I'm very, very happy with Klei's latest endeavor. With Shank 2, the studio put out what was, at the time, the only PSN or XBLA title I was prepared to suggest stood alongside its full-budget counterparts in terms of quality; a genre-defining brawler. With Mark of the Ninja, they've done it again with an entirely different gameplay formula. It's easily the best game - the most complete, considered and polished product - that the studio has ever released, and in the review I try to break it down to its component parts in order to explain how this design plus these graphics plus those controls equals awesome - but let's simplify.
I called Mark of the Ninja a "landmark" game. And there's only two reasons for that - it's a gorgeously crafted 2D stealth game.
Does anyone else remember playing Sonic on their Genesis or Super Mario World on the SNES and thinking "man, this game is gorgeous. Just think of how good-looking things will be next-gen!"
And then, the next gen never came.
Prior to 1994, Nintendo owned gaming, and gaming had always looked much the same: 2D sprites. There were the occasional polygonal games on PCs and in arcades, but sprites still won the day - they were even used to represent your weapons and enemies in Doom (1993) - but with the advent of the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64, sprites all but went the way of the dodo.
Now, I'm not knocking 3D graphics. The first time I actually played Super Mario 64, I could only describe it as "a religious experience." Honestly - standing at a Toys R Us kiosk, running through Mario 64 for the first time felt like being touched by the hand of God - but it still feels like we lost something important, along the way.
|Super Mario 64 (1996)|
Occasionally, nowadays, we'll get the odd throwback game - heavily-pixelated retro games (Mega Man 10) or homages (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game), and every now and then Nintendo will offer up titles that are directly designed to plug into our nostalgia receptors, but... when I imagined how good games could look in the future, it wasn't like this:
|Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010)|
|Muramasa: The Demon Blade (2009)|
Vanillaware - a small, heaven-sent Japanese studio - has kept 2D graphics alive the entire time polygons were having their way with the industry. With Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn, Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire on the PS2 and Muramasa: The Demon Blade on the Wii. (Vanillaware's Grand Knights History, a strategy RPG for the PSP, was never localized to North America, though its upcoming PS3/Vita title Dragon's Crown looks good for a Western release).
For the most part - for the past decade, at least - Vanillaware was pretty much it. Vanillaware and a few humble indie studios trying their best, of course. Last year, Ubisoft - of all companies - stepped up to the 2D plate with the stunning Rayman: Origins.
|Rayman: Origins (2011/2012)|
And... that's about it. Oh! Except for one humble indie studio trying its best, which managed to really stand out. They did a game in 2010 called Shank, and its sequel dropped this year:
|Shank 2 (2012)|
I hardly want every game to employ 2D sprites - cool as it sounds, I don't need to play a 2D sprite-based BioShock or Dead Space - but there is something to be said for 2D graphics. Not every (or even most) games should be in 2D, but the perspective offers limitations and freedoms that three dimensional space can't.
Mark of the Ninja has 2D graphics. Slick, sharp 2D graphics crafted with genuine artistry, grounded in the game's mechanics.
|Mark of the Ninja (this past Friday)|
"So what?" one might say. "Does the fact that a game is 2D automatically make it cool?"
It makes it different, that's for sure. And heck, any old game can be 2D. Kirby's Epic Yarn was 2D, and no one was flipping out over it - but that purposeful presentation, the fixed perspective which allows for those insanely detailed, fluid animations can be just delicious, when properly executed.
A game can't merely be made of 2D sprites. In order to be one of the great ones - one of the special ones - it needs to be some glorious 2D. It needs to be really, really well-done, or it's not worth talking about.
The fact that it's both 2D and well-done is what makes it worth talking about - and there are currently only three high-level studios in the world dedicating themselves to this honorable pursuit; Vanillaware, Ubisoft Montpellier and Klei Entertainment.
And Klei Entertainment is proving to be... prolific. And more importantly, capable.
The second blooming feather in Mark of the Ninja's cap is the simple fact that it's a wonderfully playable stealth title - in direct contrast to the standard bearers of the genre. All due props to Metal Gear Solid and Hitman, but Mark of the Ninja is funner to play than you are - and let's face it, you haven't exactly been around lately.
Mark of the Ninja feels rather akin to Portal 2 in that regard. After a thousand shooting-man games, a thousand hitting-man games, a thousand role-playing games, here's something different. And not merely different, but excellent.
"Imagine if you spent ten years having only toast, eggs and a cup of coffee for breakfast. And not just you, but everyone. The same breakfast every day for ten years.
And it's cool - after all, you love toast, eggs and coffee - and after ten years, it's all you could imagine eating for breakfast. Eggs are yummy. Perfectly poached with the tiniest sprinkling of salt and a nice dash of pepper. Coffee, patiently made in a French press. That stuff is scrumptious - your morning meal is all you want it to be, and complete.
Then one day, someone drops two slices of bacon on your plate. And not just bacon, but some of the best bacon that's ever been flayed from the side of a swine. You chew with a wide, childish smile of pleasure - because it may have disappeared for a decade, but when it's good, bacon is fucking delicious.
Portal 2Mark of the Ninja is similarly ambrosial."
-from the Portal 2 review (slightly edited)-
So are those really my only two points? It's a well-presented 2D stealth game that doesn't suck?
Yes they are. Really, either of those two facets alone are enough to be notable. Together, they're supernatural. It's rare to be 2D, and glorious when done right. Even more difficult is tracking down a well-made pure stealth game from the past half-decade that doesn't have Snake on the cover.
There's nothing else like Mark of the Ninja. Klei are one of only three studios in the world dedicating themselves to gorgeous, high-quality, proudly-animated 2D action gaming, and similarly one of only three (current) studios to have actually mastered the stealth genre - a genre thick with mistaken pretenders to its crown, resulting in some of the worst games of our time.
And that's why I love Mark of the Ninja. It's so much of what I love in gaming, with none of the flaws so common in 2D, so common in stealth. It's the sublime, salty bacon I haven't had a whiff of since 2008 - and easily the most exciting game of the summer, if not the year.
Try the demo.
* * *
I'll admit, I'm unhappy it's not on PS3. Or better yet, the Vita.