Playing 1-bit Ninja (£1.19/$1.99) by Kode80 is like gorging yourself on a large plate of retro flavoured spaghetti bolognese: familiarly delicious, but thanks to a unique arrangement of seasoning, an entirely new dish of tastiness in its own right too. The unique flavour is here created by a controversial control scheme and a clever camera trick.
The aim of the game is to help ninja (the jumpy protagonist) traverse stylised platforming environments before time runs out. Along the way, collecting “bits” (like Mario’s coins) increases your score, whilst tracking down the five “big bits” in a level unlocks two extra modes, free look and 3D mode. Touching the lower left side of the screen moves you forwards, whilst pressing the lower right of the screen makes ninja jump – there is no way to move backwards. This control mechanic does take some getting used to, but the challenge that it creates would be completely destroyed should the controls be any different. The top of the screen is dedicated to a 3D camera: swipe across this area of the screen, and the 2D level transforms into a 3D perspective, revealing hidden pathways through which the previously mentioned big bits can often be accessed.
The inclusion of limiting controls and a 3D camera opens up opportunities for subtle puzzles and challenges within levels. Working out how to get across levels in the quickest, highest scoring way whilst collecting big bits, beating the timer and (most importantly) not dying becomes addictive to the extreme. The unique control scheme is tailored to reflexes. Split second jumps can be the difference between reaching a platform and falling into nothingness. Moving forwards at the wrong time can mean that you won’t be able to reach parts of a level without replaying it. Failing to spot hidden pathways with the 3D camera means that you’ll miss new routes through a level. Everything in the game is geared towards replayability, creating a game with incredible longevity despite it only containing 20 levels.
Perhaps the thing that I enjoy the most about 1-Bit Ninja is that it is hard. Very hard. Enemies saunter menacingly towards you, arrows threaten to pierce unlucky parts of your anatomy, springs fling you in different directions and the distance between platforms always seems too large to be crossed. As a consequence of this difficulty, completing levels is immensely satisfying, and progression feels well deserved. The difficulty could also be the largest flaw of the game: if you don’t want a challenge, don’t download 1-Bit Ninja. It can be frustrating, enraging, infuriating. It will chew your fingers, and time, to pieces.
Aurally and visually, 1-Bit Ninja sings with nostalgic joy. Its creator, Ben Hopkins, writes that some of his ‘favorite early gaming memories are Game + Watch and Gameboy’, and these games’ influence on the app is obvious. Every level shines with a simple, crisp retro sheen.
Overall, 1-Bit Ninja is a pleasure to play. Its difficulty and unusual control scheme may put some people off, but for others are likely to be what makes the game brilliant. There are things missing – no Game Center integration, for a start – but this takes very little away from the core experience. Put simply, if you want an addictive challenge, download 1-Bit Ninja as soon as you possibly can. It’s worth every penny.
Overall Rating: 9/10