LightWeight Ninja is a fun, quirky platformer that is one of the best 2D action games I have played in some time. If you are familiar with OS/2 classic Galactic Civilizations or Entrepreneur, you might be surprised that this title is being published by Stardock. And your hunch would be right: this is not the brainchild of designer Brad Wardell, best known for deep strategy games. Rather, LightWeight Ninja is actually a "throwaway project" Brad gave to some summer interns at Stardock last year. As he described in a recent article at Quarter to Three:
"The idea was to let them learn on this game. Then, once they mastered our various technologies, we would put them on a 'real' project. We even let them come up with their own story, title, etc. for the game. They came up with the title "LightWeight Ninja". And they came up with a plot that I thought was pretty weird - a genetically enhanced assassin who ends up going against his masters. If the game was a 'real' project, that plot might have been killed (there was no Dark Angel TV show yet). But hey, it wasn't going to be a real game, so they could knock themselves out.
The game library they were to work with is the same one used for The Corporate Machine and the same one we're using on Galactic Civilizations. Both are strategy games. LightWeight Ninja, on the other hand, could be described as a modern version of Commander Keen.
I need to talk about the game library for a second so that we're on the same page. We have a team that creates a game library called Pear. Pear is designed to handle the low level sprites, GUI widgets, tile mapping, sound, music, and all the other stuff that games need. Pear is an incredible technology. None of our games thus far have really shown off what it can do.
But the interns, working on their practice game, ended up putting together quite a neat game with Pear. For instance, have you ever played a side-scroller on a PC? They just never seem quite as fun as they do on a console because you can see all those pixels. On a TV screen, the blurry picture acts as a natural anti-pixel mechanism. But the kids solved this by using Pear's alpha blending features. In effect, even though the game is a 2D-cartoon style game, it effectively has full screen anti-aliasing. But since it's on a per object basis, there's no performance hit; you can run the game on a low end machine just fine with 30fps. So what you end up with is a fluid cartoon looking game without the pixels."
Brad's comments summarizes what makes LightWeight Ninja a highly entertaining game. It's got a wacky plot, wacky monsters, and excellent graphics that are leaps and bound beyond most platform games on the market. In a plot that is obviously inspired by X-Men, you are Ty, a genetically engineered assassin trained by one Mr. Elliot Xavier. Of the 19 children he kidnapped from an orphanage, only you have survived the intense training and chemical treatments. Now it is time for you to be put to the test: your mission is to make your way into the compound of Mr. eX's arch enemy, a seemingly harmless old man named Sentetsu, and get rid of him.
Gameplay is best described as a modern Commander Keen: a simple-to-learn, side-scrolling platform game that has a huge dose of "just one more level" addictiveness that makes Keen a timeless classic. The game's strength lies in the excellent graphics. As Brad mentioned in his article, LightWeight Ninja features full anti-aliasing that produces very smooth scrolling with no pixellation - even on a low-end machine - with many more frames of animation than most previous games.
What's even better is the fact that LightWeight Ninja is not tile-based. This allows for truly "free-form" levels and all kinds of surfaces - for instance, the twisty, curvy pipes you can run on. This helps make the levels very diverse and exciting - throughout the 27 levels in the initial release, you will explore a forest, an office, and many more. Cut-scenes between level help advance the storyline, and they are in general very well done. In keeping with the cartoon feel of the game and the wacky plot, your weapons are not the usual assortment of modern weaponry. Instead, you throw acorns, a nut and bolt combo, and paper airplanes to fight enemies. And since you are ninja, the obligatory shuriken is included, of course ;)
Another novelty LightWeight Ninja delivers is not a specific game feature, but an intriguing new business model used by Stardock to distribute the game. LightWeight Ninja is one of the first offering on Stardock's The Drengin Network - a new site set up to sell games in "episodic" manner. In other words, for $49.95 you will get a Drengin network frontend program that allows you to download a suite of Stardock games, including LightWeight Ninja, The Corporate Machine, and a few others at your leisure. Not only that, but this entitles you to download new episodes of LightWeight Ninja for free in the future, as well as "free goodies." Definitely a novel publishing concept that gives an excellent value to your gaming dollar. LightWeight Ninja alone costs $19.95, and this entitles you to free future episodes as well. With a wacky storyline, easy and addictive gameplay, LightWeight Ninja is a great underdog that will provide hours of fun for players of all ages. Two thumbs up, way up! Reviewed by: Underdogs