It’s fair to say that The Last Ninja on the Commodore 64 changed the gaming landscape. Initial screenshots in magazines of the day whetted our appetite and when it finally arrived, it didn’t disappoint.
The Last Ninja was different. It appeared to be light years ahead of anything else on the machine, giving gamers a standout title that combined impressive graphics, stunning music and excellent gameplay that mixed fighting and puzzle elements with more traditional arcade action.
You played the titular Last Ninja. Having seen all your fellow Ninjas slaughtered by an evil Shogun, you set off to avenge their deaths. Along the way, you have to take on the Shogun’s minions, find and collect items that will be of use later in the game and make your way past other hazards. Set across 6 levels, the game felt epic.
The first thing that grabbed your attention was the graphics. The isometric viewpoint was (mostly) perfect for the action and gave you a decent view of the playing area. The images were all big and beautifully detailed, invoking the look and feel of the Japanese society in which they were set; whilst the fluid animation was nothing short of stunning. The first time you get your Ninja to do a forward roll jump, it’s almost impossible to stop your jaw from hitting the flaw. There’s no doubt that back in 1987, the graphics set new standards for a home computer game and they still look impressive today, which is no mean feat for something that is almost 30 years old.
Musically, the game was unsurpassed too. Different tunes accompanied every single level (and the loading screens between levels) and whilst there were some that were more instantly hummable than others (my favourite – from any game in The Last Ninja series – has always been the very first level of the original). Sound effects were a little more basic and standard, but well-suited to the game.
Unlike some games, The Last Ninja didn’t try to sucker gamers into buying it just because it looked good: it had the gameplay to match. Each level required careful exploration to find hidden items (including additional weapons) that were needed to complete your quest, as well as a number of foes to battle and puzzles to solve. It wasn’t a particularly tough game (once you know what you are doing, you can easily finish it in around an hour) but that doesn’t take away the sense of fun. The Last Ninja had a nice balance to it. It wasn’t rock hard, but it wasn’t pathetically easy. Some of the puzzles required a little bit of thought but all were reasonably logical (within the game world created). Some also required a more stealthy approach to them (such as the giant archer statue on the final level) which fitted with the Ninja theme. Crucially, it wasn’t a game where you reached a certain point and couldn’t get any further because the game’s difficulty level had exceeded your ability; it was a game that wanted you to get right to the very end, and doing so was a delight.
If you were going to find something to criticise, it would be that the isometric perspective sometimes caused issues. For gamers mostly unused to operating in 2.5D, it could make things tricky. In particular, pixel perfect positioning was needed to pick up some items which could result in an awful lot of shuffling your character around millimetre by millimetre until you finally got into the right position to get it. A couple of the puzzles also required perfect positioning. The swamp crossing on level one (which required you to make a series of different length jumps was could be frustrating, even when you knew which jump to perform when. Similarly, close to the end of level 1, you had to throw a powder up to put a dragon to sleep, allowing you to sneak past. Again, this required standing on exactly the right spot or the powder would miss. If you missed three times, you had no option but to start the whole game again from scratch as there was no way to get off the level.
The thing is, though, both at the time and now, these elements were not as frustrating as perhaps they should have been. Maybe it’s because we were more used to games being hard and/or unfair and so accepted it. Personally, though, I think it was because the game was so much fun that if you came a-cropper, you didn’t mind too much that you had to do it all again.
The Last Ninja holds a special place in my heart because it was the first game I remember beating on my own, rather than resorting to cheats. I can remember approaching the final Shogun boss with sweaty palms with my friends watching anxiously on to see if the last two hours of effort were going to end in triumph or defeat. At first things didn’t go well. The Shogun had a full energy bar which, if you hit him, only went down a tiny bit. If he hit you, however, a massive chunk of your energy vanished. This was not an even fight. Happily, I discovered a little “feature” of the game that I was able to use to ensure that I came out victorious. The layout of the final room was such that the Shogun ran towards you. If you selected one of the long range weapons (such as the staff), you could get in a good few hits before he was close enough to attack you. If you then nip out of the room, and go back in, the room resets itself so the Shogun starts running at you again. Repeat the process many, many times and you will slowly whittle his energy bar down without ever taking damage yourself. Easy when you know how, and a method that has never failed me yet!
Most people cite The Last Ninja 2 as the best game in the series and it’s true that it expanded and improved on the original in lots of ways. For me, though, it’s the original that still stands out and is the one that I return to most. It’s a shame that, following a few aborted attempts, System 3 seems to have given up on The Last Ninja 4, but maybe that’s for the best. We wouldn’t want some half-hearted mediocre effort spoiling the warm fuzzy memories we have for the first game, would we?