Ninja Five-O (Ninja Cop in Europe)

Platform / Media: GBA Cartridge
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: April 2003 USA, Jan 2003 Europe

Ninjas. Guns. A grappling hook. A silly name. It's a great start, but there's lots more: flaming jets, huge robots, powerful bosses, and the everloving moving platforms and spiky pits. All rendered in classic side scrolling format and colorful graphics, this blend of Shinobi, Bionic Commando and perhaps a touch of Ninja Gaiden, stands on its own as a competent platformer.

That's all you really need to know; Ninja Five-O is a side scrolling game of the classic platformer sort, complete with all sorts of (mostly) nonsensical obstacles to impede your progress, save keys to open doors gameplay, lots of varied enemies, exotic locations to visit (although all of them seem to have these annoying flame jets...), two difficulty levels which actually change the enemies' behavior and placement, and tough bosses which can be defeated in time-honored tradition of evade attack -> memorize pattern -> destroy.

At your disposal (since you're a ninja cop, name of Joe Osugi - heh, heh) is your powerful sword (which can be used in midair for a mighty twirl attack), unlimited shuriken (upgradable through pickups to a spread of fireballs or a railgun like bolt that goes through all enemies - getting hit makes you lose an upgrade level) and of course your trusty ninja magic, damaging or destroying all foes on-screen. And then there's your grappling hook, which can attach to any surface and the length of which you can adjust at will - with a little practice you can move just as fast vertically as left/right.

Arrayed against you are grunts with guns, grunts with dynamite, grunts with flamethrowers (very dangerous!), and at higher levels grunts with plasma beams. Each type of grunt has their own behavior, based on your proximity. Some will patrol, some will guard a spot, and all will become active when they spot you - you can actually duck down and eventually they will go back; pretty sophisticated for a handheld. There are also giant stalking robots, which can fling grenades or a boomerang-type device - they're also quite tough to destroy. Ninjas will materialize every now and then to try and destroy you with lightning-fast attacks - they all have different ways of fighting as well. Finally there are grunts with hostages - they hide behind them and pop out to squeeze off a few shots. Treat them carefully, as accidentally killing a hostage will take away a significant chunk of your own health; contrariwise, saving them adds a bit to your ninja magic meter.

That's it! In each mission (comprised of four stages), you must rescue the hostages, get by the bad guys and find the keys to proceed to next stage; simple recipe for fun. As mentioned, the game comes with 2 difficulty levels; you have to complete the game on Easy in order to get to the Normal, and you have to complete the first three Normal missions to open up the remaining two - this adds up to a solid 20 missions, the last 8 of which can be described as pretty damn hard. The gameplay is memorizable, but some of the foes are clever enough that ducking behind cover (or shimmying up the grappling hook) will be a must anyway. Finally, the game is fairly tough from the beginning - not quite as hair-pulling as say, Ninja Gaiden, but still up there on the difficulty charts.

Audio Visuals

Sound is quite nice, with the shurikens thunking into surfaces, guns chattering death, swords swishing and clinking, and bosses laughing maniacally. Background music is a set of bouncy and fast little tunes that keep things rolling without being too annoying.

Visuals are satisfactory, with parallax scrolling in a few places, distinct and easy to identify enemy types, interesting level designs and small touches like shurikens staying embedded in any surface they hit for a few moments, distinct death animations (sometimes bad guys even plummet over railings) and your body rising to float on the surface of water upon death. Attention to detail is definitely the norm. There are also intro cutscenes which, using scrolling stillshots and subtitles briefly describe the situation you're going into - they are quite superfluous as your mission is the same every time; only the environment differs. The game really shines when you're swinging on the grapple, moving fluidly as you perform 360 degree angle rotations.

Opinion / Conclusion

The GBA is perfectly suited to platformers, rendering 2D with zest, color and speed. The inherent brevity of arcade play is also well suited to a mobile platform; Ninja Five-O saves after each substage (not mission!) completed, so you can quit basically anytime. As such, it's surprising there are so few of them out there, as company after company attempts (and fails) to make a 3D version of ... just about everything. Playing Ninja Five-O makes me realize that some designers still have a clear vision of what fun is. I recommend Ninja Five-O to any platformer fan.

I hate to advertise for them, but the fact is that's preowned section and store locator device are quite useful - people often pass over this game as they don't know what is. It didn't sell well mainly due to lack of advertising. As is often the case, it wasn't advertised much because it didn't sell well... The usual venues of amazon marketplace or ebay may also prove useful. Note that the regular price should be between 15-20 dollars, cheap for a good deal of fun.