Every now and again, you come across a game that is nice enough to give you exactly what it says on the tin. In Super House of Dead Ninjas, you play as a ninja and you’re going to die. A lot. Although, technically you’re in a tower, not a house, but I suppose I’ll give the game a pass since it got the important parts of ninja and dead correct. Normally, rapid and repeated deaths is not a major selling point for anything, regardless if your product is a video game or hand sanitizer, as people tend to avoid things that are seeking to do them harm. Yet, while Super House of Dead Ninjas has its sights solely set on removing your head from your body in the bloodiest way possible, it’s only doing so because of how much it cares. This game is bloody, violent, difficult and a sadistic kind of fun that makes it hard to put down.
You play as the Crimson Ninja, a female ninja who at the start of the game is preparing to enter a place referred to as “the house of dead ninjas.” So right away we learn our protagonist is not great at pattern recognition, but that’s fine as she claims to be searching for something the other (dead) ninjas were not: the truth. The search for this truth will bring you through a large tower, with traps and dangers waiting to spring up and help you even more accurately reflect your namesake. While death is lurking around every corner and the story is relatively minimal, there is a sense of humor that still manages to come through. From the quirky comic that serves as a prologue and an instruction manual to the item descriptions to the booming narrator’s voice that taunts you each time you do something stupid, the game lets you know it’s having a great time killing you. The whole game is going for this retro feel, something it expertly captures in both presentation and gameplay.
The arsenal the game provides you with to tackle the tower is impressive, and you have a lot of options to select from when deciding what to use to skewer your foes. The variety is nice, and you have access to melee and ranged weapons in addition to bombs and magic. You start off with just your trusty katana and shurikens, but by completing various tasks you unlock new weapons, magic, and stat boosts that will help you through the tower. Making your way to the bottom might seem daunting at first, and your first couple times through you will find yourself dying and dying frequently. Fortunately, the game isn’t unreasonable and is nice enough to provide you with a couple of continues each time through, and you can unlock checkpoints every 150 floors when you defeat a boss. Combat is simple, but fun, and the controls are crisp and responsive. You’ll find yourself jumping over spikes, sliding down a wall, and plummeting sword first down chasm to slice an enemy in half, in something that is easy to execute yet tremendously satisfying. The controls are simple to learn and implement, and the gameplay in Super House of Dead Ninjas is well polished and addictive.
When you die, the game unceremoniously boots you back out to the starting screen without so much as thanking you for your time. Your progress is entirely lost and you have to start over either at the beginning or at one of the checkpoints you’ve unlocked. Typically, this sounds like a formula that would lead to a lot of frustration, tears, and dirty words, but the formula the game uses leaves you wanting to jump right back into the action without so much as a complaint. There is something about the randomization of the tower and the unforgiving difficultly that leaves you wanting to come back time and time again, not caring that death pretty much forces you to start over from the beginning. Like the Binding of Isaac and 99 Levels to Hell, Super House of Dead Ninjas is one of those seemingly simplistic games that is tremendously replayable. After dying you’ll find yourself thinking, “well, let me try just one more run” until you look up and realize that it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’ve been at it for several hours.
Part of the fun (and difficultly) arises from the fact that Super House of Dead Ninjas is always at your back, shoving you towards the slaughter. You are not given the option to dawdle, as if your timer runs out before you reach a treasure room or boss chamber, the game actually sends death out to go kill you. You can increase your time by finding time extensions littered throughout the level and the timer automatically resets each time you die, but all options pretty much force you forward at a rapid pace. Additionally, in order to enter the super powered invincible rage mode you need to build up your rage meter until it fills, but the bar is only increased by melee attacking enemies and decreases whenever you stop and take a breath. Thus, the game gives you an advantage for killing enemies as quickly as possible and punishes you if you wait around for too long by killing you. Super House of Dead Ninjas is an impatient kid, jumping up and down behind you and yelling that it’s bored if you haven’t decapitated someone in the past couple of seconds, and any time you take to look around at your surroundings is time the game considers time wasted not killing things. Some games give you items to seek out and spend time collecting. If you try that in Super House of Dead Ninjas, it sends out someone to kill you for wasting its time. While it might sound annoying, this ends up largely for the best as by driving you forward it keeps you constantly focused on the action, cramming every second of gameplay with as much blood, combat, and fun as possible.
Despite how enjoyable the game is, there are several small issues worth mentioning. While I do appreciate how dedicated the game is to moving me towards more action, at times it seems to do so at its own expense. There is a whole library of various power-ups you can unlock, but it is very rare to come across more than a couple in a single game because no time is allotted for exploration or looking around. Bombs and projectiles are all over the place, but the frantic speed at which the game sends you on your way leaves most of the other pick ups generally missing in action. Also, the bosses themselves tend to be a bit underwhelming and defeating them never is as challenging as it is getting to them, especially because this is the one time that the timer is fully removed. Most of them rely on only one easily avoidable attack, and their simplicity tends to be easily exploitable.
The bigger issue for most people is most likely going to be the fact that a free version of the game already exists that is still available at the adult swim website. While the Steam version boasts various additions, the free version of the game might not be different enough to lure people into a purchase when they can get pretty much the same experience for free. There are new items, bosses, and enemies, but these are relatively paltry additions to the original title. A map editor was also thrown in to let players design and share their own levels, but this is really the only noteworthy addition. Whether or not these additions are enough to distinguish it from the original version are a matter of opinion, but the package as a whole is still tremendously enjoyable and substantially cheaper than a lot of far less entertaining games.
Super House of Dead Ninjas is one of those rare games that is meant to serve as an homage to various gaming classics and yet manages to develop its own unique identity. This is a fast paced and bloody adventure that is always pushing you towards the next fight and batch of enemies because it can’t wait to kill you again. And, while Super House of Dead Ninjas is completely psychotic and wishes me nothing but harm, it is so thoroughly enjoyable that I kept crawling back for more. There are some minor design issues here and there, and it is essentially only a slightly improved version of a game that you can already find on the web for free, but this is a game that is really hard to pass up at its meager asking price, and even harder to stop playing. Now if you excuse me, the tower is looking to install a new swimming pool and I have already committed to donate several hundred more liters of ninja blood to the cause.