It seems the attempts to make a proper Super Smash Bros. clone will never end. While some of these attempts have been fairly decent (PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale), others have been truly horrible (Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion). Atomic Ninjas is the newest game to make the attempt, and it has the humblest of backgrounds. Made by Indie developer Grip Games, Atomic Ninjas has no established license to back it up. It also doesn’t have nearly the budget of any of the aforementioned games. However, it does feature online four player combat and wacky level designs. Let’s see if this humble game can make a valiant attempt at doing what so many games have failed to do before.
So a Russian technician falls asleep at work. This wouldn’t be too bad, except that he falls face first on the big red button. You know, the one that sets off all the nukes? Yeah. Anyways, he somehow survives and becomes an Atomic Ninja. What this means, I have no clue. The game stops any semblence of a story there, but I suppose that’s fine. It’s a harmless little cut-scene to get you going. Beyond that, all you need to know is that there are a bunch of “ninjas”, and that they like to fight each other.
For modes, the game plays it simple. This is a multiplayer game first and foremost. You’ll find quick ways to jump into an online match or create one yourself. You can put in a couple of bots if you get tired of waiting for fellow humans. There are online leaderboards as well. The game works split-screen as well, so you can have a friend or two join in on the action. There’s also a single player mode which basically lets you create matches. There’s no story or bonus modes to speak of. There is a quick tutorial you can take, just to show you the ropes. Beyond that, you can fiddle around with some basic options. That’s fine though. A game doesn’t need a bevy of modes, so long as the ones it has work and the gameplay is up to snuff. I’ll rule on that in a bit.
When it comes to the presentation, the low budget of the game really shows. There are a lot of PSP Minis that look better than this, and they usually come at a fraction of the price. The game uses a 2.5D look that kind of works, but ultimately fails due to lack of detail and variety. Each level is different, but usually consists of a bunch of single color platforms with a few extra diversions to make it look grander. The characters are short little blobs that give the game a bit of personality, but not enough. Aurally, the game is a mess. While the music is decent enough, the rest of the package fails miserably. The voice clips and effects are downright annoying. Any time a character went into Noob Rage, I instantly felt like muting the TV. The developers were going for something playful. They failed.
As for gameplay, the game aims to use as few buttons as possible. In fact, besides the analog sticks, you’ll only use three.
The game kind of works like a dual stick shooter without depth. The left stick moves your character, while the right stick aims. Aiming matters for movement as well as weapon usage. If you’re aiming in the same direction you’re moving, you’ll move faster. However, you can easily move one way and fire a weapon in another. The cross button is for jumping, while the left and right shoulder buttons use your chosen gadget and weapon respectively.
Gadgets are primarily used for traversal. First up is the grappling hook. I found this to be the least useful tool in the set, but it can come in handy in a level where there are various grappling points. The hook is the only way to interact with said points, so it could be used there. The claw allows you to lunge forward in any direction. If you hit an enemy, you’ll knock them back a bit. If you hit a wall, you’ll stick to it until you move again. I found this quite useful once I got the hang of it. It’s the fastest mode of transportation in the game, and has a chance to take out an opponent. It’s also great for setting up ambushes, as you can hang from the ceiling or on the side of a platform. The final gadget is the rocket. It functions pretty much like a jetpack. The downside is that if you use it too much, it will explode and kill you. However, if you’re trying to save yourself from falling to your doom, the rocket is the best option.
For weapons, you get only one classic ninja weapon and a couple of oddities. The oddities are a punch and a gravity tether. The punch is basic. You can hit things that are close by and knock them back a bit. A well timed punch can deflect some attacks, which is useful. However, the range is crap. The gravity tether is very powerful, but tricky to use. In order to use the ability, you’ll need to be near a crate. There are many in each level, but it seems there are never enough. Once you grab a crate, you can fire it off in any direction. This has the best range of any weapon, can throw an enemy across the map, and might even kill them if you get them against a wall. However, if you miss, you’re screwed. You can’t fight without a crate, and you’ll have to rush to find another. The actual ninja weapon is the shuriken. You can throw several of these in quick succession and with great accuracy. The only downside is that they aren’t very powerful. In order to throw an enemy around, you’ll need to land successive shots. However, because of the rapidity with which you and fire these babies off, you’ll rarely be undefended.
You can’t directly kill an enemy in most regards. Instead, you’re main goal is to knock them off the board or into specific obstacles. Hitting an enemy with a weapon knocks them back a bit. Depending on how the shot landed, they’ll fly further. It takes a while to recover from a hit, and you can’t jump in the air. This means that getting knocked off is usually a killer. Levels are designed to be small and full of danger zones. Some feature mechanisms that shoot a player off the field, some feature narrow tunnels that make dodging an impossibility, and some feature nothing but a few platforms.
While there are several different ninjas in the game, there is really nothing to differentiate them. In fact, the only difference is their appearance and their starting equipment. You can’t change the equipment before battle, but you can switch out during. So if you want the samurai to throw shurikens, you’ll have to find them on the battlefield or take them off an opponent. The only thing you can edit beforehand is what ability your ninja will use. These abilities add various rule changes to the mix. One might let you go invisible when you stand still. Another might let you move faster than normal. Most simply power up a weapon or gadget. This adds a small bit of strategy to choosing a character. If you want the extra punching power ability, you might want to pick a ninja who starts off with the punch.
The game uses a standard form of progression that involves earning experience and completing bonus objectives. As you level up, you’ll unlock new ninjas and power up your abilities. Completing bonus objectives unlock new abilities. It’s standard stuff, but the game moves too slowly for my taste. It starts out extremely limited and opens up at a snails pace.
For game types, there are the standard assortment. You can play deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flat, king of the hill, and domination. The coolest mode is the objectives type. In this one, the kind of match you’ll play changes up randomly during the course of the game. One minute you could in a free-for-all, and the next you could be forced to team with one of your enemies to capture flags. I actually had some fun with this mode.
Now we can get to the problems. Firstly, the game is too simple. It is in desperate need of more gadgets and weapons. The game could honestly get boring in the middle of a ten minute match. Secondly, the game has serious lag issues despite being such a small game. Lag in a game like this is a killer. It can make trying to aim a shot impossible. Third, the game has a momentum system that feels like you’re playing in space. You’ll bounce after a jump, you’ll be unable to slow yourself, and you’ll die in a lot of situations where a comeback should have been possible. There’s also the problem where the game doesn’t explain what scores points. It seems that in deathmatch, you score points for landing hits as well as getting kills. I successfully used an ambush style of attack in a game of deathmatch. I ended with the most kills and least deaths. However, I finished in third because I didn’t join the melee like a mad man.
The biggest problem is Noob Rage. When you die enough without getting a kill, you’ll enter a rage state where you can’t take damage. You also can’t use your abilities, but you won’t need to. Simply touching an enemy sends them reeling. This mechanic is supposed to help you catch up, but it does a lot more than that. In a game of CTF, you need to get the flag to score points. While enraged, you can easily steal the flag and score without anyone being able to stop you. So, the best way to win this mode is to intentionally not get kills so you can enter rage as much as possible. It unbalances the game and takes skill out of the equation. I hate this mechanic.
Overall, the game is more decent that it has a right to be. There’s a lot to dislike about this game, but it has just enough charm to avoid being a total write off. I’m annoyed that they’re charging ten bucks for it though. It really feels like it should be at five dollars tops.
Short Attention Span Summary
Atomic Ninjas is nearly a disastrous game. Poor presentation, connectivity issues, and a couple of broken mechanics really keep it from reaching its potential. However, it can be enjoyable in short bursts. The combat can get hectic and the small arenas make it so no one can hide for long. I just think it needed a bit more polish.