Thursday, April 21, 2011

Great Moments in Retro Gaming: Ninja Golf

Earlier today, in my Passover post, I gave a few good reasons why organized religion just isn’t really for me.  Thoughtful, impassioned reasons that I’ve given a lifetime of thought to, but I’ve also got a reason for knocking at least a few of ‘em out of the possibility pool that is as important to me as it is completely silly: I need to be able to mix dairy products and meat, because a god that would disallow cheeseburgers is not a god I could ever really be down with.  Some things were just meant to go together, damn it.  Like peanut butter and jelly.  Like pancakes and syrup.  Like Hall and Oates.

Like Ninjas and golf.  No, really, I’ve got the proof right here:

Imagine you were a game programmer contracted by Atari in 1989.  The folks signing your paycheck are still trying to break the Atari 7800 into a world that’s now been dominated by Nintendo for several years.  While it’s highly arguable that the 7800 had graphics capabilities that far exceeded those of the NES, by 1989 Nintendo had the goods and then some when it came to their game library.  In a gaming world redefined by Super Mario Bros’ vibe of limitless exploration, Atari’s collection of arcade favorites, no matter how excellently rendered they were, left the 7800 seeming like little more than yesterday’s news with a fancy new coat of paint.  That’s where you come in as a programmer: Atari wants original content to do battle with America’s favorite plumbers, and they want it available yesterday.  So what do you come up with?  Naturally, a game that combines the edge-of-your-seat excitement of golf with all the hot ninja action of the best fighting games of the era.  As Rick James once famously put it, cocaine is a hell of a drug.  Still, I’ll let you be the judge, dear reader.  Pretend you’re a teenager standing in the toy store in 1990, forced to choose between some hot NES title and this:

 Right, you’d have picked the NES title.  Would you believe that you’d have picked wrong?  Okay, maybe not wrong, but would you believe that you should have come back with next week’s allowance money and also bought Ninja Golf, because despite having all the makings of a disaster it’s actually an excellent game?  ‘Tis true, dear friends: while the “golf” aspect of the game is nothing at all to write home about, Ninja Golf actually turns out to be an addictive fighting game for its era, with the bonus of having a truly novel storyline and concept.  The graphics are bright and attractive, the animation is fluid, and the controls are well-designed and responsive.  It’s an easy game to simply pick up and play (always a plus in my book), and the difficulty ramps up at just the right pace.  All of that said, here’s everything you really need to know: you play as a Ninja who must do the following, in this order:

  • 1)      Tee off
  • 2)      Fight enemy ninjas all the way to where your ball has landed.  If you hit into or through a hazard (water, rough, sand), you must battle creatures who inhabit that landscape along with the ever-present other ninjas
  • 3)      Hit the ball again, and attempt to make the green.
  • 4)      Once on the green, you must lob throwing stars at a giant dragon.  Once you have hit him in the head (not the body or tail, those don’t count) enough times, you may move on to the next hole.

Trust me, you’ve never played anything remotely like this before.  It truly has to be experienced to be believed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it has become one of my go-to stress relievers.  I’ve blogged before about how utterly worthwhile an Atari 7800 is for someone who likes old video games, both for its backwards compatibility with the entire 2600 library, and for its small but high-quality selection of dedicated titles, filled as it is with first-rate arcade conversions and great, quirky originals like this.  If buckets of old bolts aren’t your scene, there are several emulators available for the 7800; personally, I’ve found ‘em all to be fairly wonky, but your mileage may vary.

Best/most disturbingly of all, some genius/raving lunatic has remade the whole kit and caboodle as a flash game, available right here.  The play isn’t nearly as fluid as the original, but the concept and spirit are dead on.

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