Raise your hand if you've spent the last 24 years waiting feverishly for a sequel to The Legend of Kage, an arcade game released by Taito in 1984. Now, keep your hands up if you were an avid-enough fan to know that it's pronounced "kah-geh" and not "cage." For the both of you with your hands still up, good news! Taito has answered your prayers with The Legend of Kage 2 for the Nintendo DS. In fact, this unexpected sequel is good news for anyone looking for swift, straightforward, and decidedly traditional action-platforming, even if the Kage franchise is nowhere on your radar.
The original Legend of Kage was notable for its high-flying antics and fluid pace, thanks to the ability to leap screens high, slice through multiple enemies, and deflect shuriken without ever having to stop running. There was very little to it otherwise, however, and it hasn't aged well. The Legend of Kage 2, starring the titular Kage and new heroine Chihiro, retains much of the original game's feel: Both characters can jump unusually high (past the division between the two screens) and mow down most enemies without skipping a beat. However, a bevy of updates and cutscenes that provide a rudimentary story keeps the game from falling into the monotony that the original suffered from in its heyday.
The most upfront improvement--though it has the least impact--is how the game's level design plays out in conjunction with your abilities. Though you're often greeted with the familiar left-to-right structure, you can often make progress along both higher and lower paths. There's platforming that requires you to use such abilities as running up walls and midair dashing. The controls are almost uniformly tight and responsive, though you might wish for the ability to fully change direction in midair. Bright, colorful visuals and enemy sprites aid playability too, clearly defining where to go next and what to interact with, and helping you think about the best approach to both.
At the same time, level design is also one of the few spots in which the game stumbles slightly. You'll sometimes find vast expanses of scenery that require little more than just jumping toward the right, and it feels like filler. The levels are at their best when they throw a huge number of enemies your way and let you run from one end of the screen to the other, slicing them up and watching your combo counter rack up the hits.
It does pay to run off the beaten path to investigate the occasional nook and cranny, where you'll find health bonuses and, more notably, magic orbs of varying color. These are used in between stages by the game's (fairly basic) magic system and adds a slight level of strategic management. You set the orbs into triangular and diamond-shaped arrangements on a grid, mixing and matching various colors to unlock a variety of spells. So there's some slight experimentation to be had, and the fixed size of the grid limits the number of spells you can activate during any given level. Along with the cutscenes, the magic-creation system offers a brief but welcome respite after each of the game's many intense boss battles.
The boss encounters are clearly the stars of the show, throwing zany opponents at you such as an old geezer whose cranium is larger than his body; a disembodied head that vomits shuriken from its mouth; and two demon statues that continually pincer-attack you with devastating spells. Each battle is based on patterns that prove to be tricky, balanced, and enjoyable all at once. You'll rarely, if ever, suffer from unavoidable hits, and the patterns are almost always varied enough such that boss battles never start to feel long in the tooth.
You can burn through The Legend of Kage 2 in about four hours with one character, and Kage and Chihiro don't play differently enough from each other to make a second play-through all that different. Each character learns a unique set of new attacks as the game progresses, but between the two these moves end up being different in name only. Both of them obtain the same downward thrust move, for instance. Nevertheless, the game hooks you in other ways. A pseudo-achievements system rewards feats like pulling off a 50-hit combo or literally jumping a thousand times, with very pretty unlockable bonus art. Beating the game also unlocks a Boss Rush mode and a harder difficulty setting for the masochist in you.
The Legend of Kage 2 falls just short of being a great action game; some of the levels could have been made denser, and the core experience longer, and it doesn't really innovate. Still, it's a surprisingly welcome revival thanks to unlockable bonus treats, great bosses, and a worthy modernization of familiar run-and-slash action.