The tower of a thousand deaths
After climbing down 350 floors of traps, monsters, and ninja ghosts, not to mention the extra levels seemingly without end, I've come to one conclusion: I should never become a ninja. Sure, I should have known that before I even started playing Super House of Dead Ninjas, but it's nice to have confirmation.
I've died a lot. Countless times, really. Not enough to earn the achievement "Dedication," which one gets for dying a whooping 1000 times, but that achievement should tell you that this is a game about living for mere minutes. Thankfully, those minutes are filled with blood-soaked joy, certainly enough so that dusting one's self off and starting again isn't too great a chore.
Super House of Dead Ninjas (PC)
Nintai Ryoko, the super-charged ninja and title's protagonist, is a woman on a mission. Her goal: to travel to the bottom of a hellish tower, one apparently filled with treasures and the promise of glory. She doesn't want any of that, however; instead, she intends to discover what happened to the one ninja who succeeded before her, the one-armed ninja.
Getting to the bottom is easier said than done, what with it containing a myriad of horrors, from undead warriors, evil spirits, dragon guardians, and crazy monkeys, to traps ranging from floor and ceiling spikes to laser cannons. It's no easy task, but Nintai has a plethora of violent tools at her disposal.
She starts of with a basic katana, some shuriken, bombs, and one magic spell, but a vast array of unlockable weapons and tools can be earned for completing all sorts of challenges. Unlocks and upgrades can be picked up at a shop run by a sour old woman. She's dismissive and doesn't think you'll get very far. I didn't like her, and instead of seeking the fate of the one-armed ninja, I really just wanted to show that hag who the boss was. Her and the omnipresent voice that crops up from time to time judging my actions and mocking my many, many failures.
At the shop, you can see what needs to be done to unlock any of these items or upgrades, but most of them can really just be earned by playing the game without sparing them a thought. Finding out that I could use grenades or had a new pair of nunchucks that I could snatch after yet another death really softened the blow. Who doesn't like presents?
All the cool toys in the world won't make a difference without skill, however, and that's the area where I found myself rather lacking. Dead Ninjas is an insanely fast game, with Nintai being, more often than not, nothing but a blue (or whatever color her ninja robes are, there are several to unlock) streak, speeding across the screen. This speed is a necessity, too, as the game is on a timer, counting down to failure. Pick-ups can be discovered which add more time to the counter, but there's always the feeling that you're running low.
Haste inspires recklessness, unfortunately, and that lack of caution spells death. Nintai can sprint past some enemies, slicing and dicing as she goes along, but others have shields, require more than one hit, are covered in spikes, fling projectiles, teleport, or are exceptionally fast, and they require a split-second analysis before tackling -- there's no time for more. So speed becomes dangerous, despite being key.
At first, this led to an agonizing amount of frustration, as Nintai continually got turned into a red smear on the floor of this unwelcoming tower, but I was getting irritated by my own failings, not the design of the game. I got carried away by the delightful 16-bit violence and extreme pace, and would just run into confrontations without a second thought. Practice and experience made me a slightly better ninja. Make no mistake, however, I'm still terrible.
It's all about getting into a rhythm, and when you start to recognize enemies, it takes less than a second to recall the best way to slay them. Continually slaughtering the tower's residents in quick succession builds up Nintai's quickly diminishing rage meter, and when it's activated she becomes an unstoppable force of destruction. Those moments are the game's best, sprinting down the tower as an invincible, deadly whirlwind. And the more enemies you kill while in rage mode, the longer it lasts.
The floor layouts, enemy placements, and item locations are all randomly generated, making each new game after a death a fresh experience. Sure, it means that you won't be memorizing the levels, but it also means you won't have to play through the same section over and over again, which would certainly happen in a game this tricky.
Filling out the roster of ghastly enemies are a bunch of rather unfriendly bosses, and a very traditional bunch they are, too. They all come with special abilities, patterns that must be memorized (usually simple ones), and weaknesses that can be exploited. While challenging, most of them have a fairly small amount of health and can be dispatched quite quickly once you figure out how to deal with them.
I'm not the most patient of fellows, so I appreciated the fact that these villains didn't outstay their welcome. Die while fighting them, though, and you'll be sent back to the beginning of the section, a hundred floors above them.
Appropriately for a challenging game such as this, Super House of Dead Ninjas sends you into the fray with only minimal instruction. There is, however, a rather novel tutorial in the form of a comic, accessible from the main menu. Contained within are little tips and tricks that the main game doesn't really share with you, and one one occasion it even offered me the key to defeating a boss I'd been struggling with. It's well worth reading, and even rewards players with a new costume.
Super House of Dead Ninjas can be played for free on the Adult Swim website, but getting it on Steam nets you an upgraded version. The map editor and player-created dungeons offer up tools for you creative types and a bounty of new levels for those that can't get enough of the main game and its extra, transdimensional tower. It also comes with added items and unlockables, as well as an upgraded soundtrack. The latter is cracking, as well, containing some wonderful oriental-themed chiptunes.
This is one game that I know I'll be playing long after this review is finished with. The instant challenge and frantic pace makes it perfect to just pick up and play for 15 minutes, while the tight controls and potentially limitless number of floors makes it easy to pour hours into. If you're not convinced, then check out the free version and see if it floats your boat.
I do have one caveat, however. Whatever you do, don't play this with a keyboard. It's possible, but you'll just be giving yourself another unnecessary and fairly unpleasant challenge. Thankfully, Super House of Dead Ninjas comes with native controller support, and after a few initial hiccups, it seems to work perfectly now.
THE VERDICT - Super House of Dead Ninjas
Reviewed by Fraser Brown