Games You May Have Missed: Mark of the Ninja
I’ve talked a little bit about trends in gaming, and how such things can be cyclical. Old game styles come back, with a twist, to entertain new audiences. Small, independent developers have managed some pretty impressive things with old-school side-scrolling game mechanics. The really cool thing about these games is that they don’t require beefy computing power; the gaming experience will be the same on a modern computer as it is on one that is several years old.
One such developer is Klei Entertainment and its current flagship game, Mark of the Ninja. MotN (as I will herein call it) combines familiar Super Mario Bros.-style, 2-D side-scrolling and stealth/combat elements one might expect from a ninja storyline. Your character is an unnamed, modern-day ninja whose clan has been attacked by a group of well armed (read: high-tech) mercenaries. In the mythology of the game you have been tattooed with a special ink that gives you superhuman ninja abilities. You must sneak your way through several levels of baddies, achieve certain goals, collect items, and defeat the boss at the end of each level. Along the way, you will acquire and use various ninja weapons and/or distractions to get past guards (or at least kill them quietly). You gain points for stealth kills and for not being spotted, and you collect “honor” with which you can buy weapon upgrades periodically throughout the game. MotN is a rarity: an action game for meticulous and patient players.
Stealth is the key here. Your character is invisible in darkness and can hide in doorways, air vents, and behind obstacles. Patience is a virtue, as you often have to wait in hiding while guards walk past (for which you get extra points, by the way) before you can jump out and kill them. Or not. In some cases it’s preferable to distract an enemy, slink away, and proceed through the level without killing anyone. Proceed slowly however, because running, although possible, generates noise and makes you more detectable by enemies. Eventually you will acquire new skills that allow you to strike from cover or dangle from the ceiling for the death-from-above kill. In almost all cases, however, hand-to-hand combat is discouraged, almost to the point where it’s rarely possible to survive a face-to-face encounter with an enemy (they have guns, you see). Your ability to hide is your greatest asset. There is some puzzle-solving as well. Occasionally you have to figure out how to get from one side of a room to the other without touching any laser trip-wires or deadly electrical beams. (I suppose I should mention here that despite its stealth trappings, the game can be quite violent and bloody. It is definitely not for kids.)
The game’s visual style is similar to a cartoon, somewhat mimicing the look of Samurai Jack, Genndy Tartakovsky’s ridiculously awesome animated series that ran on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2004. Cutscenes between levels are especially evocative of a Saturday morning cartoon. The shadows in which your character hides are appropriately subdued, but everything else is rendered in bright colors, perhaps to help differentiate between light areas (which are basically no-nos for you) and dark areas. Sound, which can be just as much a hindrance to stealth as light, is cleverly depicted as an expanding circle of sound waves. If you make noise and an enemy is within that circle he will hear you and investigate. Enemies’ behavior can be altered depending on the player’s approach to a scenario. For example, if there are two guards you can distract them, then stealthily kill one. When the other one turns around and finds his comrade’s body, he will become panicked and begin shooting randomly; panic reduces effectiveness and panicked guards can be dispatched more easily.
I played about halfway through MotN before I decided to restart the game and try to accumulate more points and “honor.” It took me a while to realize that by simply blazing through each level, with only the end goal in mind, I was kind of missing the point. This game literally rewards patience and stealth, so it benefits the player to take his/her time and really enjoy this one. Mark of the Ninja is currently available for $14.99 on Steam as well as on Xbox’s and Playstation’s respective marketplaces. I know you’ll dig it, you sneaky bastard.