The nineties saw the rise of several notable spinoff companies who split off from their parents to strike out on their own, something far less common in these current times. Treasure was formed by ex-Konami staff, and the death of Toaplan saw the formation of Cave, Raizing, Takumi, and Gazelle, though only Cave really stuck around and Raizing became Eighting before being assimilated by Capcom. Though speaking of Capcom, they also had a splinter faction with the Mitchell Corporation, formed in 1989 which is just before the nineties, but close enough. President Roy Ozaki took in employees from both Capcom and the TAD Corporation, the makers of Cabal. Responsible for the fairly renowned Buster Bros. series, as well as lesser-known but quite good games like The Karate Tournament and Osman, Mitchell didn't really hit it big until Puzz Loop, the basis for later puzzle titles like Zuma and Luxor. It might not be immediately apparent that Buster Bros. was only published by Capcom, not actually made by them, as Mitchell always seemed to get the short stick for proper recognition, and a super-obscure nugget like Charlie Ninja had no chance of becoming anything else than a hidden gem to be discovered through emulation many years later.
Charlie Ninja is about two... well, ninjas, who work as bounty hunters bringing in criminal leaders of incredibly various sorts. Despite the title, the two ninjas are actually called Roy (player 1) and Lon (player 2), with who or what exactly "Charlie" is left up to debate. This deceit is the first of many screwy elements that give the game a wacky sense of humor, primarily wrought through its unlikely art style. A first glance makes it seem like a Western-made game with its Tex Avery-esque character depictions and impossibly colorful backgrounds. This goes a step further when it appears that most stages are exaggerated parodies of United States history and/or culture. The first stage takes place on an Old West street, making the game at first feel like Sunset Riders, with old-timey saloons and general stores as diminutive cowboys shoot at you and lanky "injuns" tossing tomahawks. Yeah, there's a slight bit of racial insensitivity abound in this Japan-only game, though it's far from the worst example of this sort of thing. The Indian enemies even just look like Caucasians pretending to be Native Americans, which... may actually be even worse depending on your point of view.
Anyway, moving on from controversial faffery, you move on to a trap-ridden field with bad army soldiers and tanks (now making the game feel more like Metal Slug than Sunset Riders), a seedy junkyard down by the docks of a big city where portly gangster types throw crap at you, and most egregiously, a giant stadium full of football players and cheerleaders who turn out to be dudes in drag. Each stage throws a generous buffet of enemies at you and it can be a bit tough to stay alive for long, but hearts and weapon power-ups help you to stay alive for longer. You carry a not-too-powerful shuriken by default, but you can grab alternate weapons in the form of homing sais, spiked orbs, kunai which are thrown at angles, and some sort of neat spiked triple-bladed boomerang thingy. Of course, the good old melee-range sword slash makes the shortest work of foes if you can get that close, and you even have some Street Fighter-style special moves in your skillset. Pressing both the attack and jump buttons makes your ninja hide in the background and remain invincible for several seconds, but this is the only move the attract mode shows you. You also have a Ryu-esque hurricane kick (down, forward+jump), a tumbling spin (up, forward+attack), and a rushing blade attack (forward, down, forward+hold attack). These are not mandatory for victory, but they're neat attacks that add a bit more dimension to just running and shooting everything. Plus, they help in dealing the hurt to the game's bosses.
Each boss fits with the respective theme of the stereotypically hyper-American levels. Your bounties include Blues, a rugged outlaw who jumps like a Contra protagonist and sprays bullets, Sanders, a beefy corporal armed with what can best be described as a hula-hoop cannon, Freddie, a rather... flamboyant biker with toxic breath, and Bear, a burly quarterback who attempts to squish you with his beer gut. Their increasingly large lifebars can be brought down quick if you get in close and slash them up, but some will run away and force you to pursue them through an auto-scrolling stretch of mooks. The bosses themselves may take a credit or two to beat, as Charlie Ninja isn't exactly the most forgiving game, but practice and judicious use of the invincibility trick may keep your high score tally in check. It's only five levels to boot and won't even take half an hour to beat.
Unfortunately, for such a short game, it feels like it's overstaying its welcome in the uninspired last level, which throws out the "fauxmerican" wackiness of the first four levels and just depicts a boring and dingy laboratory/factory. You're attacked by an endless stream of robot ninjas who you already fought in a prior level anyway, and the final boss, Dr. Mac, retreats in his robot walker mech after dealing some damage… only it's a long autoscrolling bit where you can't immediately kill him like prior bosses. It's already the longest stage when you get to Dr. Mac, but this obnoxious stretch pads out the length even further without adding anything you haven't seen before. It feels like the stage could have been made half as long and another level should have been made to keep the length but offer more variety and offer more American spoofing. Why not a zany fifties diner full of swing dancers and pompadour bikers and the boss is an evil Elvis? Or the White House where secret service agents and angry senators try to keep you from reaching the President, who turns out to be Theodore Roosevelt ready to box in the Oval Office?
While the overflow of enemies can be cheap and the last stage runs out of steam, Charlie Ninja is still a fun and zany game overall that deserves a play for action-platformer junkies. Not too many other titles share its odd style of play, where Spinmaster on the Neo-Geo is the only other thing that comes close at this time. For the most part, what you see is what you get: Ninjas clobbering American stereotypes just because they can. Still no idea why it's called Charlie Ninja when neither ninja is called Charlie, but nothing needs to make sense when you're trying not to get blown up by exploding footballs.