Return of the Ninja
System: Game Boy Color Publisher: Natsume Developer: Natsume
Genre: Action Type: Sidescrolling Ninja Platformer Circa: 2001

What is happening to today's videogame world? Have companies just forgotten how to make good games? It may sound ludicrous to have had high hopes for an unknown Gameboy title like Return of the Ninja, but I thought it would be like the Ninja sidescrollers of old. Even if those games weren't very original, they were almost always fun. Return of the Ninja is not! I'm under the impression that this game is a follow-up of sorts to Natsume's classic NES title, Shadow of the Ninja (it's originally-planned Gameboy sequel was somehow acquired by Tecmo and turned into the game now known as Ninja Gaiden Shadow.) Unlike those games, RotN shuns straightforward action levels in favor of huge maze-like levels where stealth and exploration are required. It's not as though I'm expecting that RotN should be just like other Ninja games of the past. I'm always open to new ideas and innovations, if they work. But I don't feel that what's presented in RotN makes for a good gaming experience.
GRAPHICS: 7.5/10
Natsume used some of the worst screenshots possible for the back of this game's box! I wasn't expecting the game to look very good from having seen those, but I was pleasantly surprised. Return of the Ninja's graphics are quite colorful and detailed. Many areas, like the forests, rivers, and graveyards, are reminiscent of Castlevania 2. Since the game takes place in medieval Japan, there is a lot of Japanese architecture, including statues and buildings with rice paper doors. The bamboo forest in the beginning bears resemblance to the one in the NES game, Demon Sword, but it looks much better than that game did. The animation of the hero characters is fluid enough, but they look as though they're shuffling their feet when they walk, as though they're on one of those exercise "ski" machines.

Some of the larger bosses look decent, with one gross exception: The final boss is one of the most ridiculous-looking things I've ever seen! I would've been comfortable with it being a boss in a Goemon or Ninja Boy game, but not in a serious title like Return of the Ninja! There are some other enemies that look a little silly, too, particularly the monks who look just like Klaymen, the hero character from the Playstation game, Skullmonkeys. And although the graphics are good, I wouldn't exactly say they reach the highest standards set by previous 8-bit titles.

SOUND: 3/10
Each level of Return of the Ninja has its own music, but most themes sound alike. If an enemy sees you, the music changes to a different, more harried tune, which is one of the most obnoxious things I've ever heard! There was an obvious attempt at making the music sound "Japanese", but it sometimes sounds more "Egyptian", or like just a bunch of irritating notes thrown together. Sound effects are standard. But what's up with the crows that squeal before attacking you? Crows don't squeak, they "caw"...
Play control, for the most part, is precise, although it tends to feel a little slow, especially when jumping. Attacking is fast and swift, though you must be close to your enemies to use your sword on them. By holding down the attack button, you can charge up your ninja's throwing star (or boomerang), but sometimes, it doesn't work, which can be aggravating in tight situations.
The two ninjas, Tsukikage and Sayuri, have returned to their homeland of Koga in Japan after a long journey away. But something is not right. The village is on fire, and the two learn from their master that the rival Iga ninja clan has stolen the ancient Shinobi tools from them. It is up to these two ninjas to reclaim the Shinobi tools and defeat this clan. Like many ninja games, RotN doesn't have the most original plot, but it's one of the few I've played where all the action takes place in medieval Japanese settings. (The ninjas don't go to a big American city or some demonic netherworld.)

Unfortunately, there are some things that hurt this game's atmosphere. The first is the aforementioned silliness of some of the enemies. (I'm not kidding about the lameness of the final boss, who has nothing to do with Iga Ninja, and why are pelicans attacking me on the ship level?) Another problem lies in the "stealth factor". When enemies see you, a big red exclamation point appears over their heads. Although I realize that the designers had to do something to indicate that an enemy has spotted you, this method emotes unintentional Looney Tunes-style comedy.

I also would have liked to have understood the tension between the two clans a little better. Nowhere does the game, or its manual, give a motive for the Iga ninja's actions against the Kogas, other than to be an "evil, rival ninja clan".

Return of the Ninja can feel like a very difficult game, because each level must be completed in one life. If you lose your last life meter block, your ninja teleports out of the stage, and you have to start over again. However, this is what I like to consider illusionary or inflated challenge. There aren't that many enemies to fight nor obstacles that pose an immediate threat. The main challenge is just trying to find the correct path through a level, since each one is set up like a huge "door maze". If you're unfamiliar with door mazes in videogames, basically it's a level with a number of doors that lead to all sorts of places, some to dead ends, some to necessary items, and some that take you backwards. While some of my favorite games, like Final Fantasy 6 and Super Mario Bros. 3, have had door mazes, at least those ones weren't freakishly confusing and boring. Return of the Ninja's are, partly because there is very little action, and partly because what few enemies there are will likely ambush you, causing you to have to redo those long, eventless levels over and over again!

Because you have to beat each level in one life, I was worried while playing RotN that bosses may have been purposefully made easier. Unfortunately, I was right. Most of them are very easy to defeat. At first, I thought the (stupid-looking) final boss was tough, and I tried using a hit-and-run strategy on him. But after I lost to him twice, I tried another tactic which took him out so easily, I used hardly any effort at all. And Return of the Ninja has no second quest.

FUN: 3/10
The one thing that differentiates Return of the Ninja from other Ninja games I've played, such as Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi, is that it encourages the use of stealth. This isn't really anything new, as games like Metal Gear have done it, and even Kid Icarus veterans will tell you that the best way to defeat the Grim Reaper enemy was to shoot him from behind and not let him see you, lest he send those annoying mini-Reapers after you. But the way it's utilized in Return of the Ninja isn't very fun or innovative. First of all, it's boring to have to wait for an enemy to turn around to attack it. (It was fun sneaking up on Kid Icarus's Grim Reaper, but I wouldn't have wanted EVERY enemy in the game to require that tactic!) Secondly, if an enemy does see you, all it does is cause more enemies to appear on the next screen. That isn't much of a penalty. Considering how few enemies there are, anyway, it doesn't really motivate me to use stealth. You do get a rank upon completion of a level, based on how many times you were spotted by enemies, but the rank doesn't seem to affect anything, gameplay-wise.

Sometimes, the action in the levels is either too easy or very bizarre. I compared the look of RotN's bamboo forest to Demon Sword's, and if you've played Demon Sword, you might know that you can get through that area by just holding diagonally up and right and continuously jumping. You can get through RotN's bamboo forest in a similar manner. In one of the more unusual sequences of the game, I became stuck at the end of an area, just beyond a huge tree with smiling lanterns hanging from it. I didn't know what to do at this point, until I realized you have to hit the lanterns with your sword to change the smiles into frowns, making you able to jump on top of them. Otherwise, you'd fall through them. I have to ask, why?? It just doesn't seem to make sense...

Each time you beat a boss in RotN, you earn a random card that has some information about ninja weapons, tools, magic, and techniques. These cards have no actual purpose in the game, although they can be traded via game link cable to other Return of the Ninja players (something I will probably never do). By using your password to continually replay the game, you can earn more and more cards, but that's not enough of a motivator for me to keep going through those uninspired levels.


There seems to be some universally accepted, yet unspoken rule that Gameboy games do not have to be as good as their console counterparts. I don't know whether this was Natsume's philosophy when creating Return of the Ninja, or if they were just trying something new that didn't work. I only hope that RotN isn't some indication that the era of the good ninja sidescroller has officially come to an end.
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 3/10



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