The Last Ninja, although released quite late in the 80s ninja cycle, struck at just the right time. As the genre started to run out of steam on video, the addition of an interactive element gave ninja fans the next-level thrill they sought. Never mind watching ninjas. Now you could become one, in a computer game unlike any other. The appeal was undeniable and The Last Ninja went on to smash sales records and spawn several conversions and sequels. For whatever reason (probably a lack of pocket money), I never had a copy of The Last Ninja myself as a kid, only The Last Ninja 2. Pretty sure this decision was based on the irresistible cover art, blending as it did my two favourite images then and now – a giant ninja face and a skyline. Classic.
The original game was set on a fictional island but the sequel moved the action to New York, which was the coolest place on earth if you were a child of the video age. Although the graphics look primitive by today’s standards, the 3D effect (created by a clever isometric viewpoint, since old computers couldn’t handle actual 3D graphics) and attention to detail made The Last Ninja 2 cutting edge stuff at the time. For me, it was the closest I could get to actually being in New York, ninjing around, without even leaving my bedroom.
Unfortunately, there was a downside. The Last Ninja 2 was insanely difficult. I spent hours and hours on it, enthralled by the graphics and premise, but never actually made it past Central Park (the first level). It was hard to control the ninja because I wasn’t used to isometric exploration and the game demanded so many arcane combinations of button pushes, you’d think you were actually learning all eighteen ninja Jūhakkei .
As an adult ninjologist, however, I figured “how hard could it be?” Maybe I was just a particularly slow child. Thankfully GameOldies.com has wonderful emulation of the NES version available to play for free online so I went back to Central Park to see if I’d actually got any smarter after all this time… (NB: The NES version was just called The Last Ninja even though it was actually The Last Ninja 2 because, let’s face it, confusing retitling is totally canon – just ask Godfrey Ho).
It started and a rush of nostalgia hit me hard. There I was, dressed in natty ninja duds, on the familiar Central Park bandstand, just a tuba and a music stand for company. I’m not sure how I ended up there and I don’t think it’s ever explained. We’re told in the instructions that Armakuni (the last ninja on Earth) has come to New York on the trail of the evil shogun he tried to kill in the first game but why he’s stranded on the bandstand is a mystery.
After walking around and hitting all the buttons to see if I could pick up the tuba, I realised I couldn’t and went inside where a man in a brown leather waistcoat started hitting me. I kicked and punched him until he went down but then he got back up so I kicked and punched him again until he was dead (learning that all the bad guys in this game have two “lives”). It took about ten minutes of frustrated howling but eventually I figured out that the flashing button on the wall needed to be pushed in order to open up a trapdoor that would let me off the bandstand.
Once into the park itself, more dudes in leather came at me and it was exhausting having to kick and punch them all by frantically slamming the C and V keys. I wandered around as many screens like this as I could before getting frustrated that the bad guys got increasingly lethal weapons like nunchaku, throwing stars and big sticks while I had nothing. I could see weapons lying on the ground (careless!) but couldn’t work out how to pick them up or, for that matter, move for more than 10 seconds without someone trying to hit me.
Realising that the kick button was the same as the pick-up button helped and I grabbed a whole bunch of useless crap like a map, a key and some throwing stars I couldn’t work out how to use. Then things got weird when I turned a corner and a terrifying skeleton-clown started throwing bottles at me. Bottles that killed me instantly. Luckily, Armakuni has five lives (four fewer than Sho Kosugi!) so I regenerated and had another go. The clown got me again, then I got lost and ended up outside a public toilet where a black-clad leather daddy beat me to a pulp three times over. The game ended. I was officially as dumb now as I was as a kid.
Luckily, I have the internet now so I just googled “Last Ninja 2 Walkthrough” and found a cracking one at GameFAQs.com that explained what I had to do. Learning how to use items helped so I used the key to open a secret gate and then learned how to climb a wall, which was pretty badass.
At the top of the wall, I got to pick up a big stick. Now I was in business and could take brutal revenge on the toilet leather daddy; useful since the next task I had to perform was to stroll into the doorway of the ladies toilets and retrieve one half of a powerful (but invisible) set of nunchaku that are key to the plot. WHAT? I mean… How are you supposed to figure that out yourself? The fact that I could even hover in the doorway of the ladies was a shock but the idea that you’re supposed to keep randomly pressing pick-up until you get a weapon you can’t even see or know about? Crazy.
Armed with one half of this magical item I reckoned my ninja power must be increasing but no. I found a body of water and the walkthrough told me I had to jump onto a moving boat in order to cross it. No chance. I lost all five lives by somersaulting into the water and drowning. Apparently ninjas – ultra-disciplined highly trained killing machines who can only be destroyed by one of their own kind – can’t swim. Not even in exceptionally shallow waters. Anyway, it was probably for the best because the next part of the Walkthrough said “watch out for the killer bees. They hurt really bad if they land clean on you”!
By this stage, the isometric movements and the continual button-bashing of the fights were starting to drive me mad and I was swearing so much that my girlfriend came over to ask what I was doing. When I explained The Last Ninja to her she asked to have a go. Excellent, I said, not offering any help.
After a few minutes of patiently exploring the bandstand, trying every conceivable combination of buttons in order to figure a way out, she started getting frustrated. It was interesting to watch her journey through her game. “I tried kicking that shit!” she shouted, in reference to the tuba. Then the guilt kicked in after the first real kill: “I feel bad, I killed that dude… why do they have to cry on the floor like that?” Then the shedding of guilt at the second kill: “Shall I beat this guy up for no reason too? Ow! He punched me! HAVE SOME OF THAT!” A little fear (“He’s got a fucking stick, I don’t want to fight that guy!”), a little hope (“What’s that spider? I’m having that spider!” as she picked up a throwing star) and the eventual rush of freedom (“I’m going to go into the ladies toilet… no one’s stopping me!”). Somehow she managed, by randomly pushing buttons, to find the magic nunchaku in the toilet but, unaware that it was supposed to be there, was horrified, thinking she’d picked up a poo (the graphic below showing what you’re “Holding” is rather ambiguous on this front, in fairness)…
After about ten more aimless minutes, she eventually screamed “Why am I even killing these dudes? What is my ninja mission here?!” before rounding a corner, running into the clown (“What is THAT?!?!”) and getting bottled to death, thus proving that either The Last Ninja 2 genuinely is impossible or we’re just both just awful gamers. I’m prepared to accept the latter.
It’s weird looking at it with modern eyes because it is difficult, fiddly, frustrating and curiously unimpressive in that the ninja doesn’t even really have any moves beyond one punch, one kick and one jump. Even Mario could kick his ass. Yet it did bring so many memories back, how amazing it felt at the time, how somehow even this was enough to feel like a bonafide New York ninja in action.
There’s still a strange appeal. I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back to it again because the promise of five more completely new levels – including the city streets and the Shogun’s mansion! – is weirdly still exciting to me. It’s a tough game but it somehow still captures the aesthetic and spirit of the 80s ninja boom like nothing that’s come before or after it. I just need to figure out how to jump on that damn boat and avoid the killer bees then maybe one day I can achieve the ultimate accolade of being… a Tip Top Ninja!