Can the Warriors truly return, if many never knew they were here to begin with? There are countless iconic names in the world of screen-scrolling, thug-tossing beat-em-up belt action. Countless fans are sure to gab endlessly about iconic members of the genre like Final Fight or Streets of Rage. Even licensed, action-packed adventures like Alien Vs Predator remain hallmark examples of the pinnacle of side-scrolling brawler excellence.
I’m sure very few, though, would be singing the praises of old-school TAITO arcade vehicle Ninja Warriors. Likewise, the SNES port of the game isn’t the most well-known of belt action titles. I barely even knew it existed myself, until just this year. Perhaps the Japanese title of this latest release in the series, The Ninja Warriors Once Again, is meant to represent the exhausting tenacity of Taito for trying to make this ninja action game a hit for the third time. Once again, the Ninja Warriors are here. And this time, hopefully, they’re here to stay.
I called this a series earlier, but that’s not an entirely accurate descriptor. This new game, which has the much more boring title of The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors outside of Japan, is a remaster of the SNES Ninja Warriors game. That game, in return, was a massive re-imagining of the original 1987 Ninja Warriors for arcades. Despite being an HD facelift of an SNES game, though, I was immediately blown away by the timeless aesthetic of Ninja Saviors. Put this in front of someone without any historical context, and I’m positive they’d think it was a current-gen love letter to games of the 90s. Many of the developers from the original SNES Ninja Warriors came back to update the art of the game, with the result being an uncompromised art style that also manages to boast some of the sharpest sprite-work I’ve ever seen. That sharp art is matched by some old-school, crunchy audio that I couldn’t get enough of. The music is slick and addictive, and every sound effect is more memorable than the last.
There’s also just something timelessly rad about the ninja-robot world of the game that kept me smiling the entire time I played. Your three initially available characters are each different kinds of Terminator-style bi-pedal ass-kicking machines. They don’t just sport different ninja-influenced designs, though; they each play completely different from each other. The Kunoichi from the original game sports arcing jump attacks, ninja star barrages and hefty grab attacks. The Ninja, meanwhile, is a hulking mountain of steel that can use jet-boosters to glide across the stage and perform spiralling mid-air attacks, at least when he isn’t busy slinging his robot-nunchaku around and tossing enemies with a single hand. The Kamaitachi, which is named after a Japanese yokai that is literally a weasel with knife arms, utilizes quick spinnning-blade attacks and nimble mobility to keep constant pressure on his enemies.
Each character has their own strengths or weaknesses, as well as their own overall unique style, and that diversity in attacks is welcome, especially considering the fact that there are so many attacks in The Ninja Saviors. You may only have three attack buttons – a strike, a jump, and a special move – but combining directional inputs with these buttons and chaining them together can lead to a surprisingly deep amount of combos and extra abilities for each character. It can take a while to figure out that these various abilities are available to you, since the game offers zero control explanations, but it’s a hell of a time once you figure them out. The diverse toolset that each shinobi brings to the table is especially welcome given the fact that, for the first time, this game is completely playable in co-op. Having a buddy along for the beat-em-up action makes things twice as hectic, but also twice as fun.
Unfortunately, beyond a co-op mode and some graphical options, there aren’t many other new additions to the package. There are two new unlockable characters to play as, sure, but there isn’t anything new to do with them. As much as I wanted to take the nimble Yaksha and lumbering Raiden for a spin after unlocking them, I didn’t have an excuse to. The Ninja Saviors is a shockingly short game, with no new stages, mirror worlds, or game modes to speak of. This is belt action excellence, but it’s a shame how short this incredible journey is.