To wish for a seppuku mini-game.
I am excited about Ninja Reflex for two reasons. The first is that as the resident ninja assassin for GR (who, by the way, has been ordered by the red-bearded one to dispose of two unlucky 360 robbers), I am fond of all titles that have my not-so-secret occupation in their name. Though my inner spirit grumbled over yet another compilation of mini-games for the Wii, my outer desire to master the art of stealth and speed swept away my doubts. If only I knew the disaster to which this path would lead.
The second is that as the ruthless critic, such a disastrous game fuels all manners of creativity, which then gather into an unsympathetic explanation of my disgust. I had a whole story planned. I would hear of an evil shinobi who cursed the Temple of Ninja Reflex. I would ready my blade and set out to vanquish him. I would find him waiting for me on a quaint bridge over a clear, silent creek, and we would fight for three days until he had my throat in his hands. Slowly choking to death, I would have to listen to him explain how the temple was the evil one, not he. He would then release me from his grasp, and as I coughed blood into the creek, he would reveal his true identity. He was my future self, sent to guard me and the world from ever living through Ninja Reflex as he had.
The review would have been absolutely epic, but then I realized that a title with only six mini-games for $39.99 does not deserve such excruciating effort and noble prose. Instead, I’m going to do something that most reviews shouldn’t: ruin the ending. Don’t worry, if you’re the type that doesn’t want anything spoiled, even for a game you probably are never going to play, and certainly should never play, I will place asterisks and capital letters as a ****WARNING**** before any spoilers. I will even write it in black ninja text [Well, it's white now, since the background color is white. ~Ed.] so that you have to highlight the paragraphs to see it. But suffice it to say, the game penalizes you for beating the game. Yes, you read that right.
The whole point of Ninja Reflex is to improve your silent but deadly ways using a non-violent approach of ninjitsu that’s actually admirable. In a medium that tends to encourage beating the crap out of your opponents, saying that martial arts should only be used in self-defense is almost sacrilege (but that bunny was totally going to eat my face). It even has a mode that teaches you the benefits of meditation, though most people will probably never sit through it more than once.
It’s a philosophy that I would have been happy to endorse if it wasn’t smothered by a half-dozen boring, broken, and repetitive mini-games. Ranging from hitting wooden targets with Shurikens, to catching fireflies on a lake (Hoshi), grabbing flies with chopsticks (Hashi), capturing slippery Koi in a pond, blocking and slicing oni with a Katana, and swatting flying vegetables with a Nunchaku, each activity suits the “you are a young grasshopper” idea, though none of them are very interesting. Even though there are six variants for each mini-game, they hardly go deeper than “only catch this color firefly” or “kill oni in this much time” or “hit every flying fruit and vegetable with the nunchaku without missing”.
Even with the limited number of mini-games, Ninja Reflex can’t even get all of them right. The Katana activity requires you to move your Wii-mote left and right in a way that isn’t easily detectable, leading to constant failure. Some mini-game variants ask you to use your other hand, which given the technology, is un-testable. It’s like asking you to use your nose to hit the A button. Unless you’re playing with someone else, you’re probably just going to use your finger. Worse yet, once you pass a mini-game, you can’t replay it for practice. Urge to kill... rising.
Oddly enough, the most enjoyment you’ll have is listening to your sensei rattle off fortune cookie adages and long homage-to-Splinter speeches, though you'll probably start to skip them before long. Combining nouns and adjectives to create a name for your ninja avatar is also enjoyable for a while. I named myself “Empty Wolf”, but only after passing up “Divine Baboon”, “Naughty Primate”, “Existential Grasshopper”, and the invincible “Crazy Rainbow”. It’s entertaining in the Apples to Apples sort of way, but then again, it still leaves you pondering why you can’t just type in a name of your own choosing.
Completing all the variants of at least five of the six mini-games (the one left out probably being Katana) earns you the right to take the belt test, which has you go through three random extra-difficult versions of the mini-games. If you pass, your belt color will advance to the next degree, from white belt to yellow and so on until you reach third-degree black belt. Achieving the next highest rank is all fine and fits into the martial arts theme, but then you have to repeat all the mini-games over again just to take the next test. By the time you reach the green belt and unlock all of the mini-games, the monotony begins to bury you with the same tasks except with slightly more difficult objectives. Did you catch five fishies in thirty seconds? Now catch six.
I understand that disciplined repetition is at the heart of all martial arts, but does a game supposedly about ninjas need to be boring. It’s like having to watch an edited version of the Karate Kid where Daniel LaRusso does “wax on, wax off” mini-games all day long. At some point, you just want to use your newly found skills in the name of justice or showing off or anything that gives you a sense of accomplishment.
****WARNING: NINJA TEXT SPOILER ALERT (Highlight to read)****
(First off, let me congratulate you for reading this. You are officially a hardcore GR review reader.)
Of course, all of those flaws pale in comparison to what is quite possibly the worst conceivable ending of all time. Earning the third-degree black belt is actually quite challenging, given how insane some of the challenges are. Completing the Stealth variant of the Koi mini-game requires an unhealthy number of restarts and a burning hatred of easily frightened fish. But once you have the belt in your grasp, your sensei will tell you that the end of a path is the beginning of another and, at the end of the credits, will honor that statement by replacing your third-degree black belt with a white belt. Wait… WHAT???!!!
Oh, it gets better. When you go to open your save file, you will discover that not only has your ranking medallion been reset to its lowest setting, but all of the mini-games that you have unlocked have now been locked once more. All significant traces of your efforts have been erased, except for some extra ninja names and a personal note in your journal that says you’ve earned the third-degree black belt. Of course, what it should say is something that takes a lot of asterisks, and frankly, I don’t have enough time to type them all out.
****END NINJA TEXT SPOILER*****
What makes the ending for Ninja Reflex the worst of all time is that it’s intentional. It would have been better if the Wii had glitched, or if the memory card had burned, or if I was sucked into an inter-dimensional space where memories die. Perhaps the only thing worse is that Ninja Reflex actually manages to make a game about ninjas not cool. It doesn’t really matter that some of the mini-games can be played in a multiplayer mode and can be fun for a half an hour. I can do much the same by wrapping two black t-shirts around my head and pretending to be a ninja.