The Legend of Kage / Kage no Densetsu (影の伝説) - Arcade, NES, MSX, X1, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, PlayStation 2, Xbox, Windows, PSP, Wii Virtual Console (1985)
Developed in 1985 by Taito, The Legend of Kage (pronounced "kah-gay") does its best to replicate the fast paced, high flying action of a ninja martial arts movie. The whole thing is remarkably cinematic for a game this old - the story begins when the princess Kiri is whisked away by evil ninjas, and Kage drops out from the trees to save her.
There are only two buttons - to toss shurikens and to swipe with your knives - so you jump by pressing Up. Our titular ninja possesses incredible jumping strength and can leap the height of the screen with a simple joystick motion. You can toss shurikens in practically every direction, which is a necessity, since enemy ninjas pop out from every corner of the screen. Shurikens are great for long range attacks, since they're fast and versatile, but your knives are much more suited for melee combat. However, your swipes have almost no range, so you really need to be on top of a bad guy before you can kill them. Like Shinobi (which hadn't yet been released), simply running into bad guys won't hurt you - they have to hit you with an attack before you're killed. Unfortuntely, they can attack as quickly as you can, and a single errant shuriken tossed from off screen can send your dead body plummeting to the ground, which can become all too common if you're not careful. You can also block shurikens with knife attacks, if you're fast enough. However, your parries won't do any good against the nasty fire breathing monks, who can attack from half a screen away and survive multiple hits.
It's a tough game, especially since everything moves so quickly, but if you're quick and smart, it's still very possible to survive with a bit of practice. While it may make the game a bit too frustrating, The Legend of Kage truly excels due to its frantic pacing. There are only five stages, and the game takes only a few minutes to beat, but the action is constantly changing from level to level. In the first stages, you're running from right to left, leaping gracefully from treetops. In the next, you're rummaging through the castle moat, dispatching of a certain number of ninjas before you proceed. Next you're caught in a vertical ascent to reach the entrance to the castle. Once you've finally infiltrated, you dash up several sets of staircases before finding the princess and cutting her bonds. You take her hand, dash up to the roof and fly off, only to be met by an assailant when you hit the ground. Once you beat them, you're temporarily victorious, but the princess gets carted off again during another one of her dim-witted strolls. And thus, it's off to start the adventure anew, although the graphics have changed to reflect different seasons. This repeats over and over, until you run out of lives, although the arcade version rewards you with a short victory scene after beating it twice.
The Famicom/NES port is actually reasonably decent. The graphics and sound have been downgraded obviously, but the actual gameplay has been replicated admirably. However, the speed isn't quite up to its predecessor - in particular, the shurikens don't travel as fast, and the game only allows two on the screen at the same time. However, there's now an item that can power you up, enhancing your force and speed. It will also let you absorb a single hit, except against the fire breathing guys. There are also a few extra bad guys, and you need to beat the game three times instead of twice to see the ending. Furthermore, the original arcade game featured a butterfly during the boss fights. It was just a cool touch in the arcade version, but in the NES version, you need to destroy it before you can do any damage to the boss.
The Legend of Kage isn't particularly well regarded amongst Western fans, but that's mostly because they're only familiar with the game in a console setting. The short length makes it far more suitable for arcade play, and at home, it just feels short, simple and frustrating. However, the NES conversion is still significantly better than any of the home computer ports. The Commodore 64 version has Atari 2600 quality graphics and extraordinarily slow gameplay, resulting in a huge pile of crud. The theme song plays during the intro, but the actual game is silent. The MSX version features ugly, single character sprites, erratically colored backgrounds, terrible controls and awkward scrolling. It's also extraordinarily glitchy - every time lightning strikes, you disappear for a few seconds and the screen scrolls backward. The Amstrad version is alright - the stick figure characters look silly, and it's still relatively slow, but it's playable. The Spectrum version, like many Spectrum games, has bright, oddly colored backgrounds and black sprites. Despite some choppy scrolling, it actually runs at a decent speed, and isn't too bad, even though it completely lacks music.
After appearing on some Taito arcade bundles, like Taito Memories Joukan for the Japanese PS2 and Taito Legends 2 for the American PS2 and European PS2/Xbox, Legend of Kage also shows up in the Taito Legends: Power Up pack for the PSP. In addition to the emulated arcade version, there's a brand new upgraded version featuring 3D graphics, much like the "arrange" versions found on the Namco Museum collection. It is, however, completely terrible. It's much slower and controls much worse too. It also looks terrible - the quickly cycled 2D animation of the original had an amusing charm, but it looks really, really dorky when rendered as a 3D model. Also, the horizontal widescreen of the PSP completely screws up the proportions of the playing field, and it's hard to see anything above or beneath you. Pretty terrible overall.
Demon Sword (or Fudou Myououden in Japan) isn't technically a sequel to The Legend of Kage. Rather, it's a whole new, longer game that takes its high flying mechanics and fleshes them out significantly for the console environment. The hero wields both shurikens and sword attacks, and has similar super high jumping techniques that can carry him through the air for several screens. However, there are a lot more stages (seven in the American version, thirteen in the Japanese one) which are all much longer than anything found in The Legend of Kage. Each stage is huge, but they're also extremely repetitive, sometimes recycling layouts to the point where it feels like you're running in circles.
There are a number of power-ups and magic to find, which increase the power of your throwing stars or temporarily summon shadow doubles that follow your character, a la Ninja Gaiden 2 (which this game predates.) Additionally, each level contains a number of locked doors. If you find a key (which randomly pop up when you defeat an enemy), you're taken to a small subspace area where you're either granted a piece of magic, or confronted with a midboss - whom, after being defeated, will also give you special magic. The boss battles at the end of each stage are often quite rough, featuring erratic patterns and questionable hit detection, so it's imperative to stock up as much magic as possible to enable you to attack from a distance. However, every few levels, your sword will grow a little bit. You start off with a near-useless dagger, but by the end of the game, it's a huge badass blade that's almost the size of the main character.
There are a number of significant differences between the Japanese and American versions. Fudou Myououden is much like The Legend of Kage, in that you can only take a single hit before dying. There are power-ups that automatically resurrect you after gettin hurt, but given the way that enemies fly all over the place, these get eaten up pretty quickly. Demon Sword grants you a life meter, so you can take much more damage. Additionally, one of the randomly dropped power-ups will extend your life meter permanently. It's all too easy to simply fling yourself through each stage, all while avoiding enemy confrontation, but this gives you some incentive to stick around and engage enemies until they drop what you want.
In Fudou Myououden, most of the regular enemies only take a single hit to kill. In Demon Sword, even the weakest of enemies will take two or more hits. However, you can also upgrade the power of your shurikens - in their powerful form, you'll send out a single huge spinning blade which tears through practically anything. Since you can enhance both your strength and endurance, Demon Sword is definitely an easier game.
However, a bunch of stuff was also left on the cutting room floor during localization. Fudou Myououden contains six extra stages, more enemies, and a few more magic spells. These include a hurricane, which slowly wipes out foes across the screen, an item that temporarily transforms you into a dragon, and a strange power-up that turns your character into four spinning chibi renditions. Some of the bosses have been shuffled around, too - some of the ones that were cut show up in the subspace levels. The subspace levels are also pitch black in Fudou Myououden, while Demon Sword has a blue background and blocks around all of the Japanese characters. The title screen and password system also differ. Both games have a password system, but in Demon Sword you need a cheat code to obtain and enter them. Furthermore, Demon Sword has completely misleading cover artwork that depicts a generic Western-looking barbarian holding the titular sword up high. This completely ignores the fact that the game obviously takes place in feudal Japan.
Honestly, neither of these versions are spectacular. The levels are long and not terribly interesting, and the enemies - bosses especially - can inflict way too many cheap hits. Although all of the additions are cool, the gameplay just doesn't hold up when removed from the quick plays of The Legend of Kage arcade game. But overall, Demon Sword is eminently more playable just because you aren't dying every few seconds. On the other hand, Fudou Myououden has quite a bit more content. It would've been nice if Taito hadn't hacked out such a huge portion of the game for the American audience, but the reduced difficulty level probably makes it the version of choice, if you had to pick.
Apparently Taito didn't consider Demon Sword a true sequel, because here we are, over twenty years later, with The Legend of Kage 2 for the Nintendo DS. A lot has changed in the gaming landscape, but it manages to update the same feeling of the original arcade game while removing all of the frustrations, and keeping with modern action sensabilities.
There are now two playable characters - Kage and his female companion Chihiro. Kage looks quite a bit manlier than his previous outings, but is still equipped with shurikens and a sword. Chihiro has a sickle that works just like a sword, but wields a huge chain rather than shurikens, and has more magic power. With the extra buttons on the DS, there's now a seperate button mapped to jump, which makes controlling the characters far less awkward. You can still leap great distances and toss shurikens quickly at any angle, but sword attacks are now far more useful. The sword swings are much more effective, with huge slashes similar to Strider, and you can execute powerful combos once you've progressed far enough into the game. By default, your characters move pretty quickly, but they can run even faster by double tapping forward. There are also a variety of other attacks, like a sliding manuever, a mid-air dash, and a running slash, which can cut down multiple foes at once with your blade. You can also perform a variety of other cool ninja moves, like running straight up walls and hanging from ceilings. There are also a number of magic spells. At any time, you can charge up your sword attack and summon spirit shadows, which essentially triples your firepower temporarily. Additionally, you'll find colored stones hidden throughout the levels - you can mix and match these stones to create a variety of magic spells (around forty or so, which is impressive) but you can only keep a few equipped at a time. You'll also come across items to extend your health or magic meters.
There are a total of twelve stages in The Legend of Kage 2, and each is structured similarly - gigantic, open expanses for you to leap and slash through, along with some occasional platforming elements. Both screens on the DS are utilizied, and it suits the high flying action pretty well, and the screen gap rarely becomes an issue. The speed is still lightning quick, but it's also less chaotic than the original arcade game, and feels much less cheap. The fact that you can take several hits before dying also makes things much easier. The problem is, the game's so loose that you can sprint through most stages avoiding most enemy conflict, at least on the normal setting. However, you'll need to keep your eyes open to find some of the hidden stones, which gives you some incentive to explore. It's still pretty easy though - when you die, you restart at a recent checkpoint with full health and magic. The levels are a bit repetitive and, for the most part, lack variation. The first half of the game consists of variations on forests and canyons. Even by the time you get to the final stages, which take place in the castle, the actual structure isn't much different. Thankfully the core mechanics are tight enough that it remains fun all the way through, but some more interesting level designs would've been nice. In spite of this, the game really shines during the boss battles, which provide a good sense of challenge without being frustrating. Most battles take place on huge playing fields that span both horizontally and vertically, giving them a nicely epic feel.
You can make it through all ten stages with a single character in about two hours, but it's a fun experience that doesn't overstay its welcome. If you want more replay value, there's a combo system that demands that you constantly kill enemies to build up high body counts, and the game records high scores. If you want to devote yourself to it, there's a gallery of artwork, which reveals more artwork as you gain more points. There are a number of story segments, mostly at the beginning and before boss fights, although they're the usual cinematic video game fluff that's easily skippable. The graphics are generally decent, but not particularly remarkable. There are a couple of decent songs, including a remix of the original The Legend of Kage theme, but most of the Japanese inspired songs are pretty forgettable.
Even though it could've been a bit tighter in places, The Legend of Kage 2 is still a remarkably fun game that takes the basic components of the arcade game, refines them to remove any of its frustrations, and turns it into a quality title that any fan of side scrolling ninja action games are bound to enjoy.
In 1984, Taito developed an animated laserdisc game called Ninja Hayate. It's basically exactly like Dragon's Lair, in that you need to hit specific directions in cue with the onscreen action in order to survive. It details the story of a young ninja and his quest to infilitrate a castle to rescue his girl. The plot and characters look remarkably similar to The Legend of Kage, but despite sharing the same publisher, the games are not technically part of the same series. Still, they seem pretty obviously related. It was ported by Wolfteam to the Mega CD, and released in America for the Sega CD under the title Revenge of the Ninja. It was also ported to the PlayStation and Saturn as part of a bundle with Time Gal.