It is no small secret that the video game industry – and its players – has an acute awareness of its own history. The medium has been around for about the right amount of time for people to start feeling nostalgic about early video gaming. Super House of Dead Ninjas is one game, among many in recent years, which is unafraid to show where its inheritance lies. In a manner similar to The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy, Super House of Dead Ninjas seeks to revoke classic SNES (and earlier) era gaming, and it does this to great success. However, it almost pays too much homage to its predecessors. Instead of building itself a reliable platform based on modern amenities the game becomes so caught in its meta-referential allusions that it becomes equal parts collage and pastiche: the player can too easily see the tape holding together the myriad dusty cartridges.
[pullquote align=”right”]The main problem with the game is that it invokes the past but doesn’t actually build on it.[/pullquote]
The game plays exactly how a classic SNES title might. Super House of Dead Ninjas is relentless, but incredibly fair. The controls are incredibly tight and responsive to input, so much so that a player’s death can usually be blamed on his or her own poor reaction time. The goal of the game is to reach the bottom of a huge tower divided into three stages. Along the way are a variety of monsters, bosses, and traps. On normal difficulty the player has three continues and about four lives. Similar to classic games like Contra, it only takes being hit once to extinguish a life. Additionally, the game pushes you to speed through levels as about every 30 seconds one of your lives is taken away. This 30-second timer can be replenished with stopwatch powerups and collectibles you find as you descend the levels of the tower. The three stages consist of hundreds of “randomly-generated levels,” but describing it as this is somewhat misleading. The stages are randomly generated in a manner similar to Diablo 3’s dungeons – floors are basically premade jigsaw pieces which can be arranged in a random order according to parameters of the particular stage. It only takes a few playthroughs of a particular stage to grow very familiar with the design of certain rooms, from the placement of monsters and traps to the basic architecture in the room’s design. This design choice, surprisingly, actively conflicts with the game’s push to utilize steep time-based constraints on the player. It is easy for to memorize exactly where monsters and traps will be located in a particular room you come across multiple times, so the gameplay can get to be incredibly repetitive.
While I played through the game a few times I couldn’t help but notice how generic everything felt. The monsters, while they definitely had different graphical appearances, felt more-or-less the same in terms of potential threat. The variety of items I collected were relatively bland, and didn’t do much to drastically alter what I saw as the best strategy: keep jumping down on top of enemies while holding the “down” direction on the controller. Doing so killed most enemies with one shot. I could’ve tried to slow things down and be more liberal with my use of the time on the clock, but I felt like the game was conditioning me to just push faster with little care of caution. The monsters didn’t pose a real threat to loss of lives. It is the boss design in Super House of Dead Ninjas which is noticeably brutal. While attempting to overcome some of the game’s bosses I had flashbacks to my first experience with Mega Man – the bosses attack the player relentlessly and their mechanical design does not include subtle hints toward a proper strategy. While the difficult boss fights are a breath of fresh air in the face of modern “attack the glowing weak spot” design strategies, they unfortunately are the limited diamonds in an otherwise bland game.
The main problem with the game is that it invokes the past but doesn’t actually build on it. I do think that the design behind the sound, look, boss difficulty, and controller “feel” of the game is spot-on as a reference to classic-era gaming. But even still, Super House of Dead Ninjas is supporting itself from too many misplaced foundations in gaming history. I don’t feel much investment in my character’s life, the desire to use certain power-ups over others, or to really spend much time trying to master its awkward dance between “beat-the-clock” with “unforgiving extra lives.” The game’s overall mediocrity comes from what I see as a lack of true vision to make this a unique title – it gets caught in a trap of being so caught up in the games it wants to “feel” like, that it kind of loses any semblance of becoming a unique identity. It is like Frankenstein’s monster – stitched together from the various parts of long-dead games without the teleological drive any of those games had on their own. It focuses so much on replicating Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Super Metroid, Shinobi, etc. so much that it ceases to be anything more than style without the long-lasting substance any of its predecessors had.