Sometimes I wonder what real ninjas from back in the day would make of their pop culture depictions in modern times? Would they be excited to see how kids adore them? How they’ve basically become superheroes of a sort? Or would they be irritated that their dedication to espionage has been reduced to conspicuous blue jumpsuits and direct attacks? An intriguing question, and one that I will neither answer nor bring up again in the body of this review of Ninja Commando ($3.99), the latest game to hit SNK and Hamster’s mobile ACA NEOGEO line.
Hey, I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years now. Coming up with fresh openers is tough. I suppose I could have just gone with an old reliable template that almost everyone can enjoy and apply the topic of the day as needed. I didn’t do that, but you know who did? Alpha Denshi and SNK, back in 1992. They barely even hid it. Just stapled Ninja onto Capcom’s Commando and took an early lunch. Okay, that’s kind of rude. The top-down run-and-gun had been a very popular genre throughout the late 1980s on the back of hits like the aforementioned Commando and SNK’s very own Ikari Warriors. One might even suggest that the very existence of the NEOGEO was built on the backs of such titles. With that in mind, we can surely excuse any indiscretions in terms of creativity with the broad structure of this game.
If Ikari Warriors followed in the wake of Commando, I think it’s safe to say that Ninja Commando treads in the footsteps of Commando‘s follow-up Mercs. Your characters have wider move sets and a more interesting array of attacks, the play area is often wider than the screen, and you’ve got a life bar instead of having to suffer one-hit kills. The story premise here is certainly its own thing, if nothing else. The villainous Spider and his Mars Corporation have developed a time machine and plan to use it to attack the past and control the future. Man, this isn’t even the first SNK game that uses that villain plan. As these things go, the only ones who can stop Spider’s machinations are a trio of ninjas: Joe Tiger, Ryu Eagle, and Rayar Dragon. They chase their foe through seven periods of history, arguably causing more damage to the timeline than Spider and his goons. Hey Joe, I don’t think you’re supposed to murder Nobunaga Oda before his time!
This goofy plot is part of what makes Ninja Commando so fun. Oh, I probably haven’t mentioned that yet. Ninja Commando is a lot of fun. You get to choose your favorite ninja, each with their own weapons and moves, and either go it alone or with a friend on a big stupid adventure through history. There is a big caveman who grabs his fellow cavemen and throws them at you! Yes, you have to fight mummies. World War II? They wouldn’t be Ninja Commandos if they didn’t stop in there, would they? The game has its tongue firmly in its cheek but not so much as to be obnoxious about it, and some of the dialogue really has to be seen to be believed. The pixel art is really strong, and I think it must have been a lot of work to make these areas so distinctive and populate them with period-appropriate enemies of all kinds. It has a lot of personality.
As for the gameplay, it has a few tricks up its sleeve but mostly sticks with what worked in the past. Your characters have their own basic shots that you can only fire ahead of you. They’ll power up the faster you hit the button, oddly enough. You can do a somersault or flip to get out of the way of attacks, and it can be useful if you get the hang of its movement and the game’s collision boxes. You can also fire in multiple directions when flipping, making it one of the few ways to attack enemies beside or behind you. The third button uses your smart bomb-style attack, which can be useful in a pinch. Likely inspired by the fighting game craze going on around it, Ninja Commando also equips each of the three characters with some command based special moves. They are extremely powerful so it’s not a bad idea to get the hang of them, even if it can be a bit tricky using touch controls.
A brilliant segue into the bits where I talk about how it plays on mobile. Of course, you can use an external controller and get the standard console (arcade?) experience, but I’m happy to report that even if you’re limited to the touch controls you’ll still have a relatively good go of it here. The special moves can be a pain to pull off and trying to maintain maximum power on your shot can be troublesome, but by and large the game plays nicely with the on-screen buttons and stick. You won’t be able to bring a buddy without external controllers, but hey, real commandos fight alone. It’s Rambo, not Rambo and Friends. Except for the animated series. But we don’t talk about that! The point is, this is actually a really nice mobile experience.
All the usual Hamster ACA NEOGEO stuff is in play. Two versions of the game, plus the Caravan and Score Attack modes. Those extra modes are quite enjoyable with this game, and the online leaderboards add to the excitement. The options are familiar, extensive, and as welcome as ever, and the emulation is spot-on. By now most of the people reading this probably know what to expect from these ACA NEOGEO releases in terms of extra features and overall presentation, but I have to put it here for those reading this review first. Hi, new reader! Please stay a while! Stay forever!
If you’re looking for a straightforward but fun top-down run-and-gun game, you’ll be well-served by Ninja Commando. It’s not as fancy as the Shock Troopers games but its wild premise and strong execution make it a decent highlight from the NEOGEO’s earlier years. It plays really well on mobile even if you don’t have an external controller handy, and is actually quite good for filling out little pockets of spare time during your day-to-day. A solid addition to the ACA NEOGEO mobile line, and one I can easily recommend.