Would have been better if it were Hawaii Ninja Five-O...
Thinking about how the mighty Konami has fallen from grace, ignoring their legacy, focusing on gambling... it irks me. Back in 2012, Konami purchased Hudson Soft. So not only will we never see a real, passionately-crafted entry in the Castlevania, Silent Hill, or Goemon franchises ever again, we won't ever see an honest and true entry in the Bomberman, Bonk, or Bloody Roar franchises either. I know, how depressing. There was already no chance of a Ninja Five-O sequel, but now it's even less likely. Ah yes, Ninja Five-O, known in my territory as Ninja Cop. A side-scrolling ninja stealth platformer from 2003, superb and damn well-made, and eerily similar to the amazing Shadow of the Ninja originally released on NES. Hudson really knocked this one out of the park, but is it as good as I remember?
You assume the role of Joe Osugi, part-time cop, part-time ninja, part-time playboy philanthropist. You have to complete three sets of stages, set in three different locations: Bank, Harbour and Airport (and on harder difficulties, you can take on another three: Cave, Base and Launch Site). The goal in each stage is to find the red key and progress through the same coloured door until you reach the boss enemy and kill them. There are also optional hostages to save, if you would like some points. (Remember Points? Points used to be all the rage. Now it's Moshi Monsters; who even likes that crap?) The gameplay in Ninja Five-O likely sounds rather generic and boring to you, and it can be; I won't lie to you: it can get tiresome. The autosave between stages really works to the game's favour. It's not one of those sitting down for hours games; it really is designed with its portability in mind.
The actual complexity of the game comes to surface through Joe Osugi's amazing grappling hook. Simply jump, then jump again, to shoot out the grappling hook and attach it onto a compatible surface, not dissimilar to Bionic Commando, but at least Joe can jump. Then, swinging left and right, Joe can gain momentum and swing around and over objects. It feels identical to the ninja rope from the Worms series, and if you've ever used that, you'll have the controls down immediately. Some of the later stages get a bit tricky as they'll have you effectively using the grappling hook to do wall-jumps and swing between spikes, but this is what you've been training for, give it some welly!
Move over, DK: Joe Osugi is the real King of Swing.
The difficulty level is enormous. Bosses feel like they have about three times the health they should, getting hit strips you of your power-ups, and enemy ninjas can dart around in seeming unpredictable patterns. Despite this, everything in the game reacts the same way depending on how you act, so it becomes a game of memorization and high reaction speed. The game basically teaches you how to become a ninja because it won't take anything less than perfect from you.
Hudson have rarely put out a bad looking game. I even thought Adventure Island looked good by the NES standards of the time. Ninja Five-O is no exception to the rule. The character sprites are nicely detailed and look kind of like action figures, the animation is minimal but looks smooth and respectable enough, and the backgrounds and game areas look real and believable for the most part. Covering all facets of presentation, the music is fairly well fitting and the sound effects are, well, they're there. It does not assault my eyes, stab my ears, or offend my sensibilities.
Ninja Five-O is an above average, well-crafted single player experience that on the whole is difficult yet satisfying. It is low on content, only offering difficulty modes and a time-trial feature, which is a quite frankly embarrassing display, but it was the fairly early days of the Game Boy Advance. It is no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it still deserves a Wii U Virtual Console re-release, which it has not had. With Konami focusing less on what gamers want and more on alienating their fanbase, ruining their staff's lives, and generally acting like vile, unlovable scum, we probably won't see one. Now I need to go cheer myself up, because I'm all pissed off now.
A sequel could have potentially been truly spectacular, but until I make my Alternate Universe machine, we'll never truly know.