One of the greatest delights in gaming is undoubtedly being completely surprised by a new and unknown title. The sort of thing where your learning of a game’s existence and becoming extremely excited for the full release are separated only by a matter of minutes. It’s a difficult feeling to provoke, and so isn’t that common – but this week it happened to me again, with a little indie called Ninja or Die.
Coming from one-man Japanese developer Nao Games, Ninja or Die is a sort of indie I do feel we’ve seen before – a hard as nails roguelike with pixel art so sharp you feel like you could cut yourself on it. And yet, it stands apart as unique – and as an absolutely killer twist on this concept.
Much of what sets it apart is down to its control scheme and the skill-set of the titular ninja, which offers a very simple concept: every core action is tied to a single button and action. Jumping, attacking, and parrying are all handled with the same input and action. The protagonist can’t even walk – movement is accomplished through stringing together leaps, wall-jumps, and ground-based dashes, all triggered with that one single button.
This isn’t so much the protagonist responding to your inputs in a context-sensitive manner as much as it is the ninja making use of all skills at once with every button press. Holding lets you charge up, too, which powers up attacks and makes any leap travel further, and with less of an arc. If your leap sends you passing through an enemy, it’ll deal damage based on your current equipment and the strength of the leap. If it takes you into the path of an enemy attack, you’ll parry. It’s all about that one action, and tight control pairs with fast responsiveness and lovely crisp pixel art to mean that simple act feels incredibly satisfying.
The flip side, of course, is that without the ability to otherwise move, the spry hero is vulnerable whenever they’re not on the move. This might sound like it isn’t a problem – but given you need to carefully and manually aim each jump before executing it in order to avoid obstacles that’ll hurt you upon landing, the pressure is always on to move again – and quickly – without also landing yourself in hot water.
It’s a delicate dance, then, between frantic, eager movement and staying still in brief moments of tranquility. It quickly becomes a thrilling back-and-forth – the sort of game where you find yourself subconsciously shuffling forwards in your seat, toes curling in your shoes as the extreme concentration takes over.
A few levels feel more like puzzles, where you have to do things like kill all enemies on a map to unlock the door to the next stage. Some stages carry optional rewards for those who undertake in-depth exploration. And others are brutal tests of your traversal abilities and mastery of the game’s single skill – like clambering up a vertical level through a series of tricky wall jumps to escape an ever-rising instant death from below – but if you’re careless, the obstacles and enemies on the way will kill you first.
Games like this are always difficult to do justice in trailers, or indeed in text. Often, you just need to see them for yourself. Such is probably the case here, but I can at the very least impress how much I loved the short twenty minutes or so I played. I was rocking back and forth as I repeatedly tried to best a particularly trying stage – but I also never hit a threshold of feeling it unfair. Moreover, I played Ninja or Die at Gamescom, a busy show where I saw plenty of other bigger, higher budget games – but this is the title that has stuck in my head. I love it.
To some degree it channels that old Nintendo way of thinking typified in the stories of how a huge chunk of the development of Super Mario 64 was just spent in a sandbox, making sure that the simple act of controlling Mario in 3D felt fun even in environments devoid of any other distractions. In that instance, Mario had a surprisingly broad skill-set – but the concept is perhaps even more important in a single-skill game such as Ninja or Die. By tightening and tuning the core mechanic to extreme precision, Nao Games appears to be on the cusp of delivering something really special – and I now cannot wait to play the final thing.