Thursday 14 March 2013

Super House of Dead Ninjas (PC)

The superb Super House of Dead Ninjas (by Adult Swim Games and Megadev) started its life on Adult Swim's online platform. Back in August of last year, after a brief play of the game, I closed the window and bellowed my wishes for a proper desktop release out into the ether. Apparently, someone at Adult Swim was listening, because Super House of Dead Ninjas was recently released on Steam and, as promised, I bought it immediately. This remake of the original, much more low-fi House of Dead Ninjas simply knocks it out of the park.

The basic concept of SHoDN (as it will be known from here on out) is that the player, controlling scrappy heroine Crimson Ninja in her quest to traverse the tower and slay the demon Abarghus. Not only is the main character a fully capable, ass-kicking female - which is fantastic, given the current hot topic of negative female tropes in videogames - but she will gain access to an impressive arsenal of weaponry, stat boosters and ninja suits over the course of the game to rival the best of any digital hero(ine) out there! Crimson Ninja can also double jump in mid-air as well as perform a very handy downward strike to catch unsuspecting enemies on the descent.

Utilizing a simple and tight control scheme (arrow keys to move and jump, as well as keys for main and secondary attacks as well as bombs and magic) players will harness Crimson's aforementioned firepower and skills to travel ever downward, avoiding and destroying the many perils the seemingly endless tower has to offer. Ala Super Meat Boy, the levels present a number of tricky passageways and rooms to slash through, each with its own unique array of traps and monsters.

Traps vary from conveniently placed spikes to wooden stakes that drive up through the ground, slowing the player down as they are destroyed little by little, to statues that belch fire or emit waves of hadouken-like energy. Monsters are even more varied and number to almost 50. Every single enemy is different and exhibits a special attack, movement pattern, speed, and so on. Some of these baddies can be easily dispatched with one swipe of the player's chosen armament, and others are tougher or more evasive. To make things even more interesting, each descent into the tower is different due to clever randomization; while segments of rooms will be alike, they are arranged so that it is impossible to tell what will come up next - making for some very interesting (and deadly) combinations of these traps and ghoulies.

I, perhaps foolishly, skipped directly to "Hard" difficulty mode, and I wasn't disappointed. This game is not shy about being brutally difficult while never seeming unfair. The controls are so tight they are almost too tight; tap an arrow key for just a nanosecond too long and WHOOPS there you go into the spikes. Dammit. Time your double jump just wrong, dammit, stepped on a scorpion. I swore a lot when I played this game, but it was gleeful cursing, I swear.

Gleeful because SHoDN is an absolute perfect recipe for addiction as pleasure, for videogames as art and displays of skill, for being both unique and familiar. The gorgeous graphics remind me more of a 16-bit era Neo-Geo title than the implied Super Nintendo, exhibiting a particular penchant for sprite animation and detail (think Metal Slug) and dark ambiance (think Magician Lord). Every character and location seeps detail, from the loveable, snarky knitting ninja grandmother who guides you in your choice of gear to the painstaking appearance of each and every creature to cross your path. Once in a while, players are even treated to a bloody beheading or anime-style split-in-half death scene. The pumping chiptune soundtrack adjusts itself to the players progress, becoming faster and faster as the time clock ticks down. A Mortal Kombat style narrator with an echoing voice chastises or praises you occasionally with humorous phrases, my favorite being simply "you fail."

All of this loveliness is tied together with some of the most truly addictive gameplay I've experienced of late - not addictive like every game on the iOS App Store says it is, but truly addictive in a way that will appeal to hardcore players who like a varied, intelligent challenge that also requires lightning reflexes. Crimson Ninja must balance the need to move as quickly as possible with the simultaneous need to gather powerups... and stay alive. Players must decide in an instant how (and if) to kill a creature or to simply avoid it, whether to take the top path or bottom path, whether to use up a bomb destroying spikes and evade damage or hoard the bomb for use with an upcoming boss, and so on. Randomized level sections ensure that while players can master a segment, there are virtually infinite possibilities for how the tower can be assembled, thus assuring a challenge each time. Kill enough enemies in a row and enter 'rage' mode, enabling Crimson to plow through enemies in one hit, unharmed, for as long as she can keep the chain going.

As if that weren't enough, by accomplishing various achievements, she can unlock an impressive array of gear, custom suits, and powerups. Plus, players can even build their own custom levels to challenge their friends... or themselves.

I simply cannot praise SHoDN enough for what it's done for the endless genre. In a world that's constantly churning out lame Temple Run and Canabalt ripoffs, Adult Swim and Megadev have crystallized a near-perfect blend of endless run'n'jump, platformer and roguelike with a brutal difficulty level and polished panache that is just retro enough to get your juices flowing, yet modern enough to keep even the most veteran gamer satisfied.

Buy the game here (from the Steam page).
Play the original free flash version here (at Adult Swim Games).
5 out of 5

Second Opinion

It's not very often that I write fan mail, but after downloading and playing SHoDN I was so gobsmacked by the quality of the artwork and game design that I wrote to both Jon Davies (artist) and Mike Tucker (code and design) to gushingly congratulate them on this masterpiece. It totally deserves that 5/5 mark, and the post-release addition of controller support cleared any gripes that I had with it completely (SHoDN plays far better via a joypad).

Peter neglected to mention one of my favourite aspects of the game in his otherwise spot-on review; the boss battles. Considering that these are a bolt-on for the Steam release, they are executed really well and compliment the procedural-platformer gameplay perfectly, providing a fresh, well-timed and memorable challenge to the player.

Other personal highlights include the radical 1990's style comic book (in the place of formal instructions and background story) and the skeletal 'Smither' you encounter every so often during your descent who offers the player a choice of three bonus items as well as some much needed respite from that dreaded timer. These seem like minor features, but along with everything else they combine to further enrich the experience of playing Super House of Dead Ninjas.

Indie game of the year 2013? Well, if it doesn't take the crown it'll be a close call.

J. Monkman.

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