|Developed by:||System 3|
The central theme running through any form of retro is, arguably, the sense of nostalgia. Sure, there will be kids picking up record players to play vinyl that they probably weren’t alive to experience first time round, or wearing Nirvana t-shirts without having heard a single bar of their music. But on the whole, we tend to reach for those retro experiences to spend just a few moments back in what we remember as a simpler time.
Video games are perhaps unique in how visceral this nostalgia can be. A film can be watched. A book can be read. A song can be listened to. But a game, that has to be played, it has to be experienced and it makes the whole process that much more tangible.
1988. I am in year two at secondary school (or year 8 as it would be confusingly rebranded). Most of my friends were swapping disks for the latest Amiga game, X-Copy II making bedroom pirates of many. I would get a taste of the gaming leviathan when invited back to a mate’s house after school but alas, would have to return home to my creaky, yet trusty Spectrum.
It wasn’t flash. It wasn’t powerful. The tape drive had got so worn out that it wouldn’t load games properly unless we wedged a coin underneath the play button to keep it in place. But it was home to many a trusted classic game, even if we did just use it mainly to play football management games.
When I wasn’t doing my best Kenny Dalglish impression, I would sometimes fire up Last Ninja 2. Before we get too far into that though, let’s revisit some of those tangibles that make retro gaming so much fun. After all, a Speccy game wasn’t something you just played on a whim. It wasn’t like opening an app on your phone or diving in to a selection from PS Now. Spectrum games had to be loaded from tape. It was a process.
First comes the noise, the unmistakeable screech of a Spectrum game loading. It would start with a two note staccato, then a longer, drawn out beep before taking off at full speed in a non-stop cacophony of noise. Seriously, there may only be certain breeds of dog that can hear the full range of Speccy title booting, such was its shriek.
After the initial trill comes the exhale of released tension, the screeching symphony giving you confirmation that the game was actually loading. After all, my friends, these were cassettes (look ’em up, kids) and so were prone to either crashing half way through or, in extreme circumstances, getting mulched by the tape deck, rendering the cassette utterly useless other than as a pencil twirler. My worst offender by far was Football Director II. This beast would take a whopping 15 minutes to load and so, quite reasonably, you would start the thing off, wait for the stage two exhale and then take off to do something else whilst it loaded, only to come back 15 minutes later to find either that the game had failed to load or that the cassette ribbon was now looped round the tape heads and would need to be oh so carefully twisted back into its casing.
Fortunately Last Ninja 2 was somewhat more reliable than D&H’s strangely named management sim. Plus there was something of a reward waiting for you once loading was complete, in the shape of some awesome title music. Well, at least I thought it was awesome. In truth, given the Speccy’s limited aural output, it sounded more like a repurposed version of the loading screech but then when you’ve been brought up on a steady diet of Bomb The Bass, S’Express et al, any and all electronica was gladly seized upon.
One other specific memory I have of Last Ninja 2 was playing it when I was off school. Ostensibly I was ill, or at least that’s what I convinced my mum to believe. True enough, I did (and very much still do) suffer with headaches and migraines but it would be something of a stretch to conclude that they were always genuine. Bottom line is, I just couldn’t be bothered to go in. Having wangled the day off, it would be a lost opportunity if I didn’t spend at least part of it gaming. The morning would be something of a write off of course. That would had to be spent in bed ‘convalescing’ or else slumped on the sofa. But post-lunch, when I could make a reasonable claim for feeling better (unless of course I was planning a multi-day sickness, which would require a whole other level of well thought out and executed advance planning), then gaming was very much back on the menu.
But if I was off school with a headache, then how could I possibly justify gaming? Surely staring at a screen would just make it worse? Well my friends, I had a plan for that – I turned the colour down and played in black and white, assuring my somewhat sceptical mother that this move would reduce the strain on my eyes, this avoiding any exacerbation of my previously reported head trauma. Admittedly this particular game was almost exclusively black and white anyway but, still.
So it was then that I took to the mean streets of New York, chasing down somebody for some reason or other. I’m not really sure. All I remember for definite was waking up on top of a roof next to a bandstand, heading out to a park and finding some nunchucks in the toilet, having a weird sort of balletic dance with some other shady looking characters and, once they fell over, standing on top of them so that their health didn’t regenerate. Best of all though, once I even made it to the second level! Heady times…
I knew I was in New York because there was picture of the city on the side of the screen. I knew I was a ninja too for much the same reason. Beyond that, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
It looked great though. Sure, it was monochrome but within those limitations, the backdrop was detailed. Viewed from an isometric 3D perspective, our unnamed martial artiste could move in any direction, albeit that he seemed at times to be attached to a clothes rail, skittishly moving left and right or pirouetting on the spot despite your best attempts to get him to move towards the door. Levels themselves comprised a series of single screens, often requiring you to move in and out of them, seeking out specific items, such as the great gaming trope, a key to unlock a door. Or a big stick to whack people with. Or toilet-drenched nunchucks.
For a ninja, our black-clad chap wasn’t exactly stealthy. In fact most encounters consist of you running up to some random on the street, the ensuing fight consisting of little more than holding the fire button down and moving the joystick around until one of you collapsed. Make no mistake, this game was tough and unforgiving in a way that only 8-bit games could be (although it must be said, I have yet to experience the dreaded stepping stones section from the first game).
To be fair, whilst the controls feel rather cumbersome, they are reflective of the ambition on display for a one-button joystick controlled game, whilst the movement of the main character speaks to the limitations of implementing a (relatively) free-roaming isometric view on such limited hardware. The ninja motif may give off the vibe of a brawler of some sort but this is very much a puzzle game at heart, with combat chucked in to spice things up.
So anyway, Last Ninja. He wasn’t though, was he. I mean Last Ninja 3 came out in 1991.
And to be honest, it’s a bit crap. Although it did come with a mask and a plastic shuriken in the box.