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Platform:  X-Box
# of Players:  1-4
Developer:  Argonaut
Publisher:  Namco
Features:  Dolby Digital, HDTV (480p)
Ratings:  Early Childhood
Memory Req.:  Xbox HD
It seems as if Ninja fever is making a comeback. Between Tecmoís delayed Ninja Gaiden, the reworked Tenchu, and Segaís Nightshade, Xbox gamers are going to get their fill of silent, sneaky (but in loud Dolby Surround, no doubt) slashing action. But what about the younger ninja fans out there? Kids like Ninjas too, and the recent Ninja Turtles game was a bit disappointing, to say the least.

Namcoís I-Ninja is a fun action/platform game thatís definitely set on winning over those gamers who demand non-stop action in their platformers. You play as Ninja, a pint-sized highly skilled killing machine out to stop the evil Master O-Dor and his Ranx Army from taking over the game world. The developer, Argonaut, has packed I-Ninja with great, colorful 3D cartoon visuals and just about every possible gameplay element from the past few years, and for the most part, the game succeeds. Youíve got your huge and varied worlds to explore, weapons to use, skills to earn, puzzle elements, mini games galore, and huge bosses to fight, among other things. Ninja can wall run, swing, grind rails better than Tony Hawk, and has the martial arts moves to kick any other mascot characterís ass up and down the virtual block any day of the week.

Some of the gameplay elements reminded me a little of Konamiís underrated Goemonís Great Adventure (N64), and there are a ton of ideas from other titles tossed in here and there. No big worries in that department, especially as every game in the past couple of years recycles basic elements from others. But all the good stuff in I-Ninja is thrown off by the decision to have players return to areas in order to gain new items and powers. Guiding a huge eyeball or other robot body part through a timed, tricky Super Monkey Ball style maze while trying to bowl over enemies is challenging the first time, but becomes a bit frustrating when youíre forced to do it again under an even tighter time frame. The same thing goes for fighting hordes of super-deformed enemies that come at you from all sides. Itís fun and cool the first time around, exhausting and annoying the next. Itís almost as if Argonaut and Namco thought the game was too short and decided to double or triple the gameplay by making you go back to previous areas in order to obtain certain items and skills.

The plot isnít going to win any awards for originality, although youíll see Ninja freak out and accidentally kill off his wisecracking master in the opening cinema. The guy turns up immediately as a wiser-cracking ghost sensei that guides Ninja in his quest to stop O-dor. Nothing too new for sure, but at least youíll be pretty much in platforming heaven if youíre a fan of the genre. Controls are quite good with Ninja able to slice and chop baddies with a regular attack, and his Rage moves are often quite funny to watch. The game camera is pretty good most of the time, and can be manually adjusted for some of the trickier jumping stages. Actually, skillful manipulation of the camera will save you here just as much as quick reflexes.

I-Ninjaís difficulty can be a bit insane at times, especially when replaying some of the already tricky stages. Youíll earn Ninja belts of different colors based on your skills in eliminating baddies and surviving levels, and youíre graded at the end of each stage. Complete a set of stages, and itís off to the next world, where youíre off to stop even more hordes of O-dorís green-blooded troops. There are 5 huge and diverse worlds to explore, with a number of stages in each area.

As far as the graphics go, one trend thatís being pounced on with some sort of mad fervor these days is an ďanimeĒ approach to games not developed in Japan. It seems as if publishers are almost afraid that gameplay alone wonít sell; games have to look Japanese just to get noticed. That or theyíre trying to pull off a look thatís guaranteed to turn heads intentionally whether good or bad. I-Ninjaís solid graphics and great animation may fool about 3 or 4 people at best into thinking itís Japanese with its SD hero and enemies and massive, cartoony 3D levels. I didnít particularly care for the character designs, but the game seems to be designed for the younger set and it looks like Namco and Argonaut are thinking maybe a franchise and/or a possible cartoon at some point in the future. Legendary animator Don Bluth (Dragonís Lair, Space Ace) helped produce the CG cutscenes and while you probably wonít recognize the art style as his, thereís a decidedly similar sense of energy and fun in them. The levels are like one really massive (and deadly) amusement park, full of ramps to zip around on, moving platforms and switches to activate, and rails to grind all over.

The game looks great on all three consoles, with the Xbox version coming off as the best looking overall. Music is a collection of fun Asian inspired tunes and other stuff thatís pleasing to the ear, but the voice acting can be a bit annoying. Ninjaís constant battle cries can get silly, and his Senseiís cornball Borsht Belt jokes are going to have your eyes rolling in your head and your kids asking you why youíre groaning. Itís nowhere as offensive as the horrid Asian stereotyping in Microsoftís Kung Fu Chaos, but I can see a few people shaking their heads.

Back to the frustrating stuff mentioned above for a bit. Replaying stages with tougher enemies and/or a tighter time limit is soÖ1992, but if you choose to accept the challenge, youíll love I-Ninja. Personally, Iíd have preferred more levels that get increasingly difficult (and the game does provide you with them) rather than going back and getting frustrated that I missed rolling that giant ball into a goal by 1/20th of a second. Itís definitely one of those things that make the game way too hard for younger kids and adults who donít have the patience (or pinpoint skill) to make it through the first time. If anything, this particular gameplay element should be dropped or redesigned in the sequel.

My final analysis is this: Platformer fans who can blow though the toughest game will find I-Ninja a must purchase; those looking for a quickie easy rental or weekend game may find that theyíve bitten off more than they can chew. Still, hope reigns eternal that Namco and Argonaut can pull off a superior sequel that keeps all the good parts and erases the hair-pulling ones.

Greg Wilcox

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