As a fan of the Turbo Grafx I had to accept certain things. One, that I would probably be the only one that owned one in my neighborhood. And that It would never have the large library of the Sega Genesis and SNES. That second part hurt the most. While rival console owners got to enjoy side scrolling classics like Revenge of Shinobi and Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts Turbo fans had little to compete with. The few it did receive in the US were pretty awesome though. Irem’s port of Ninja Spirit was one of those games and captures the magic of the arcade game beautifully.
As much as Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Spirit are different gameplay wise their stories are way too similar. Rogue ninja Moonlight witnessed the death of his father at the hands of a half man/half demon. Now he is on a mission of revenge. Sound familiar? Ninja Spirit eschews the extensive cutscenes and focuses on pure action, which it does extremely well.
Unlike most ninja action games you start with all of your primary weapons and can switch at any time. Their attack power and range all vary and the game gives ample reason to switch regularly. The ninja sword is the default and balanced between range and power. My personal favorite is the exploding scrolls. These function like grenades and have a wide blast radius. Their only drawback would be the slow firing rate. The throwing stars are the weakest and to be honest redundant because of the exploding scrolls. I never found any reason to use as their lack of power was too much. The sickle is the most difficult to wield. It can hit in eight directions and spun in a wide circle. Pulling this off in the heat of combat is tricky however.
Those aren’t the only weapons either. There are a treasure trove of secondary items to collect that make you grossly overpowered. The most prominent creates two clones that follow your every movement, much like in Ninja Gaiden 2. Actually it’s the other way around as Ninja Spirit came first. It’s a really broken power-up here considering how strong your weapons are. The ninja blade can be powered up, leaving a trail in its wake that helps deflect projectiles. Lastly there is a screen clearing bomb that you will pray for in later levels.
With its flat plains Ninja Spirit more closely resembles Contra than any other ninja action game. There is rarely a moment you aren’t being assaulted from all sides. The game’s hectic action is a surprise considering Moonlight’s steady walking pace. It sounds like it would be overwhelming but your overpowered weaponry helps even the odds. I would even go so far as to say it almost seems designed around having two shadow clones at all times. Once you’ve found the right weapon that manages the chaos the game is incredibly thrilling.
It isn’t all straight action either. For the most part there is very little platforming outside of a few specific areas. In these moments the game is highly reminiscent of Legend of Kage. Your leaping height is insane as you bound among the treetops and rocky cliffs. It isn’t as precise as it should be but is at least functional. These levels also serve as a welcome change of pace.
Ninja Spirit wears its arcade heritage proudly when it comes to its difficulty. It isn’t as maddening as its contemporaries but it does come close. By the midpoint the screen is so cluttered with enemies there is heavy slowdown and flickering sprites. And this is less than in the arcade! The single hit deaths are rough and checkpoints are sparse. As a concession there is a PC Engine mode which grants a five hit life bar that makes the game far more manageable. There are still later enemies that can kill in a single blow but that is a minor annoyance. PC Engine mode and its easier challenge do highlight the one major flaw, the game’s length. The seven levels are over way too soon. I would have loved to see further enhancements in PC Engine mode like exclusive stages or bosses to pad this out. Too bad.
I really like Ninja Spirit. I never got to play it in the arcade but this Turbo Grafx port is the next best thing. With a few more levels it could have been really special but that doesn’t matter. This is one of the better action titles for the system and worth a purchase.