I don’t think there’s much difference between the two versions, although the Famicom release does come on a rather fetching turquoise cartridge. This is the title screen for the US version, which features a strangely wispy-looking font that in no way makes me think of ninjas. The “you must be this high to ride” message from a run-down carnival ghost train, perhaps, but not ninjas.
The impetus for Ninja Crusaders’ action is that old familiar story: aliens from outer space have attacked the Earth. The ninjas, being the natural enemies of space monsters, rose up to defeat them but failed, and the aliens have conquered the planet. However, small pockets of ninja resistance remain, and two of these shadow warriors – named Talon and Blade in the western version – are ready to take the fight to the invaders and free the Earth. Quite how these ninjas think they’re going to save the world when the combined efforts of all the other ninjas didn’t pan out is not revealed. Maybe the aliens’ only weakness is unwarranted self-confidence.
Okay, so maybe we’re not fighting to save the world but simply for good old-fashioned revenge. I’m fine with that, although I kinda wish the game was called Ninja Revengers.
Here we go, then, with all the elements promised by the game’s introduction. We’ve got a ruined civilisation as a backdrop, we’ve got an angry ninja as the player character and we’ve got the footsoldier of an invading alien force. That’s the green robot at the bottom. One look at this screenshot is enough to clue you in on the basics of Ninja Crusaders’ gameplay: it’s a pretty traditional NES action game. One button to jump and one to attack, plenty of platforms to leap between and a host of vicious aliens standing between you and the stage’s exit, which is over on the right somewhere. So far, so familiar.
Your start out with a supply of shurikens with which to defend yourself. Most of the enemies you’ll be fighting are robots, and attacking the alien robo-hordes by flinging small pieces of metal at them is about as effective as it sounds. Okay, so that’s a bit harsh on the shurikens, because they do at least travel the length of the screen and you can throw them pretty fast. However, if you don’t think the shurikens are up to the job then fear not, because our ninja hero (who I presume is the Talon mentioned in the intro) can collect three other weapons to use as well, although sadly you can only have one equipped at a time. As well as the shurikens, there’s a kusarigama, (you know, the sickle-and-chain weapon,) a bo staff for all you Donatello lovers out there and a sword. You switch weapons by collecting the corresponding icons, and they all sit on a scale of being long-ranged but weak at the shuriken end up to the sword, which has a range of about four nanometres but destroys everything in one hit.
There’s a sword icon now, and after flinging shurikens for most of this stage and coming to the conclusion that I’d be better off using rude language, I’m more than ready to swap to the other traditional weapon of the ninja. There’s just one problem: how the bloody hell am I supposed to get up there? Your ninja is nimble and agile, but it’s not like he has go-go-gadget legs. I pondered this predicament for a while, but then the obvious answer hit me: I’ll turn into a tiger and use my enhanced animal abilities to jump up there.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner.
This is Ninja Crusaders’ main gimmick, then, and it’s one I rather enjoy: each weapon you can hold gives you the ability to turn into a different animal, thus granting the powers of tiger, scorpion, hawk and dragon like a Japanese version of Bravestarr. The transformations are activated by holding up and attack and you can change back and forth (mostly) whenever you like, although I must say I’m glad I knew about them before I started playing Ninja Crusaders. You have to hold the buttons for quite a while and there’s no on-screen indicator telling the player that they can turn into a tiger so if someone, say, downloaded the game and played it blind via emulation there’s a good chance that they could play through the game without ever realising the animal transformations even existed.
After going to the effort of collecting the sword, I didn’t even end up using it. I was having too much fun as the tiger, and also the end of the stage is right there so there didn’t seem much point in turning back. The reach of the tiger’s attacks is very short – I’d guess about ten centimetres, if the Google search I just did for “how long tiger claws” is accurate – but that doesn’t matter because the tiger is very fast and can jump ridiculously high. I didn’t have to fight anything. I can just jump around as a tiger, see his stripes and know he’s clean, etcetera. This teaches the player a valuable lesson about Ninja Crusaders, which is that a lot of the time it’s better and more expedient to avoid the enemies and make a run for the exit.
Onward to the second stage, which the title card refers to as “Watery Grave.” I feel like you’re being unduly harsh on my gameplay skills, Ninja Crusaders. I’m sure I can make it past the second stage, even if it is a water level. At least Talon can swim fairly well, and even if he couldn’t you can avoid a lot of the damper parts of the stage by climbing around on the platforms. However, if you’ve managed to collect the kusarigama weapon then there’s an even easier way to get through the stage.
You can turn into a scorpion. The scorpion is very good at swimming, although I have no idea why – you’d think the developers would have picked some kind of aquatic animal to be good at swimming, maybe a crab or what-have-you, but a scorpion is what you get. Maybe it’s suppose to be an extinct sea scorpion like a eurypterus. It’s very quick in the water but on land it’s slow enough to be a liability, although it can attack from a decent distance by shooting out its tail stinger. The most notable thing about it is that NES games where characters unexpectedly transform into a scorpion will always remind me of that bonkers Star Wars Famicom game, so that’s nice.
There’s a boss at the end of this stage. It’s a biomechanical dragon-snake with the head of the Alien Queen from Aliens… or at least it did have the Alien Queen’s head, but I hit it once with the staff weapon I’d collected and its head fell off. It’s a fight of many surprises, this one: I was surprised to see the Alien Queen, I was surprised when the boss’ head fell off after one hit, I was surprised that being decapitated didn’t kill the boss but the biggest surprise of them all was that it only took three hits total for the boss to die. I guess the stick is a more powerful weapon than I anticipated.
I think I’ll stick with the stick for stage 2-1 – the Canyon Trap. I’m not sure what the “trap” portion of the stage entails. Is it all these green cyber-gorillas wandering around? They don’t really feel like a “trap,” though. I think they just live here, or they did until Talon dashed into action and beat them all to death with a big stick.
Having the staff means I get to try out the staff’s special power, which transforms Talon into a hawk and lets him fly high above all the bullshit of this alien invasion. You can’t attack when you’re in bird mode, but that doesn’t matter when you can ignore all the enemies. The aliens might have deployed an army of bipedal gun turrets, but those turrets can’t fire upwards. Honestly, it feels a bit broken, as though the developers forgot to include something that would impede the hawk’s progress.
The bird’s not nearly as useful in this stage – the Lake of Chaos – so I went back to the swimmin’ scorpion for a while. You can see the extending stinger attack in the screenshot above. It’s… not all that exciting, is it? I know, I know. It’s not an especially exciting stage. Maybe the boss at the end will liven things up?
Another boss, another alien creature with the head of a xenomorph from the Alien movies. It’s a rather nice sprite, actually, and because it seems to be riding on some sort of anti-gravity hover-palanquin I’m going to assume that it’s a spoiled, sybaritic member of the aliens’ aristocracy. Its tail appears to be a gun. I cannot confirm this, however, because the boss only took a couple of hits with the stick to defeat. It had time to roll towards me slightly. That’s all it had time to do.
Stage 3-1 is the Devil’s Forest, which feels like it should be the name of a cake. Anyway, it’s more of the same platform-hopping, monster-bopping action that we’ve seen throughout the rest of the game, except with more trees and a greater density of enemy forces. The latter of those two things can cause a problem because, and here’s the thing that might well be the deciding factor on whether you get any enjoyment out of Ninja Crusaders, you die in one hit. No health bars here, oh no. Get touched by a monster or grazed by a bullet and that’s it, you lose a life. Obviously this has the potential to become extremely frustrating, especially on your first playthrough of the game, but in the early stages it’s not quite as demoralising as it could be.
It helps that your ninja is fun to control. Talon moves responsively, and even better his movement speed and jumping abilities are fast enough and springy enough to give you a good chance of avoiding your foes, but they’re not so extreme or twitchy that you’ll end up accidentally running or leaping into the bad guys. It allows for a calm, measured approach that’ll come in helpful when the levels start getting tougher, but you’ve got enough athleticism to escape from tricky situations. Add in the potential benefits of the animal transformations and the unlimited continues you’re given, and Ninja Crusaders isn’t quite as daunting as it could have been.
It certainly feels less punishing than Ninja Gaiden, even though that game had a health bar. Ninja Gaiden is an obvious point of comparison with Ninja Crusaders, with both of them being side-scrolling NES ninja action games, and I’d say Ninja Crusaders comes out of the comparison rather well. The main difference is that Crusaders doesn’t feel quite as “rich” as Gaiden: the graphics are a little plainer, the music is okay but not nearly as good as Ninja Gaiden’s and the lack of presentational touches like Ninja Gaiden’s famed cutscenes means that Ninja Crusaders gives the impression of being the supermarket own-brand version of Tecmo’s game. The Sugar Coated Breakfast Flakes to Ninja Gaiden’s Frosties, if you like. However, in terms of gameplay they’re both quick, engaging and responsive, and the animal powers give Ninja Crusaders its own unique selling point.
The boss of stage 3-2 and presumably the lord of the wonderfully named Ironfist Castle is this insectoid pugilist, a spiky, scrappy character who wants nothing more that to punch Talon in the head with his crab claws. Maybe the boss is part pistol shrimp, that’d be a cool basis for a videogame boss. He’s good at what he does, too, and I had trouble defeating this chap because the range of its punches was greater than the length of Talon’s sword and, as I mentioned, you die in one hit. Hang on, sword? Oh yeah, I haven’t tried that transformation yet, let’s give it a go.
Well, that’s helpful: Talon is now a honking great dragon. A dragon that can fire energy blasts from its mouth. An invincible dragon. You don’t see Ryu Hayabusa doing that shit. Guess it’s time to move on to stage 4-1, then.
It’s a surprising change of location as the Hurricane Cruser (sic) stage takes place atop an aircraft carrier. A robot carrier, anyway. I didn’t see many aircraft. Lots of robots, though, and one thing I do very much like about Ninja Crusaders is the enemy designs. There are a good mixture of weirdo aliens and pleasantly chunky robots that look like they’re straight from a late-eighties cyberpunk anime, which is an aesthetic I’m sure we can all enjoy. However, they are taking quite a long time to kill, which unfortunately is the first hint that the latter half of Ninja Crusaders isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as the first. The problem is that you’re stuck using the shurikens or kusarigama, because from this point onwards there are no staffs or swords to collect at all. I suspect what happened is this: the developers realised that the hawk and dragon powers were simply too bloody useful, and you could negate most of the threats in the last few stages by simply flying over them, so they removed them entirely. It feels like a crappy solution to a problem of the developer’s own making, especially when you’re ineffectually flicking shurikens at SlaughterBot X-5000 for what feels like three weeks.
The other problem is that the difficulty that comes from one-hit deaths really starts to bite at this point. The action is getting faster and faster, and so are the enemies. Now they’ll pour onto the screen from seemingly random angles at lighting speed while also firing projectiles in a manner that‘s unpredictable enough for even Talon’s ninja reflexes to struggle against. Unfortunately, it turns Ninja Crusaders from a fast-paced romp into a test of memorisation, slowly inching forwards and trying to make a mental map of the enemy spawn points before taking a hit and having to do the stage all over again.
I had an especially troublesome time with these flying pink… tubes? Capsules? They look a bit like punchbags, which is ironic given that they kept kicking my arse. Eventually I managed to get through by advancing carefully enough to make sure I only fought one at a time wherever possible. I demand the name of this game be changed to Ninja Trepidation forthwith.
This stage has the first boss that puts up much of a challenge, although that’s down to Talon’s shortcomings rather than the boss itself. I’ve only got the kusarigama to hit it with and I can’t transform into a dragon, so I have to whittle away at the UFO’s health while avoiding the spray of insta-death projectiles its spits out. It’s an all-or-nothing fight, with one mistake forcing you to try again, but fortunately I figured out the trick to it early on. The UFO’s gun will aim towards you before it fires, but there’s a delay before it does shoot, so you can bait it into firing in one direction but then run underneath it to the other side before the gun goes off. Once you’ve got that down, it’s a test of not getting greedy with your attacks, because otherwise you’ll end up jumping into the side of the UFO and you don’t want to make it easy for the space monsters, do you?
Stage 5-1 is the Shadow Village, where all Sonic the Hedgehog’s annoying friends and sidekicks will be sent to live out a quiet retirement once they’re purged from all future Sonic games after the success of Sonic Mania. No, not really, it’s a village in the forest created by an ancient tribe that don’t know how to make doors. Seriously, what’s going on with that door? Is it actually eight tiny doors built for the wee forest folk? Look, I’m fixating on the door because there’s not much else to say about this stage that I haven’t already covered. It’s the just the regular “poke monsters with your kusarigama” gameplay. It’s still pretty good fun. And hey, because I keep mentioning kusarigamas it’s reminded me of Nioh, which is up there on my list of the best games of 2017, check it out if you like Dark Souls or the later Ninja Gaiden games.
Another boss, so soon after the last? The alien invaders are bricking it, clearly, and they'll do anything to stop Talon. This one’s a plant(?) monster that moves in a curious side-to-side manner, waving its tendrils at right angles. Imagine if the soundtrack to Little Shop of Horrors was “Walk Like an Egyptian” and not doo-wop, this is what Audrey II would look like. Like the UFO, it attacks with projectiles fired in a spread pattern, but there are bigger gaps between the bullets so you can avoid pretty much all of them by crouching in the bottom left corner.
The final stage is the Temple of the Cursed, and I’ve got to say that Ninja Crusaders has been killing it with these stage names. Anyway, I’m not sure what god this is a temple to, but whatever it is they really like turquoise platforms and... columns? Damn, they’re big into columns. “Building me a temple, huh?” the mysterious deity said, “make sure it’s got plenty of columns! No, more columns than that. Even more. Tell you what just, build the walls out of columns. Perfect!”
Oh, I get it. I’m the cursed one – cursed to have to see the background of this boss fight. Good god that’s ugly. Thinking about undergoing experimental surgery to replace your corneas with blocks of instant noodles? Why go through the hassle and expense of that procedure when you could just gaze upon Ninja Crusaders’ final boss battle?
That’s right, it’s the ultimate encounter with the alien’s leader. Actually, I have no evidence it’s the alien leader. It could be Frank from the xenomorph IT department for all I know, but he’s here and we’re going to fight. It’s a two-stage fight, as you might have expected, and in phase one the boss walks forwards and slashes at you with its big claw. Jump over the boss and get your hits in where you can. It’s not a complicated fight, and like so many boss encounters in this game the key is to not get greedy.
Then the boss’ exoskeleton falls off to reveal its, erm, skeleton. Now the fight swings from simple to annoyingly difficult, because the alien has remembered that projectiles are a thing, your weapons are crap, it takes a thousand hits to kill and, one more time, it’s instant death should you mess up for even a split-second. My top tip is that the boss fires its bone lance high then low, so duck under the first one and jump over the second. It’ll probably take you a fair amount of practise, but I believe in you, you’ll get there in the end.
The reward for your perseverance is an underwhelming ending consisting of some text on a black screen. Yep, Ninja Gaiden definitely wins out on the presentation front. Talon and, you know, the other ninja that was mentioned… Blade? Yeah, Blade, they return to the mysterious world of the ninja and that’s it. I suppose it makes sense. I know a ninja craves not glory and all that. Still, a picture of them or even just a “congratulations” message might have been nice.
Once Ninja Crusaders is over, you’re sent back to the beginning of the game, except all the aliens have more health now. Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough of Ninja Crusaders for now – but what I did play, I enjoyed. It’s a fun, solid game with an interesting transmogrification element that sadly gets left at the wayside in the final few stages. It’s not as big or flashy as some of the real superstars of the genre, but it scrapped its way to a place in my heart, and I might have enjoyed it even more if I’d played the simultaneous two-player mode that you can see pictured above. That’s a fairly rare feature for a NES action game! But you know the drill by now: I’m lonely, so very lonely, etc. At least I had a pink ninja scorpion with uncharacteristically strong swimming abilities to keep me company for today.
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