There’s been a renewed conversation in the gaming culture lately regarding difficulty. When is a game too difficult for its own good? Personally, I like it when video games have multiple difficulty modes, but it’s also not necessarily a bad thing when there’s only one, and if it happens to be demanding. But then there are those games that aren’t hard by any measure of smart design - games that constantly punish you for things you couldn’t have avoided. Unfortunately, Bitmap Bureau’s Ninja Shodown fits that description to a tee. In singleplayer, at least.
I can’t make my case without describing what this game is about. Ninja Shodown puts you in control of a, well, ninja, in Smash Bros. style stages filled up with enemies that bizarrely resemble medieval-era executioners. Your goal is to kill them using guns, throwing stars and good old-fashioned katana. So far, none of this is unfair. It’s even quite enjoyable how quick and snappy your movements are, being able to stick to the walls and dart across the level at lightning speed. There was this phase where I was getting the hang of the controls and soaking in the simple yet pleasant visuals, when I was actually really enjoying myself.
Then the bad stuff started to pile up. Firstly, I noticed a distinct hiccup in the game’s performance where the entire thing just froze for a split second, with all the characters disappearing as this happened. Okay, that was bizarre, especially for a pixel-art game running on a PS4. Carrying on, I discovered that the enemies kill you if you touch them. I guess I’ll have to be more careful, right? Not really possible, though. These guys are crawling all over the stage, and you can’t slow down. In a stark contrast to well-regarded difficult titles such as Ninja Gaiden, the precision demanded by instakill enemies simply isn’t given to you here.
If that doesn’t quite ring a bell, try to imagine a side-scrolling Sonic game where you can’t collect rings and your roll only lasts a fourth-second at a time. The whole thing is just too chaotic to keep up with it, and if you somehow manage to luck out long enough to build yourself an illusion of control, the next of those too frequent freezes will get rid of that. I tried playing this with my roommate, too. Shortly into our co-op session, he lost all his lives and asked “can we try something else?”.
Actually, yes, and here’s where Shodown isn’t broken and is actually fun: Versus Mode. The most immediately obvious improvement is the stipulation that you can only be killed by actually being attacked. This turns your zippy speed into the asset it was meant to be, enabling you to hop over your opponent and leap away from their throwing stars just in time. You have to stop in order to attack, meaning that every attempt at a kill leaves you distinctly vulnerable. Variety is the key factor as well, with stage layouts, game modes, time limits and item drop rates in your hands. There aren’t many match types, but the two standouts (King Mode and Coin Mode) provide some particularly nice bursts of enjoyment. I love bashing open cat banks for heaps of gold and then unleashing globs of red paste from a foolhardy Player 2. And yes, the freeze glitch still happens, which is frankly unacceptable in a game like this, but now it affects your opponents too. Granted, this would resurface as a game breaker when playing online, given that two different systems would be rendering the game. Emphasis on the “would be”.
Yup, there’s no online mode in Ninja Shodown. This means that as enjoyable as multiplayer is, it’s only playable locally in a living room. Combine this with the simple truth that Versus Mode is the only good part of the game, and you’re left with a product I just can’t recommend. If the performance issues were cleaned up and the price slashed down drastically, my verdict might look very different. That’s because, again, the game is surprisingly engaging when played competitively. Games aren’t necessarily outright bad when they’re too hard or even broken; it’s when they effectively don’t give you anything to do that they truly fall apart. And because it lacks an online multiplayer mode, Ninja Shodown fits that description for many players.