Genre: Action Developer: Malibu Int. Publisher: Sony Imagesoft Players: 1 Released: 1994
3 Ninjas Kick Back was just another loose Sega CD game that I got years back for $2 from an old friend. I was too old to appreciate the movies when they were released, so the disc sat in my collection for about ten years before I gave it a chance. I can honestly say that I wish I had done so much earlier. What I thought was going to be a crummy, low-quality platformer really surprised me. While rough around the edges, 3 Ninjas Kick Back turned out to be a rather solid and engrossing playthrough. It’s also one Sega CD ports that actually got packed with tons of extras and upgrades over the SNES and Genesis originals, so I was pleasantly surprised.
If you’re unfamiliar with this game, it’s a fast-paced platform hack-‘n-slash adventure where you control one of the three ninjas across several stages. Once you pick your character, you’ll keep playing as him for the remainder of the game. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say how well it follows the plot, but each stage has a lot of variety and the gameplay changes often enough that it kept me looking forward to each new stage. Before you begin, set the difficulty to easy since this is a pretty tough game right from the get-go. Easy plays identically to medium but gives you unlimited continues, which you will need if you plan on seeing the ending. I tried on medium and only finished a few stages. Each of the three ninjas feel similar but do play slightly differently with individual abilities, so take some time to familiarize yourself with each before you get going.
If you have access to the manual, then read it and learn the ins and outs of the moves, as there are several that you’ll never realize that you can pull off. There is a move that spins your weapon above your head and deflects projectiles, and this will save you over and over once mastered. Question mark blocks can be hit multiple times to change the items acquired. Hanging and swinging from ropes must be mastered, and you can hang from ledges that will catapult you into the air to reach hard-to-access secrets. There is a lot to learn and master, and this takes time and can be intimidating at first but will naturally get easier with practice.
The objectives of each stage vary. On a few occasions you may just need to get through to the end in one piece, but on others you must destroy or collect a certain number of items before a gate opens. A few stages have you getting your Indiana Jones on by running from a rolling boulder, and these are some of the most challenging parts of the game, though they are sometimes frustrating.
New to the Sega CD version are two first-person stages. Stage three is the first, where you’ll ride rollerblades, hit ramps, and throw ninja stars at oncoming attackers. The boss is a thug throwing baseballs at you while hanging out the back door of a truck, and it all gave me good vibes of Road Rash and Skitchin’. The second of these stages has you riding in a hang glider and throwing stars at oncoming ninjas (also in hang gliders) and gun turrets. This stage goes on for what seems like forever and is the lesser of the two, but it is still a lot of fun to play through. Throughout the game there are several boss fights that are reasonably fun but are the easiest part of an otherwise difficult quest. Honestly, I don’t remember ever dying in a fight against one of them even once and they almost felt a bit underwhelming.
Graphically, 3 Ninjas Kick Back mostly looks good but can occasionally be a mixed bag. The first several stages in the woods and forest are really detailed and nice to look at. Almost everything else is animated very well and has plenty of detail, but occasionally stages, like the caves and the hospital, seem to lack detail and repeat assets too much. They feel generic. Overall, there is usually a lot of detail, but most of the enemies and characters are small.
When I first played this game, the audio didn’t impress me. I think there was just too much going on for me to appreciate it fully. To start, the sound effects are nicely done. The ninja’s screams are well done despite being annoying (I know that makes no sense, but you must play it), and the rest of the sound effects are all quite good, often “tongue in cheek” and rather comical and fun to listen to. I did not like the music at first, but after listening to the soundtrack on YouTube I realized just how good it really is. There are a lot of musical genres on display here, from New Age to New Wave, classical, and even rock. They change with each stage, and all feel gloriously like ’90s goodness. I feel like this might be in my top ten Sega CD soundtracks now. The developers also got Victor Wong to reprise his role of Mori Shintaro to give you plot points and gameplay advice between stages in respectable quality FMV scenes, and they work despite being rather campy.
So, with all the good stuff going for it, what’s wrong with 3 Ninjas Kick Back? To put it plain and simple, there’s nothing truly broken about it; it just has a tediousness to it that can, at least for me, keep it from being perfect. One small issue I have, which is more of an annoyance than a flaw, is with the continue screen. When the timer is counting down, Mori starts explaining how to press start if you’d like to continue in “Captain Obvious” style. If you’ve ever played one of those multimedia software titles or games on something like the CD-I or the VIS, where they explain everything in mind-numbing detail, then you’ll know what I mean. Even in 1994, anyone who’s played any game in their life wouldn’t need it to state something this obvious.
The other thing that holds this back is that the collision detection can feel off at times. You have to attack from too far away or too close, and it often doesn’t feel natural. It’s not terrible but never felt totally accurate. There were times when I would attack an enemy and it still hit me, even when I hit it first. Also, there were times where I felt like I had to take damage when I shouldn’t have, and other times the control felt slippery. None of this is terrible, just niggling.
One of the other issues that I had is that some of the stages just go on for too long and really get tedious. I died several times, and these stages grew quite frustrating after multiple attempts (the hang glider stage is one of the biggest culprits). I feel that after completing 3 Ninjas Kick Back, I may want to come back to it after a while, maybe once more, but I don’t feel like it’s a game I’d want to return to over and over. It may be a good two-player romp to attempt if I’m up for some frustration, but I don’t see myself replaying it like a true classic.
Despite some tediousness and minor flaws, 3 Ninjas Kick Back is still a quality title to add to your Sega CD collection. It may not be an all-time great, but it’s still what I’d call a hidden gem. Unlike many other Sega CD ports that merely got a new paint job and a shine, this one has exclusive voice acting and FMV, Red Book audio, and two new stages. So, the developers did try to make this port feel unique. If you are a fan of platform games, then give this one a try and do have some patience, as you will probably really enjoy it quite a bit!