“Kelly seems to think you’ll face him like a glorious Samurai. Guess he doesn’t know Ninja.”
Mark of the Ninja is nothing if not a purified, unblemished example of the stealth genre. But just what is stealth? For me, stealth is about betraying the expectations of your adversary; it’s about fighting your opponents indirectly or perhaps not at all. It’s a thoughtful, meditative kind of warfare that rewards the thinker. Stealth is, for all practical purposes, a combative puzzle, and Mark of the Ninja epitomizes the mechanics of stealth.
The titular ninja of Mark of the Ninja shows extreme agility, and in a world where vents surreptitiously run under most floorboards and over many rooms, this makes his positioning opportunities lethal. When the game feels embarrassed about using even more vents as a means for traversal, my Ninja still has options. He can climb vertical walls with ease and scale certain ceilings like an insect. His wall jump is superior to Mario’s, and he wields a grappling hook better than Batman (and even does a passable impression of the Dark Knight when he’s dangling from a ledge, stringing up goons). If stealth is a puzzle, then Mark of the Ninja lays out a playing board that toes the line between choice and direction – there may only ever be a handful of ways around any one scenario, but the ninja eases into them naturally, gratifyingly.
He’s quick enough to move among guards almost unnoticed, deft enough to bounce over their field of vision, and nimble enough to weave between the games numerous vents and crawlspaces. My ninja is an extension of my mind – a servant of my thoughts as I work my way through the puzzle of secrecy.
Mark of the Ninja makes sure I know my place, and only part of this is because the game is in two dimensions. Ninja looks like a moody comic book, but its visual fidelity goes far beyond is attractive visuals, or its cutscenes that could have been cut from a comic cartoon adaptation. Mark of the Ninja tells me everything I need to know about its inner workings through its visuals. When I’m cloaked in darkness, my Ninja is black; imperceptible to anyone unless I break their cone of vision. When I step into light that’s traced clearly against the darkness, my ninja turns blue for all to see. Of course, it’s possible to throw a dart to destroy that light, but doing so will create noise. The game draws that noise into its world and every person within that sonar bubble will immediately begin searching for its source. Mark of the Ninja then highlights that investigation area in a circle.
The mechanics are as easy to execute as they are to visually decipher. There are no instances of confusion, no moments where I feel cheated.
Sneaking up on guards from behind, dragging them down into a vent, or distracting and confusing them with a noisemaker stimulates all of the usual joys of stealth: knowing that you’ve outwitted you’re opponent; knowing that you’ve solved the puzzle. This would lose its appeal after a while, but Mark of the Ninja never fails to introduce an unexpected challenge. As soon as I’ve mastered how to hide in the shadows, crouching behind a giant ornate jar and striking from cover, the game introduces sniffer dogs, requiring a wide berth of traversal. Later there are security systems that can detect movement, and guards roosting with sniper rifles, each new mechanical addition forcing me to stay true to the furtive, thoughtful nature of the game. Later, Mark of the Ninja adds lasers and switches, bringing the play even closer to that of your typical puzzle game.
Mark of the Ninja bestows me with the kind of movement befitting of a ninja, as well as the devious play style of one. It is more a puzzle than it is a world, or a story, or a simulation of something. It is gloriously meticulous in keeping me informed, in letting me know the rules, of letting me see the results of my actions. It slowly introduces deft new twists, constantly pushing me towards more inventive methods of sneakiness. In short, Mark of the Ninja is stealth in its purest form.