If you’ve ever beaten a platformer in your life, you no doubt know the glorious feeling of finally seeing through a boss pattern. It’s like the ‘Eureka!’ moment of a puzzle game but with twitch reflexes involved, as you recognize repeated attacks and finally nail down the optimal method for avoiding them and fighting back. It might’ve taken multiple lives’ and continues’ worth of experience to reach this point, but now that you have the power of strategic knowledge and muscle memory, you’ll never have to go back to the ignorance you were mired in at the start of the battle. This deeply rewarding epiphany is the core essence of so many classic 2D platformers, and it shines through in Ninja Senki DX, a bite-sized PSN gem with oodles of old-school charm.
Its premise is purposefully plain: you’re the purple-clad ninja Hayate, hurling gigantic shuriken at everything that moves in a quest to avenge a slain princess. That’s all the motivation you need to shoot (fling?) and double-jump your way through 16 linear stages, – broken up into eight distinct level themes – using a limited supply of lives (but infinite continues). Ninja Senki DX has the spirit of an 8-bit game, but not on the platform you’re thinking of; whereas modern games like Odallus capture the feel and aesthetic of NES classics, Ninja Senki is done in the style of the 8-bit Game Boy Color. Even if the indie market feels oversaturated by games with retro graphics, the chunky, adorably animated sprites and vibrant color palette make the pixel art on display here stand out. It should come as no surprise, seeing as this game is the work of one of the co-founders of Tribute Games, the masters of old-school vibes infused into fresh gameplay concepts (see also: Wizorb, Mercenary Kings, Curses ‘N Chaos).
Ninja Senki DX (what does DX stand for, anyway? Deluxe? Director’s Cut?) delivers simple, two-button action that starts off easy and ramps way the hell up as you press on. In case simply making it through to the end isn’t difficult enough, you’re also challenged to snag every coin, kill every enemy, zip past obstacles in record time, and/or score a perfect run through each level (don’t get hit). Don’t worry – you can always go back and retry any level you’ve beaten when you’re up to these extra, incredibly demanding tasks. And by the time you’ve downed the final boss, I’m certain you’ll have what it takes.
That’s the beauty of Ninja Senki, and any retro game that handles difficulty well: it’s subtly training you all along, to the point that certain enemy-filled screens and max-distance jumps that used to give you trouble will often seem like child’s play only a few short hours later. Each level is made up of little setpieces interspersed between digestible patterns, and you’re unknowingly learning a rhythm to incoming enemies and potential hazards, just by making progress. Oh sure, there will be times when you completely whiff a jump and plunge down a pit in a manner most pathetic, or get knocked back by an enemy onto an insta-killing bed of spikes, Mega Man-style. But keep at it, and you’ll not only see those challenges through – you’ll find that you’re able to twitch-react to such hazards on sight when they reappear later, which is quite the empowering sensation.
The same skill progression occurs every time you take on a boss; at first glance, their attack patterns can appear terrifying, but with enough tenacity and careful study, it’s possible to down them in mere seconds. If you’ll permit a humblebrag, I can attest that there was a time when I thought the final boss was impossible; now, I can pin him full of throwing stars without breaking a sweat. Really though, my undertaking has only just begun – Ninja Senki DX adds additional challenge modes and another playable character that weren’t in the original downloadable (which is still available for free online, if you’re feeling a bit miserly). The Assassin medals (kill every enemy) are particularly interesting, as they force you to deconstruct enemy behavior and plan accordingly. Typically, that means figuring out how to nail frogs with shuriken before they dumbly kill themselves by hopping into a ravine.
When I first discovered Ninja Senki way back when, I reckoned it was one of the best free games I’d ever played. And in gratitude for that original experience, I’m more than happy to pay $5 for the DX version (complete with cross-play on PS4 and Vita). The new asking price is well worth it for anyone who considers themselves an old-school aficionado, or just loves a 2D platforming challenge that they can play at whatever pace suits ’em. And when you finally achieve that epiphany of decrypting and seeing through a boss fight’s pattern, you’ll be experiencing a small joy that only the best retro games can offer.