Review: 1-bit Ninja

I’ve been excited about this game for a while, so I bought it as soon as possible. I haven’t been disappointed. Indeed, 1-bit Ninja has become my go-to game for both short gaming breaks and longer sit-down sessions. That’s pretty high praise, since that spot has been previously held by such illustrious titles as Canabalt, JellyCar, and Tiny Wings. Simply put, 1-bit Ninja is an excellent recreation of the classic side-scrolling platformer, with a (literal) twist.

One of my favorite things about retro games is the lack of a defined storyline. There’s just something mysterious about the low-res graphics, minimal background, and open-ended backstory that appeals to me. 1-bit Ninja is no exception to this pattern. When you first open the app, you’re presented with a question: “What is this strange land and where is my Gametoy?”. Presumably the reason you embark on your head-stomping quest is to reclaim this errant console. Super Mario’s quest to save a kidnapped princess is something I can get behind, but I find it difficult to get emotionally involved in a search for a lost gaming device. To be fair, this loss probably resonates most with the hardcore retro gamers 1-bit Ninja caters to.

It bears saying that some games, such as Canabalt and Sword and Sworcery, are able to produce a strong emotional attachment with a decidedly minimal plot. I don’t know exactly why, but 1-bit Ninja misses that mark. Perhaps it’s the utterly ambiguous main character. He’s ostensibly a ninja, but wears neither mask nor katana. (At least he jumps in a rather ninja-like fashion.) Whatever the reason, my imagination simply refuses to elaborate on this game. I do enjoy blank slates, but I think the little guy could at least use a name.

But that’s all just feelings, which probably do not belong in a proper review. You likely came to find out about gameplay and graphics.

First off, the controls. Too many touchscreen games, especially retro ports, are hampered by tiny virtual buttons. It’s a sad fact that many devs can’t think beyond the button and make a truly new control scheme. Luckily 1-bit Ninja is not one of those games. Infinity Blade and Mirror’s Edge did it with swipes, but 1-bit Ninja doesn’t need such complexity. Simply touch the left side of the screen to move forward, and touch the right to jump. Nothing more is needed, and it works perfectly.

One consequence of this control scheme is the inability to move backward. You were forced to keep moving forward in just about every old platformer, so why not completely remove the ability to backtrack? The end result is a much more psychological game, in which you consider each step carefully due to its finality. Not only is it much more difficult to nab bonus coins, but you’ll struggle to collect all the regular ones as well. Attacking enemies never seemed so intimidating, since you can no longer bide your time or turn around. Combined with some clever 3-D secrets and the usual precision jumping, 1-bit Ninja quickly ramps up to become one of the hardest iPhone games I’ve played. Despite this, I still can’t put it down.

The main view shows the same old side-scrolling adventure used by everyone from Mario to Mega Man. But drag a finger around the screen and the camera angle changes to pivot around a newly 3-dimensional level. This is helpful to see what’s coming up ahead, and is necessary to find secret passageways leading to bonus coins or easier routes. I enjoyed the new gameplay mechanic, but it doesn’t seem absolutely essential to beating the game. Of course, I’ve barely made it through world 2 (I said it was difficult), so that could change later on.

If you enjoy challenging old-style platformers, you won’t go wrong with 1-bit Ninja. It antique graphics and simple controls put it closer to Canabalt than League of Evil, but that’s not a bad thing. The game stands on its own as a creative and engrossing adaptation of a sometimes too-tired genre, and does so without feeling too much like a ripoff of older games. $1.99 on the App Store.


One Comment on “Review: 1-bit Ninja”

  1. […] 1-bit Ninja: A re-imagining of the classic 8-bit platformer genre. […]

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