Though it's an original game for the Game Boy Advance that's being released for the first time in 2003, there's a lot about Ninja Five-0 that feels rather familiar. The game has the look and feel of a Sega Genesis game released circa 1991, from the funky synthesized soundtrack to the level design. The gameplay is reminiscent of countless 16-bit action games, and the game is difficult in a way that most games haven't been for years. Ninja Five-0 is classic gaming in the purest sense, creating an experience that will truly challenge your skills while delivering some of the most satisfying straightforward ninja action seen on any platform in a while.
According to the manual for Ninja Five-0, you play as Joe Osugi, a ninja that has decided to supplement his ninjitsu skills by becoming a detective. This makes sense, since again, according to the manual, it's the ninja's duty to protect the innocent from within the shadows. The manual is rich with absurd and amusing tidbits like this, which arguably add to the overall charm of the game. The story is as much of a story as a game like this needs; you're a good ninja, they're bad ninjas, and it's your job to stop them. The game gets straight to the action with the minimal amount of necessary exposition, such as letting you know at the beginning of a level that "hijackers have taken over the airport!" before cutting you loose.
The gameplay is pretty simple and straightforward, but it's by no means easy. The action remains largely the same from level to level and has you collecting color-coded door keys, rescuing hostages, and, of course, wasting lots and lots of bad guys. Joe's a pretty adept ninja and can do just about all the stuff a ninja should do. He's got a standard shuriken that can be upgraded to a fiery spread shuriken and then a laser shuriken. He also has a sword for when you want to get up-close and personal with your enemies, as well as a screen-clearing ninja magic super attack. The most unique ability you'll have in Ninja Five-0 is a Bionic Commando-style grappling hook, which you'll use to grapple your way up walls and swing your way to otherwise out-of-reach platforms. The level design stays pretty fresh from beginning to end and pulls out all the 16-bit action-game stops. It starts off with some simple left-to-right walking and fighting and gets progressively more wild with moving platforms, timed jumps, and punishing environmental hazards like laser beams, spiked pits, and gigantic jets of fire, with each level punctuated with a challenging boss fight.
The whole game leaves very little room for mistakes--accidentally killing hostages will take off a quarter of your life bar, many enemy attacks will knock down your life bar by half, and you're given only one life to complete a stage, though you are given an infinite number of continues. Indeed, the unforgiving nature of Ninja Five-0 may prove to be off-putting for those who haven't maintained their twitch gameplay chops, but the action remains so satisfying that you'll keep coming back regardless. At only five levels long, Ninja Five-0 probably won't take more than a week or two of casual play to beat, though an even harder mode is unlocked upon completion, and you can go back and replay any level you've already beaten in the game's time challenge mode. It's short, but it's a good deal of fun while it lasts.
Ninja Five-0 isn't an incredible-looking game, but the graphics are serviceable, and, to its credit, each level has a unique look, with a minimal amount of reused level elements, and you'll fight a decent variety of enemies. Both of these factors help keep things fresh all the way through. One of the most unique levels, and coincidentally one of the most fun levels, takes place on a 747 filled with passengers and has you fighting swarms of ninjas and thugs that pop into the aisle and grab the closest hostage. The game has some nice little visual flairs, like the screen-clearing ninja magic super attack, which slaps a big kanji character on the screen while your ninja races around the screen taking care of business, and the boss fights have some nice touches too. The character models look a little chunky, but their animation is pretty smooth. The music in Ninja Five-0 is reminiscent of a second-rate 16-bit platformer, though in a good way, as it does a solid job of conveying a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, you'll hear the exact same tune through most of the game, save for the boss fights and the last few stages. The rest of the game's sound design is pretty standard fare, and it gets the job done.
The saying "They don't make 'em like they used to" is totally applicable to video games, and Ninja Five-0 is a great throwback to how they used to make 'em. The game isn't terribly long, and the brutally difficult gameplay will keep it from appealing to players who didn't grow up with the three-life limit and no continues. But if you're up for some faux-nostalgic fun and some good, challenging ninja action, Ninja Five-0 is well worth your time.