By Graham Smith on March 3rd, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Dan Pearce won a BAFTA for his work with The Tall Trees on Castle In The Sky, a pastel-coloured platforming picture book about a young boy adrift in the clouds. It only makes sense that his solo project 10 Second Ninja, then, is about a ninja hacking his way through legions of inert machines under the command of Robot Hitler. It’s a swastika-laden game about mastery: you chain together shuriken throws and sword slashes to rid of a level of all its enemies within a ten second time limit, and then do it again to shave more seconds off your time.
Faster times equal more stars, more stars equal unlocked boss fights and new worlds, and new levels with slight twists like enemies which require two strikes, or portals which you and your shuriken can travel through. And that’s wot I think.
FAIL. Ah, wait, yeah. I left enemies on the field, and forgot to offer any critical judgement of the game I’m writing about. Let me try that again.
I like hard games. I’ve smeared my juices across every Super Meat Boy level, pranced gracefully around laser fire in N+, and my best Flappy Bird score so far is 215. I don’t think difficulty is the point of any of these games, though. It’s about striving for perfection. I can pass between the pipes of Flappy Bird no problem, so the challenge now is whether I can maintain the focus necessary to do it 216 times in a row. It’s not that hard to finish a lot of N+ levels, but there’s beauty to be found in finishing it quickly and with as much gold in your pockets as the level contains.
Completing most of 10 Second Ninja’s levels isn’t actually that hard either. I completed the entire game in a single sitting, struggled only a little and am now making my way through the tougher bonus missions. The real challenge in the game is trying to three-star every level; it’s trying to perfect your performance, by pushing yourself as far as you can go.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how successful the game is on that front, at least as far as hooking me personally. I like N+ and Super Meat Boy in part because they produce a replay at the end of my hours of failure, practice and slow improvement, and that replay feels like something tangible and impressive. It exists as recognition and reward for my hard work, and in N+’s its personal to me, subtly distinct from other likely level solutions, and easily shared. 10 Second Ninja by comparison gives you your three stars, and sends you on your way.
FAIL. I forget, I’m on a time limit here. You know what? 10 Second Ninja is alright. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like this sort of thing.
FAIL. Right, yeah, that’s a definite failure. 10 Second Ninja puts you under time pressure and might not allow for the kind of self-expression that would make a replay function truly worthwhile, but that doesn’t mean it strips away everything nuanced and interesting. Instead, each level is a puzzle. There is a single, rapid solution which will get you your three stars. You have to find it by staring, second-guessing the designer’s intent, and then trying to put your plan into action.
As you advance through the levels, they don’t necessarily become harder to complete, but their increasing complexity makes it harder to work out what the fastest solution is. You begin by asking, yourself which enemies to take out first, and which of the motionless, weaponless robots you should shuriken from range and which you should slash from up close. Later, you’re wondering when to take out an enemy with an environment obstacle like a collapsing platform or fragile icicle, or to use a layout of portals for a triple-takedown.
The level design is sometimes excellent and satisfying to solve. At other times, when it becomes difficult and obtuse, any satisfaction is overwhelmed by the sense that always having to work out what the designer intended for you to do is a little pointleess. I only realised I liked the easier levels more when the difficulty curve wobbled towards the end, and the later portal levels turned out to be quicker and more straightforward to perfect than some of what came before.
FAIL. Right, right. I’m spending too long on the levels, aren’t I? It’s just that it’s really a game about the levels, about solving them as puzzles. They were good enough that I enjoyed the night I spent completing it, but I don’t think they’re good enough – in variety, in opportunity for personal expression – for me to want to go back and perfect all of them. That makes the game a little thin.
I can be more concrete about the story, which felt awkward and self-consciously silly. The cutscenes are too long, and “Robot Hitler” comes from that same terrible wackiness that makes people think sheep are hilarious. Though in fairness, the cutscenes only happen between each world and they’re skippable, so there’s no reason to be put off by them. I was more put off by a lot of levels being covered in hundreds of swastikas.
There are other, more minor issues. Sword slash hit detection seem to stretch further than the animation suggests, which means part of perfecting your run through each level relies on learning to ignore its own visual cues. Portals, similarly, seem to teleport you even when you’re some distance from them and never intended to pass through. There are a few levels that fill more space than a single screen, and on those I wish the right analogue stick would pan the camera around before you start to move, so you can see where everything is. It would save your first runs through later levels being purely scouting runs, but that’s ultimately just a quality-of-life sort of thing.
And… that’s everything slashed. Did I make it on time?
Damn it all.
10 Second Ninja is available to buy from March 5th on Steam.