Ninja by Softgold (1984)

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A 2017 re-release of this terribly buggy game fixed all the bugs, but still left it terrible. Ninja is perhaps the slowest and most convoluted game ever to feature ninjas. Real ninjas and Commodore 64 owners deserved better.

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Although America’s initial infatuation with martial arts is often attributed to the addition of Judo to the 1964 Olympics, it was David Carradine’s Caine who injected the art form into mainstream America during the 1970s via the television series Kung Fu. In 1980, the success of the television miniseries Shogun convinced Hollywood there was a market for sensible movies about feudal Japan, which led to Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja being released the following year, which is about as far from a sensible film about feudal Japan as a movie can get.

I was ten years old in 1981 when Enter the Ninja was released in theaters, although like most kids my age I didn’t see it until it made its way to cable a few years later. By then, Cannon had already released a sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, and suddenly, like an ancient assassin, the ninja era was upon us. By the mid-80s, not only had ninjas infiltrated b-movies and movie rental shelves across America, but video games as well, including The Last Ninja, Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Warrior, and countless others. If a game was released with “ninja” in the title, I would play it.

Which brings me to Ninja, an interactive fiction game for the Commodore 64 released by Softgold in 1984.

When I think of ninjas I think of sleek killing machines; assassins so adept at blending in with their surroundings that their skills seemed borderline supernatural. I think of well-oiled machines; men trained so vigorously that their reactions became involuntary — their reflexes, swift and deadly. Sadly, Ninja (the game) does not remind me of any of those things. For starters, Ninja is an interactive fiction game — perhaps not the genre best suited for conveying quick action. Fortunately for players, there isn’t any here to be found.

In Ninja, you play a member of the Kubuto Ninja Clan on a mission to recover the Statue of Joken. The statue has been stolen from your clan by Grey Ninjas, and hidden in the Temple of Sharloon. I’d like to poke fun at this, but I can’t. I’ve definitely watched late night ninja movies with less plot than this. The introduction sets up who you are, and what you’re supposed to do.

To spice up the game’s presentation, Ninja includes both digitized sound and color graphics. Softgold promoted Ninja as a game in their “Talkies” series of titles, of which, I believe, there were two. The game’s digitized voice is mostly limited to speaking two phrases — “O.K.” each time a move is processed successfully, and “So Sorry” each time the parser fails to understand your commands — although later in the game you’ll receive a few “beware” warnings as well. The quality of the speech isn’t very good, and one can’t help but think the memory it consumes could have been used to improve the game itself.

The game’s graphics, on the other hand, can’t possibly take up much memory at all. They were drawn using the Commodore’s built in PETASCII graphics set, and convey only the most basic visual information imaginable. In one of the game’s first scenes, players find themselves standing in front of a bridge guarded by a samurai — except in the picture, there is no samurai. Unlike most other graphical adventures of the time, the items mentioned in room descriptions are not depicted in the accompanying artwork. The graphics do a good job of visually reminding players of their physical location within the game, but not much else.

The presentation of the game is fairly straightforward. Players move from location to location, gathering, using, and dropping items (players can only carry five items at a time, so anything that’s already served a purpose should be left behind). Location descriptions are often sparse (“I am in a damp dim cave. Several items lay scattered about.”) requiring players to use the “L” command to look for items in the immediate area. Half the game is spent trying to get into the enemy castle, while the other half is spent inside the castle incapacitating guards and avoiding crocodiles. Unfortunately it’s not as exciting as it sounds.

Like many text adventures from the early 80s, players should prepare themselves for frustrating bouts of “guess the verb.” The aforementioned samurai players encounter demands gold from those who wish to cross his bridge, and while “Give Gold” and “Pay Samurai” aren’t recognized, “Pay Gold” is. Don’t forget that each incorrect guess is accompanied with the same digitized response every single time and boy does seppuku start to sound like a good idea the hundredth time you hear the game say “So Sorry.”

To beat the game, players must find and arrange five jade idols into a specific design, the pattern of which is revealed on a secret parchment. The parchment is located two rooms from the game’s starting point, and I had to use a walkthrough to find it — and even then, the first time I went to the secret location, the parchment wasn’t there, despite the room’s description. You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Willie Scott gets trapped in a room with six million bugs? Ninja has more bugs than that, including doozies like this:

In 2017, Commodore sceners Hokuto Force released a hacked/trained/patched version of Ninja that fixed several of the game’s bugs and added many new features. Among the features added are an in-game map, documentation, a walk through, and (perhaps best of all) the ability to turn off the digitized speech. In the bug-fixing department, Hokuto Force fixed some of the game’s graphical bugs, and prevented players from breaking out into BASIC and peeking through the game’s code to find solutions. In addition to documentation and a walk through, Hokuto also included a list of all verbs and nouns recognized by the parser, for players wanting to take a legitimate stab at solving the game. I can’t say their efforts made the game any better, but at least they made it playable.

Even ninja fans such as myself will have a tough time making it far in Ninja, a game that was created during the “wild west” era of Interactive Fiction, back before norms had been established and/or agreed to. Many times when completing a game while using a walkthrough, I’ll slap my forehead after seeing how obvious some of the solutions were. Not this time, ninja-san.

Link: Commodore Scene Database