The Japanese PC-Engine hosted many solid arcade game conversions, only a few of which ever saw release for its US counterpart, the NEC TurboGrafx-16. I remember reading a magazine article about Taito's Ninja Warriors back in the day, and hoping it would make it to our shores. After all, it's the kind of violent, action-packed arcade game Westerners seem to like, and Taito licensed Darius for US release -- but Ninja Warriors never made the trip. So after all these years, I finally imported the Japanese version -- and discovered that it's presented almost entirely in English!
There's a brief, minimally animated intro, set in the scary future world of A.D. 1993 -- there's some Japanese text here, but it's easy to suss out that a mad dictator and his army are trying to take over the world. With that well-worn premise in mind, Ninja Warrior is exactly what you'd expect -- it's a side-scrolling beat-'em-up, starring a ninja who wars.
There are a few novel features on hand -- for one, we can choose to be a male ninja or a female kunoichi, though unfortunately, the arcade game's two-player simultaneous mode is missing and missed. There's also an options menu, which lets us adjust our character's costume color and the game's difficulty. Frankly, even on the EASY level I find it difficult to make much headway in Ninja Warriors, and I never found a reason to adjust the play time setting, as I generally collapsed and exploded from my injuries long before I ran out of time.
Exploded, you say? Yes -- the other odd twist here is that our warrior is no ordinary student of ninjutsu, but a robotic cyborg cleverly disguised as one. As we take damage, our flesh wears away, revealing silver and brass arms, skull, legs and chest; the kunoichi even wears what appears to be a brass bustier in this gratuitous and unnecessary revealing topless shot:
Of course, whether we play the male or female character, we spend most of our time walking along, pausing every few milliseconds to kill the various enemies who approach from the left and right sides of the screen. We can walk, somersault through the air, and use two basic weapons -- a sword for close combat, and a limited number of throwable shurikens. This long-distance attack is comparatively weak compared to the sword, and its worst feature in the heat of battle is that these throwing stars are small and blend into the background, and the player's ninja will continue to make throwing motions even after the available supply has run out.
The graphics are colorful and smoothly animated, and the chiptune music is well-rendered and memorable, with a bass "guitar" line and reedy "lead" riffs in traditional 1980s arcade style. The action is intense and challenging, but it does become repetitive after a while; this, perhaps, is why the game never reached the US. It might also have something to do with the fact that the run-of-the-mill enemies in the first level are uniformly people of color:
Now, the embarrassing admission: I've spent several hours with this game, and I have yet to make it past the first level (in my defense, the levels are lengthy, and dying sends us right back to the start of the current stage.) And Ninja Warrior isn't a particularly accurate facsimile of the 1987 arcade game -- the sprites are quite a bit smaller, and the action is limited to about half the screen area, in an attempt to emulate the widescreen aspect ratio of the coin-op's massive 3-screen setup. But it's still tough, and with no way to "buy in" and continue the action as permitted by the arcade version, it's a challenge to get anywhere with my aging gaming skills.
Man, it's so much nicer when I can blame this sort of thing on my lousy Japanese.
If your arcade talents are in better shape than mine, you might enjoy this one. It is occasionally available for purchase here or here: