1-bit Ninja is 8 bits of awesome

There’s a word I kept coming back to over and over while playing 1-Bit Ninja. I just couldn’t seem to shake it as I played though this game that looked like it belonged on the old Game Boy and felt like Super Mario Bros. The levels looked deceptively simple but became devilishly difficult, and still I couldn’t shake the word out of my brain. As I struggled to complete a level my wife asked me what I thought of the game. “I think… I think it’s brilliant,” I said.

As I said in the intro, this is a Super Mario style platforming game where you run from left to right through a 2D level, jumping chasms, hurdling obstacles and killing bad guys — all just to try and reach the end. Along the way you’ll collect coins that add points and sometimes extra lives, all in that elusive quest to reach the safe harbor at the end of each level. Nothing out of the ordinary there, if you’ve played a game in the last 30 years you’ve seen something like this. Though, that’s only partially true.

I’m one of those people that never reads the instructions or plays through a tutorial if I can help it for action type games. I enjoy the exploration and discovery of not only playing a game, but figuring it out. This meant I was left to discover for myself the things that really set 1-Bit Ninja apart. Or, as I said above… makes it brilliant.

When I first started up the game it was easy enough to size up. Ok, simple Super Mario – clone got it, I’m sure there are virtual controls down here to move and jump. All par for the course. So I start running to the right and jump to grab some coins. I missed one so I go to turn around, and that’s when it dawns on me – you can’t turn around. There’s no control to move left and right, just “forward.” It’s impossible to just turn around and move the other way.

There’s something super interesting about limiting the controls to such a high degree. You’ll be in a situation where you’re just past jumping a getting a coin, like IT’S RIGHT THERE… but there’s nothing you can do to get it. You get one shot, better hit it as you run by or lose it forever. I concede this will largely be a matter of personal preference, but I think that’s brilliant.

1-bit Ninja 1-bit Ninja

Then there’s the concept that maybe this 2D side scroller really isn’t as 2D as you thought it was. While tapping the bottom of the screen will make you run and jump, manipulating the top half of the screen changes the camera view of your “2D” play field. All the sudden you’ll see depth, like flipping the camera in Super Paper Mario. You can twist and turn it, and it never stops being amazing. It also lets you look around the level to find hidden treasure and shortcuts. The effect and feeling of grabbing the world and twisting is fantastic… and brilliant.

Is there much to 1-Bit Ninja? No, not really. For the most part it’s what’s not included in the game that really sets it apart from other games like it. The graphics take the retro look to another level and put this squarely in black and kinda-white game boy camp. The controls limit you even moreso, taking away your ability to turn around simply. On the opposite end, the 3D plane manipulation gives you the classic Keanu from the Matrix “Whoa” reaction. Combine all that with infectious classic gameplay and I’m sure you’ll agree that 1-Bit Ninja is, well, brilliant.