Every Wednesday, we highlight rarely-remembered but interesting games for our "Games Time Forgot" series.
Super Ninja Boy was part of a series known as Super Chinese in Japan. Culture Brain released many entries of this series overseas, but only four of them made it to American shores. This one was the only one for the SNES, and while it is arguably one of the more well known Culture Brain games, it is still a wildly obscure one.
Way back when local videogame rental stores were still alive and kicking, Super Ninja Boy was one of those games that myself and many others picked up on a whim. My personal story with this game goes like so: when I got home with it and put it into my Super Nintendo, I realized that this was an RPG unlike any other I had ever played. Even though our time together was very short, I always kept a glimmer of this strange game in the back on my head.
When people discuss RPGs that are outside of the norm, Earthbound is usually the title to come up first. But Super Ninja Boy ought to be one that comes up too. It's not set in modern times like Earthbound is, but it has something else that makes it a completely different beast than its other RPG bretheren. But it is still very likely that you don't know of it, or have forgotten it exists. Why is this?
Story: It begins when a very strange looking gentleman named Rub-A-Doc appeared in Chinaland with an army of flying saucers. He claimed to be an ambassador of peace, and signed a peace treaty with the leader of Chinaland, Emperor Chin of Yokan. This caused Rub-A-Doc to become quite popular among the people of the country. He stuck around a little while to please them, but then made a sudden disappearance. Right after this happened, all of Yokan's workers were kidnapped.
Jack and Ryu are two traveling kung fu artists who hear about Yokan's troubles. They decide to talk to Emperor Chin themselves and see if there is any way that they can help out, thus starting their adventures through Chinaland to free the stolen workers and figure out who is behind it all.
Gameplay: Starting out, Super Ninja Boy feels like a traditional RPG. You move your character through towns, talk to villagers, buy food and equipment, and play minigames for special items. You also roam across a world map that includes forests, mountains, and caves. Random battles will happen in these areas, and you fight and level up just like any other role playing game. The only thing that is odd from the get-go is that the game gives you a two player option. Player one is Jack, and player two is Ryu. A multiplayer game can be started or stopped at any time during play through the town inns.
Once you run into an enemy, it becomes obvious that the game's battles are its' biggest deviation from the RPG norm, making Super Ninja Boy a neat mixture of RPG and sidescrolling beat-em-up. Before you go into battle, a screen will pop up showing you the enemy type you will be fighting, and you are given the option to fight or flee. If you decide to flee, there is a chance that you will fail and be forced to fight.
The battle sequences allow you (and your buddy, if you're playing two player mode) to move freely across the stage as you fight your enemies in real time. The controls are brawler-style, with a punch button, jump button, and special items that can be used, such as ninja stars. There are also item blocks that can be punched during the battle. They may yield a variety of items, including a health restorative or a little bit of extra cash. Some of the non-fighting portions of the game are presented in a sidescroller mode as well.
Weirdly enough, the fighting flips back to the RPG format whenever you are facing a boss. There are four commands: fight, item, magic, and run. Unlike most other RPGs, the run command will work on all bosses, so if you feel you need to run away and prepare more before the fight, you can.
Why you're probably not playing it: Super Ninja Boy wasn't Culture Brain's first attempt at making a game of the role playing persuasion (they are responsible for the oft-forgotten but loved NES game The Magic of Scheherazade and at least one Super Ninja Boy predecessor). But it didn't keep them and their product from being left in the dust of the other RPGs of the era. No one could have taken the attention of gamers away from what Square was making at the time, especially not the offering of a company so obscure as Culture Brain is.
Think about all the games from this era now considered to be classics. Final Fantasy IV and VI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Secret of Mana, and Super Mario RPG. Despite its experimentation with the normal RPG formula, something that Earthbound is specifically loved for, it feels like Super Ninja Boy wouldn't quite fit in on the list.
Another factor may be the game's astronomically high encounter rate. Seriously, you can't go more than five steps at a time without running into an enemy. This makes it a real pain to play the game for very long, much less see it to completion. As unique as the game's battle system is, it is very likely that you will grow very tired of it after being forced to battle so much. There is always the choice to flee, but again, it doesn't always work.
Lastly, it suffered from a horrible translation job. It is so bad that entire chunks of sentences are missing in places. This makes an already weak story weaker (the identity of the bad guy is a complete no-brainer from the start), which may put off RPG fans.
Super Ninja Boy houses a pretty cool idea that was executed fairly well -- it was just the encounter rate that killed it for most people, including myself. But after being reminded of the game (previously, I only had a memory of how weird I thought it was, with no title to attached to it), I had to wonder why it wasn't more memorable. It's not a bad game by an stretch of the imagination.
It may not have the most interesting story ever or even interesting characters, but its fusion of two vastly different genres is definitely something to remember it by. The idea of a two player RPG was also a very neat one, so it's kind of sad that the idea never really caught on outside of the following two Super Chinese games in Japan.
Here's to you, Super Ninja Boy -- one of the only RPGs that two people could actually enjoy together!