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If you were born in the eighties (or later), it’s possible you’ve never heard of the original Legend of Kage. It hit the arcades in the mid-eighties and then moved on to the NES a few years later. Although a shallow side-scrolling action game with only four “real” levels (they just repeated with different seasons coloring the leaves in the trees), it had one gimmick that excited every kid that found it in the arcade: your little ninja could make spectacular leaps. Think Mario’s considerable hops increased to several times the height and distance. We’d never seen anything like it before, and the exhilaration of soaring amongst trees while throwing shuriken at other hyper-leaping ninjas was something special. Even if the game as a whole was anything but.
Enter The Legend of Kage 2, now for the DS. The mega-jumps are still here, but their forward momentum has been neutered. It’s not a huge deal, but it misses out on the most exciting aspect of the original. Luckily, everything else it does is an improvement. There is a respectable variety of enemies and environments, and a host of ninja moves to let you cut loose and feel like a badass. Playing as Kage, your main actions will be slicing with your sword, tossing ninja stars like a model tosses cookies, and super-jumping literally hundreds of feet into trees and onto rooftops. Wall running, ceiling hanging, magic spells, and dash attacks add to the arsenal that completes the supernaturally-agile ninja feeling.
You’ll need all these tricks to survive. This game is hard; make no mistake. The first level is very easy, letting you get the hang of things, but the game immediately ramps up the punishment with the second boss, and just gets more difficult for the most part. A couple of bosses are strangely easier than what came before them, but most of them took us an average of ten attempts to defeat them. Boss after boss seems impossible at first, but eventually enough persistence reveals an easier way to beat them. It’s a well-designed system, assuming you have some patience, since it’s very satisfying when a boss does finally go down.
Your character “levels up” when you earn enough points, unlocking even more handy and cool moves like combos, slide attacks, and even upgrading your jumping to ridiculous heights. There are also colored orbs to collect, usually hidden away in secluded corners, which provide your magic. Equipping magic, or “ninjutsu” is a much more involved process than simply selecting a spell. It’s actually a puzzle minigame where you arrange the colored orbs within a grid of slots. Orbs touching in a triangle formation create a new spell. Part of the fun is fiddling with the orbs and discovering a new spell, while intelligent management of the grid allows for the use of more spells. You can even “view” each spell, which tosses you into a test area with enemies in it so you can try out each spell and see exactly what it does and how long it lasts. It’s a smart feature that makes us wonder why more games don’t use it.
Visually Kage 2 is serviceable – the art is crisp and vivid, although there could have been more detail in the environments. The game makes clever use of the dual screens – instead of displaying a map or other non-essential information, the top screen actually shows what is above you in the playing field. So you can see high-up ledges or sneaky ninjas dropping bombs on you. Once your jump gets powerful enough, you can also easily spring way up into areas the top screen reveals.
The controls work mostly well, although there are some hang-ups with jumping higher than you want, accidentally sticking to walls/ceilings, and the biggest annoyance: being unable to jump immediately after attacking, which leads to frustrations during boss fights. Still, these issues can be compensated for, and don’t hinder the experience too much. With the bounty of acrobatics at your disposal, Legend of Kage 2 should fill your ninja-fix. That is, if you can handle being bitch-slapped by the difficulty.
Oct 7, 2008
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