Review by SneakTheSnake

Reviewed: 08/28/12

A fun and exciting 3D action romp. It gets a good "Grade" from me.

Think of yourself as a game developer. Sometimes, you’ll have a pretty good idea whether your game’s going to reach a good point of saturation in the market. If you’re Nintendo and are developing a first-party game, well, chances are your profits will skyrocket even if it’s a Super Mario Knitting or Metroid Morph Ball Pachinko. There must be the sad realization that some game developers have: that they are not all Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft, and that their game will probably not reach the level of acclaim or market saturation that the Nintendo superstars have. This is because the big-time developers have the big thinkers with the big mascots, the talented programmers, the best know-how on their consoles’ inner workings to bring out the best from their consoles and the bottomless budgets to prove it. They have the big-name characters who have become part of our gaming culture. I-Ninja is not part of our gaming culture because of all of these things, but it’s a darn good multi-platform action title on its own merits.

The game starts off with one of its truly humorous cutscenes. The game stars a diminuitive fighter who goes simply by Ninja, and one of the first things we learn about him is that he’s got a pretty big anger problem. It’s one thing to have an anger problem and realize it must be handled; it’s another to want nothing more but to find more opportunities to fly into a rage, which is exactly what this ninja does. In the heat of a magnificent battle, Ninja, in one of his uncontrollable outbursts, accidentally kills his sensei. The sensei, who now appears as a ghost, tells Ninja about the Rage Stones, which he can collect in order to eviscerate the ancient evil, O-Dor. Ninja must then venture out to various parts of the land, collect Grades to increase his Ninja rank and must then vanquish O-Dor once and for all.

The plot is not too deep; rather, it’s intended to be funny. This isn’t much of a parody, though - perhaps just on the surface. At no point does I-Ninja make sly references to ninja flicks or heave on any strange social commentary on how ninja and pirates are all the rage these days in American pop culture. The game simply borrows heavily from tropes of ninja fiction. It’s a humorous story that more or less uses vaguely Japanese, somewhat-related ninja elements as a backdrop for humorous and engaging gameplay. The humor comes, in one way, from the sensei’s mixing-up of common maxims and sayings (“Remember, Ninja, a stitch in time saves... two in the bush!”) and the hilarious delivery and timing of the voice acting. With Ren & Stimpy’s own Billy West playing Ninja, you’re pretty much expecting to have a few laughs right off the bat.

At any rate, the gameplay is as such: you travel through various hub worlds to access a bevy of 3D action-platform stages. Each stage has a collection of different objectives which open up as you progress through the game. Completing a level successfully grants you a grade, which helps improve your rank; this also nets you currency, which you can use for upgrades. Higher ranks grant access to harder objectives in earlier stages. Once you earn a certain rank (by getting about sixty grades spread throughout the thirty-or-so levels, each with three objectives apiece), you earn the chance to fight Master O-Dor.

Ninja has a lot of moves in his arsenal. He can run along walls, run vertically on half pipes, take out goons from afar with his shurikens and can even swing from hooks with his ninja rope. You’ll also see him gliding through the air, impaling bad guys with his sword and the like. The most helpful moves become unlocked as Ninja takes down more and more enemies; he’ll be able to heal himself, become temporarily invincible and do a screen-clearing attack if you build up your “Kill meter” during play.

I enjoy the stage design in I-Ninja, especially because each stage allows for many different objectives and styles of gameplay. Some stages are heavy on combat - taking out goons and bigger enemies alike - and others feature more platforming. Others take a different route entirely and may include, say, rolling a giant ball through a maze ala Super Monkey Ball. Your first objective in each stage is to simply complete it, by hook or by crook; secondary objectives include collecting 10 red coins in a stage, defeating a certain amount of enemies or completing the level under a time limit.

Yes, these all sound kind of cookie-cutter, and they are, but they’re not a detriment to the quality of I-Ninja’s gameplay. The objectives require the player to play differently and think strategically; in the timed levels, it’s up to the player to decide whether he makes it easier by taking out all the goons or takes the risk of simply running through them, if that’s a possibility. The controls are precise and responsive enough to allow for smooth, albeit simple, combat and reliable ball-rolling gameplay when it’s called for.

There are even some mech battles and vehicle-related bosses in I-Ninja. You can man your mech at the beginning of the first world, for example (after you spent your time going through each level and gathering loose body parts for your ‘bot. How clever!) and take out your enemy in a first-person boxing match. There are also shooting sections and underwater battles to help round out the boss fights. These help break up gameplay a bit and provide challenging, engaging boss encounters.

Some parts in I-Ninja felt a little cheap; I’m not big on Super Monkey Ball levels, which are pretty prevalent in the beginning but ease off as the game goes on. Some levels take a surprising amount of time to complete - running on thirty minutes, which, to me, is pretty excessive for a simple, Super Mario 64-style platforming objective. Other players might be turned off by how slowly I-Ninja moves. These are small complaints in what is otherwise a very serviceable action-platformer with a good amount of gameplay variety. No, the fighting system is not deep, and you can’t slash it up with your buddies in multiplayer, but I don’t think those should detract from your experience either.

The graphics in I-Ninja are colorful and cartoony - very American in design despite its leanings on ninja culture. Ninja seems like a hyped-up Saturday morning cartoon-addicted sugar junkie, which is fine by me. The environments look pretty and hold up well these days. Not only is the game extremely colorful; the character models and scenery are delightfully impressive. I experienced no lag or framerate issues while playing I-Ninja either.

The music in I-Ninja is actually pretty catchy. It’s hard to shoehorn the game’s soundtrack into a specific genre, though it does lean toward rock music from time to time; most of it is upbeat and ambient, more or less fitting with Ninja’s surroundings. The sound effects can be a little grating, but the voice acting is really where the game shines; the lead role was cast very well, and the supporting cast also has its moments.

I-Ninja features a few things to do after the campaign is over. It’s not required that one collect every grade in order to finally take on O-Dor, so players may be motivated to collect the other grades and earn an even higher rank. It can be fun to take on your favorite levels another time after the game is over. Beyond that, the game’s completion is your one reward, as there are no mini-games or multiplayer modes to help bolster the experience.

I-Ninja is, in my opinion, considered one of the overlooked platformers of the generation. The gameplay is solid and the graphics are good, but the game was overshadowed by more popular titles. I can still recommend it, though, as a fun - and funny - homage to ninja tropes, as well as it being just a good game all around.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: I-Ninja (US, 11/18/03)

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