It can’t have escaped the attention of anyone reading this that modern spiritual successors to and reimaginings of vintage 80s and 90s titles are rather in vogue right now.
The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors (Saviors) stands apart from many of these because it feels to me like ‘the real deal’. And I was there. Still am, in many ways.
Even when compared to carefully crafted tributes such as JoyMasher’s recent Contra loveletter, Blazing Chrome, Saviors bears all the hallmarks of a game that was actually made in the 90s, rather than one which seeks to imitate.
In part, that’s because technically this is indeed a souped-up ‘DX’ remake of a highly regarded yet conversely slightly obscure 1994 SNES follow-up-cum-remake The Ninja Warriors – a home console specific version of 1987 triple screen wide coin-op The Ninja Warriors.
This (arguably) makes more sense when you clock the original Japanese titles: The Ninja Warriors, The Ninja Warriors Again and – here – The Ninja Warriors Once Again.
That 1994 Super Famicom conversion took the flashy but straightforward arcade game – a horizontal scroller in the mould of Kung-Fu Master/Spartan X or Green Beret, there’s no ‘Z’ axis in play here a la belt scrollers such as Final Fight – and added quite some depth, variety and new gameplay mechanics to warrant the price of the cartridge.
Saviors brings all of that forward to the current generation (PS4 and Switch at least), but goes further still, with much higher resolution 16:9 pixel art, which I think looks pretty sensational.
The modestly numbered but sufficient cast of enemy characters offers enough variety and strategic situations across the full width of the play, to keep players on their toes. This is due to the sizeable number of combat strategies and opportunities that the increased selection of player characters brings about.
Whereas the original arcade machine had two basic Warriors (cyborg ninjas), the home version upped that to three with the inclusion of insectoid robot Kamaitachi – as well as a pronounced gameplay distinction between the well balanced female (Kunoichi) and slower, heavier, stronger male (Ninja).
Saviors adds a further two unlockable protags to the roster; the diminutive Yaksha, with her Bionic Commando-esque (or Doctor Octopus-like if you prefer) extendible clawed tentacles of metal, as well as a goon-dwarfing, ‘playable boss’ type behemoth, Raiden.
Each selection will legitimately change up the way you play through the game’s eight stages, and in particular deal with its array of bosses, each with its own attack pattern and weakness to be learned and exploited.
While I haven’t found Saviors a tremendously difficult game to clear on the default difficulty setting, I have thoroughly enjoyed doing so twice – once on Switch (which I paid for myself) and once on PS4 (for which I was supplied a review code).
I spent the excruciating, month-long wait between the international release and the UK release watching playthroughs on YouTube, folks who were already mastering each stage’s challenges top to bottom with each character across the harder difficulty setting and time attack modes, demonstrating that the moment-to-moment has sufficient precision baked in for it to be possible to one credit and even forsake all energy pickups and learn how to block properly for a no-damage clear on this one. Testing but tantalising.
Everything about the interaction between the player character(s) – there’s also a local only co-op mode for two – and the horde of enemies that are thrown at you from both sides of the screen is a joy.
The response to every button push is crisp, hitbox sizes and detection feel exactly how I want and expect them to feel, as does the prioritisation of animation vs invincibility and all that technical jazz.
In short, I find Saviors a pleasure to play. The delight of simultaneously comboing a clutch of knife-wielding knuckleheads before flipping into the air, backslashing a turret bot from the sky and landing, perfectly placed to throw another numpty into the recovering throng and whizzing a trio of shuriken to finish off a weakened boss (for example) ‘never gets old’, as they say.
Occasionally the sheer volume of might threaten to overwhelm and overrun you, but it always feel like you have the tools to not only extricate yourself but also turn the tide of battle in your favour.
All this flexibility is contained within two buttons, plus directional ‘modifiers’ for character-specific moves, including specials that use some of your battery meter, which charges constantly charges up but gets temporarily emptied if you take a proper tumble.
There’s even a screen-clearing ‘bomb’ type super to clear some space and buy some time, or simply to finish off a level boss without having to get in close again.
This is absolutely one of those games I can see myself returning to, both to clear it with each of the available characters and master it as well as I can, but also simply for the sheer pleasure of playing it – as well as listening to its triumphant tunes and admiring its cartoon quality animation.
Excellently, Hiroyuki Iwatsuki’s music from the SNES incarnation and even those legendary original Zuntata pieces from the arcade are unlockable too, so you can Daddy Mulk your heart out forever, after beating the game once.
Any complaints I have are minor, yet – and I acknowledge that this is almost a contradiction of the fact that one of the things I like so much about Saviors is its authenticity – I feel like with a game that has so much potential for cool, flashy, badass play could be rewarded with a few more endorphin-tickling bells and whistles, acknowledging the player’s skills. Even if they were toggleable (to keep the purists quiet), a combo meter intertwined with a more sophisticated scoring system would have been welcome, as well as further encouraging extended play.
Despite some sparkling reviews elsewhere, this particular release feels to me like it’s destined to go somewhat under the radar for many. Perhaps its star is somewhat diminished by its less well known IP, perhaps further by that delay in bringing it out in Europe. Yet the buzz for WayForward’s (excellent looking) River City Girls and anticipation for the forthcoming Streets of Rage 4 grows.
I beseech you, if you’ve read this far and value sharply honed, legitimate 16-bit era action gameplay, don’t let The Ninja Saviors: Warriors Return scroll on past. It’s the real deal.