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NDS Review - 'The Legend of Kage 2'

by Aaron "Istanbul" Swersky on Nov. 7, 2008 @ 2:09 a.m. PST

With rich, elaborate stages and a compelling story that follows the tale of two protagonists, The Legend of Kage 2 breathes renewed excitement into the classic action adventure experience.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Taito
Developer: Taito
Release Date: October 7, 2008

It's about time! Ever since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when Nintendo singlehandedly revitalized the video game market with its landmark 8-bit system, people have been clamoring for remakes of all of the most popular titles. For the most part, these calls were heeded, whether the topic is the Final Fantasy series or the endless outpouring of Mario titles or the Metroid franchise, but one call has gone ignored until this point: the legions of fans endlessly clamoring for a continuation of one ninja's battle against evil have finally been heard. There is now a sequel to Legend of Kage.

What do you mean, "Never heard of it"?

The fact of the matter is that this was a title released way back in 1986, well before many of the readers of this review were even born. For those of you who are simply too young to have been part of this generation of gaming, allow me to clue you in: Kage is a ninja. Back in the mid-1980s, his moves were very simple: fling a shuriken or swing a sword. Of course, the technological limitations of that date definitely factored into the look and depth of the game; there were only four levels, with the end of the fourth level leading into a slightly color-altered version of the beginning of the first one, and Kage's sword-swinging animation looked more like somebody rotating his arm while it was in a cast.

The key element that this game brought to platforming was his jumps. Mario only wishes he could jump this high; without even bothering to give enough of a nod to the laws of physics to take a running start, Kage could leap skyward in a positively Kryptonian vault that cleared the tallest treetops. Oh, sure, he couldn't guide those jumps at all ? and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound doesn't mean you have any idea what's waiting for you when you land ? but the fact is that his abilities were leaps and bounds (ha!) above anything else a video game character had sported. All of this was attached to the feeblest of plots, something about a kidnapped princess and a demon you have to kill ? blah blah blah, it doesn't matter.

The task at hand, then, is to see whether Legend of Kage 2 improves upon its predecessor without completely abandoning it. The answer, happily, is that it does an exemplary job of maintaining its Kage-ness without ignoring the fact that a few decades have passed. Kage has hung onto his signature super-jumping, which is often the best way to make it through levels. Unlike its predecessor, you'll also discover that the treetops hide almost an entire level unto themselves; taking the high road is now more of a gameplay choice than a cheesy way to bypass the enemies. And oh, there are enemies: rock-slinging abominations, ninja who want to dice you to ribbons, and monsters out of Japanese mythology who swoop and dash and cling and do all manner of interesting things to our hero. Even the animals seem to have been fed a steady diet of pain and hate; the ninja dogs and murdering crows in this title pull off some of the most fascinating (and physically impossible) stunts I've ever seen, enough to turn any feudal dog show into a proper massacre.

The good news about the game's control is that it is precise. Kage will do as he's told: jump amazing distances, run super-quick, do a mid-air dash move, climb up walls, anything you like. It's amazing how many new moves Taito has packed into this aging ninja, and I'm pleased to report that they offer a lot of interesting new strategies for disposing of otherwise intractable enemies. The bad news ? or wonderful news, if you're a masochist ? is that it won't help you much. This game is brutally hard. The first few levels guide you along at a fairly easy pace so that you can learn to use the various tools at your disposal, but by the time you get halfway through the title, you'll be cursing the sheer difficulty. In particular, I found the last three bosses to be incredibly taxing, requiring extremely precise reflexes, an eye for pattern detection, and the patience of a saint. This is the kind of game that separates pretenders from pros, so don't hand this one to grandma, especially if she's got a heart condition.

Kage 2 has been given more than just a face-lift and a few new tricks to distinguish it from its predecessor. At the end of each level, the player is given a grade to show how he's done. Depending on your success, you may find yourself having a new move granted to you, whether it's sequential sword strikes, better jumping abilities or an upward slash move. Moreover, Kage has learned how to use ninjitsu (ninja magic) to his benefit, with the help of elemental orbs scattered all over each level in well-hidden spots. In this, the game encourages exploration; there is a reason that ledge up there is just barely high enough to reach if you really try, and there's a reward waiting for you if you manage to finally make the leap. Combining different elemental orbs will allow Kage to do all manner of different things, from summoning a rotating ice shield to calling down lightning to smite his foes to simply taking less damage for a limited time, and the system by which new ninjitsu is formulated is interesting enough that you'll often find yourself just fiddling around with the orbs for a while just to see what you can make. The new moves and new powers add a lot of flavor to the game, and they're a welcome update to the classic.

From the moment this title is turned on, players are treated to a rich feast for the senses. The musical accompaniment is fast-paced and entertaining, and while it does seem very out of place for the overwhelmingly Japanese feel of the background, it really helps to make gameplay a lot more fun; this is the kind of soundtrack I could easily see remixed several times. Speaking of which, the backgrounds are surprisingly well-done; everything from an orchard of cherry to trees to a daimyo's castle has been constructed with detail worthy of the DS' capabilities, and it will sometimes be tempting to just stop your wholesale slaughter of evil demon ninja for a while and pay attention to all the interesting stuff behind you. (I don't recommend doing so. Hard, remember?) Sure, the cut scenes are still and unspoken, and the enemies can be a bit difficult to tell apart or track, but these are fairly minor complaints.

Overall, I have to say that Legend of Kage 2 is surprisingly well-made, especially by a company known for recent gaming catastrophes. (Don't think I've forgotten Turn It Around or Furu Furu Park, Taito.) Engaging gameplay, a plethora of unlockables, and above-norm production values really give this title a boost to propel the franchise into this millennium. It's true: Ninja don't need orange jumpsuits to be cool.

Score: 8.5/10

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