Isn’t it incredible how, even after all these retro-styled games coming out in the last few years, it’s still refreshing to see a game play into the 16-bit era nostalgia from the Sega Genesis side of the fence? Somehow it seems that every time a game comes forward to play into nostalgia, it’s always from the Nintendo point of view. Having mostly grown up with Nintendo products, that’s not something I entirely have a problem with, although it does feel that there’s way too many devs that seem to think pulling the same punches over and over again remains charming.
It gets even better when you realized that, despite the obvious nostalgic styling of the game, the references and sprite rips are kept to an absolute minimum. Rather than referring to well-known iconic characters, sounds, and areas, the references are kept entirely to the tone of the game. House of Dead Ninjas feels like a game that would have done well in the arcades mid ’90s. Which is why the game draws on a much more SEGA tone, especially in terms of sound design and color palette. Sega had way more arcade presence than Nintendo back then.
Super House of Dead Ninjas is very simple in design. You’re a ninja at the top floor of a gigantic tower. You have to find your way down, passing countless traps, enemies, treasure chests, and bosses. As you play, you unlock more power-ups and weapons to use for future dives. The game itself plays like a mix of Spelunky and Super Meat Boy, taking the roguelike risk-reward explorative play style into the fast-paced smooth controls of Super Meat Boy.
The result is a very polished action game with incredibly high replayability. As you grow more familiar with the tower and the controls, you start running down the tower at a faster pace. Because you’re not just trying to make your way down a tower filled with things that kill you in one hit, the game also times you while you make your way down. You have 30 seconds before Death himself starts chasing you down. Once he touches you, you’re dead. The way to deal with him is to either outrun him for as long as you can, or pick up extra time power-ups scattered through the dungeon. Still, the pressure remains at all times.
In the meantime, there’s a big risk-reward theme going on in Super House of Dead Ninjas. Not only are you rewarded for taking the extra time to run into dead ends and pick up treasure chests containing more power ups, but the game also rewards you for speeding things up and rushing your way down. Both risky endeavours in their own ways. Taking extra time can get you chased down by Death for taking too long, rushing ahead can easily get you killed. Still, if you chase ahead at full speed, killing all the enemies in your path, you’ll enter a Rage mode, which makes you invulnerable and lets you one-hit enemies. Each enemy killed gives you additional Rage time, so exploration becomes a lot harder if you want to sustain that state.
In a time where retro-styled nostalgia games are a near constant, Super House of Dead Ninjas still manages to make it fresh. Just for that alone, I absolutely adore the game. The fact that it makes me think of Spelunky while playing it is one of the biggest signs of respect I could give a game. Although I could go one step further and say that the frantic speed at which the game plays and the large focus on stylized slaying enemies while still being brought down so easily put me in mind of Viewtiful Joe.