In the year of 1987, a publisher called System 3 brought forward a game called The Last Ninja for the Commodore 64 (and other computers). The Commodore 64 was then, in spite of numerous advancements in computer manufacturing, the most widespread home computer product in history. It would remain such until a small handful of years later, when the inexorable pressure of business and wider acceptance drove consumers to greater, more powerful platforms.
But you see, in 1987, making a computer game was an artform. In some articles, authors on sites like Gamespy try to tell us that the computer game industry then was like the film industry in 1900. Consumers were impressed by less, so the industry was content to churn out little pieces of simple things that, on further analysis and reflection, were not all that much to be impressed by. Friends, that is flat-out bullshit. The videogame authors of the 1970s and 1980s had big dreams in terms of what they made and wanted to make. If it had been technically feasible for the makers of The Last Ninja to make a videogame with a CD-quality music track, realistic combat sound effects, and a fully interactive environment that resembled medieval Japan rather than rendered blocks of symbolic imagery, they would have gladly done so. And if the people of 1987 had such product made available to them at that point, they would have gone apeshit for it.
But alas, programmers had to contend with severe limitations in both their own tools and what was feasible to deliver to the audience. Which effectively meant that in order to be able to sell a game in enough quantities to make a profit, one had to make a game that was fun. This is a total reversal from the present-day industry, where gameplay is very much a secondary consideration, and marketing, the amount of pixels being fired in some imaginary pissing competition, or the sorts, are what it is all about. Simply put, people had seen things respond to their input a million times, and had seen the computer output “responses” to what they typed a few hundred thousand. In the 1980s, when a player turned on their computer and put in a disk of software designed for entertainment purposes, they wanted to be entertained.
Unfortunately, the extreme limitations of 1980s computing and videogame platforms meant that games had to follow a fairly straightforward implementation of the basic concept. A game where the player character ran and jumped from platform to platform was fairly common. Simulations of team sports involved either moving a singular player from place to place whilst teammates stood around with their dicks in their hands (for all intents and purposes) or navigating a complex but crude menu system that attempted to give the player a semblance of strategic control. Racing games mostly involved accelerate, brake, steer, try not to crash. Or try not to crash too much in the case of really hilarious over-the-top examples like Stunt Car Racer or Racing Destruction Kit.
The Last Ninja consists of six levels, each with its own overriding theme. The first, The Wastelands, introduces the titular ninja (who is named Armakuni, apparently). One collects various items and generally acquaints themselves with how the game itself works, picking up several weapons with which Armakuni will engage foes. The different weapons were also interesting, much like the system of combat. You see, in the 1980s, videogames were generally played and controlled using a peripheral attachment called a joystick. And due to the limitations of the connector by which joysticks were connected to the Commodore 64 (and Amiga), rather than being able to have one assigned button for each function, one had to hold down a singular button and move the joystick in a direction in order to execute the moves.
Each weapon in the ninja’s arsenal, the sword, the nunchaku, the staff, the shuriken, and the smoke bombs, had a specific place and purpose in relation to the ninja’s tasks. The sword allowed rapid, light hits from a medium distance. The nunchaku were extremely short-range but also hurt the enemy a lot if one could hit them with the damned things. The staff had a longer range, and in damage terms was somewhere between the sword and the nunchaku, but it was slow. One type of strike I remember that the ninja could perform with the staff took more than a second to complete. Even in a Commodore 64 game, that meant strikes had to be timed very carefully.
The shuriken and smoke bombs did their own interesting things in the game. In fact, the latter was a vital component in how to pass the first level. The smoke bomb would, when thrown at the foot of an enemy, leave them unconscious for a certain amount of time. Because the final obstacle in the first level was a dragon that stuck its head out and breathed flame on anything that tried to get by, one had to put a smoke bomb in just the right place under its mouth to make it sleep, and thus pass by. Silly, yes, but a very effective use of puzzle/problem-solving in a very early computer game.
The shuriken was much more straightforward. Throw it at an enemy, and if it hits, that enemy falls down dead without any further argument or barring of the ninja’s path. But given that shurikens only came in packs of five, and were only found at a small number in points of the game (I forget how many, precisely, but if it was only two in the whole game, I am not surprised), one had to think long and hard about how and when to use them.
Although the other five levels in the game had different names (The Wilderness, The Palace Gardens, The Dungeons, The Palace, and The Inner Sanctum) and different graphics, the differences were almost entirely in the details. Every level had certain items to collect, one of them had the staff, and each level had one or two environmental features that the player had to either avoid like the plague or figure out how to neutralise.
Now, so far, I have told you that The Last Ninja is far better than the videogames we see today because the programmers had no other option than to make the game fun to play. There were a few ways the programmers and publishers could go about this. One was to make the gameplay so much fun that any flaws were excused. Another was to provide such a great sense of atmosphere that any flaws were excused. And if enough of either was used effectively, one could also rely on the players imagination to some extent (especially if that player was a child) to cover up problems. But that does not mean that The Last Ninja was bereft of problems. In fact, with the weird angles of pathways, the movement control that made Resident Evil look smooth and fluid, and the need to get certain stone-on-water jumping points in the game exactly right, it is hardly surprising that modern gamers fail to see its good points.
Whilst The Last Ninja had an elaborate and sometimes crude system of controls, the makers of such games as World Of Warcraft could have really learned something from it. A good example of this is how every move, skill, or weapon in the game (with two obvious exceptions) is useful to the player at the beginning of the game and equally so at its end. No idiotic superfluous strikes that get learned at “level 21” and are pretty much forgotten about at “level 42”. No, when the ninja acquired one weapon in one level or another in another, the player had to give some thought to how to make effective use of the weapon and which situations it was needed in. Sort of like a very early version of Doom, if you will.
The Last Ninja was also followed by sequels (pretty much every successful game was, and The Last Ninja was reputedly the most successful to be released for the Commodore 64). I never got the chance to play Last Ninja 3, which was released for the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST in 1991. Given that serious alterations had been made in the gameplay according to a prerelease article that I read in 1991, I cannot say as I am especially sore about that. I did, however, quite extensively play Last Ninja 2, a sequel that was released in 1988. Last Ninja 2‘s basic plot is that the ninja has been yanked from feudal Japan and brought to the New York of the twentieth century. Of course, being a Commodore 64 game, the graphics were somewhat improved, and the music was in the same crude eight-bit synthesiser format, but the game itself did manage to add some minor elements to the actual gameplay that made it more interesting than its predecessor (which is actually saying something).
For one, the whole puzzle mechanic of finding items then using them in locations now also involved combining certain items together before they could be effectively used. And the biggest impact the graphical improvements had was that the ninja could now interact with parts of the environment (albeit small parts). For instance, when the ninja is running about a seemingly deserted New York, the street lights change. Attempt to cross a street with the wrong light indicator, and one gets run over. Also, exiting that particular map required the ninja to find a crowbar, wrench open a manhole cover, and climb into the sewers. Getting past the giant crocodile at the end of that level required the ninja to combine a bottle, petrol, a rag, and oil, to make a molotov cocktail, which the ninja would throw at said crocodile. There was also a panther or similar large cat in the subsequent level, which was set in an office block (do not ask), which the ninja could either run past if the player timed things right, or poison by feeding it a combination of a meat serving and some form of poison (Commodore 64 graphics were never that detailed, more a sort of general-idea thing).
Combat was also different in one minor respect that changed the gameplay significantly. Enemies did not die permanently this time. No matter how much shit you beat out of them, they would arise after a certain amount of time (the fact that the game could keep reasonable track of multiple enemies at once on a Commodore 64 is amazing). Even if you nailed them with a shuriken (which were still in very short supply relative to the number of enemies), they would return after a certain time. So the player had to think very carefully where things were on the map, how to efficiently organise to acquire them, and how much effort the fight through these enemies entailed. Or you could just cheat and use a memory-manipulator to allow you to permanently kill the enemy with a keystroke, like a lot of the ten year old boys who played the game in 1988 decided to do.
I have not mentioned the one element of the two Last Ninja games I have played that really kept me coming back in spite of all of the problems. That was the music. Each level in the first two games had a sweeping, epic piece of score music associated with it. Each piece of music was themed around the design of the level. The Wastelands, the first level of The Last Ninja, to name one example, had angry, “this means war” type music with gong sounds as an introduction. Its fourth level, The Dungeons, had creppy, haunting, hideous music, part of which still rings in my memory today. A rolling melody with what sounded like hollow glass bells or xylophones made of bones was frequently heard during this level. Last Ninja 2‘s music did something even more bold. It attempted, with substantial success, to combine ninja-like themes with modern aesthetics. It is impossible to get an earful of the opening of Central Park’s musical cues without thinking of a really angry Japanese man belting out notes on a bass-heavy guitar (no, not a bass guitar, a bass-heavy guitar, which is two different things). And anyone who has heard the music in the City Streets level without thinking of a blaxploitation or Public Enemy type musical cue has clearly heard neither.
Is The Last Ninja, or Last Ninja 2, a perfect game? Hell, no. As the first image I posted in this entry makes damned clear, there is a clear case for it not even being a good one at times. The second level of The Last Ninja had many of the boys who played it (that I knew of) saying “thank Odin that is over” when they finally completed the second level (it has the highest number of water with stones in it points). But unlike the games I not only have my choices limited to today, but am also expected to somehow pay for, it at least has the virtue of being enjoyable. And that is why I would play a modernisation of the game that retains the same actual gameplay style today.
Blizzard Entertainment in particular could learn something from that.