So the Katana is Back

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Like black clothes and classic jams, some things never go out of style, and we might as well just pin ninjas to the list now and forever. The contemporary idea of a ninja is both ubiquitous and free of much historical veracity, but it makes up for that with an enduring sense of immaculately trained dexterity and panache. Ninjas are gracefully lethal, positioning them as quintessential videogame fodder, and they’re coming back around again with 2019 as the latest year of the ninja. Sekiro leads the clan so far, but let us refrain from burning our fingers on more From Software-related hot takes, and instead consider a couple of upcoming slash n’ dash games presented at PAX East this past week.

Katana ZERO is a Devolver Digital game by developer askiisoft that’s been simmering in the side-light for a few years. Nintendo Switch has scooped up the first release date though, with all its 80’s cyber-samurai tracking warp and wobble. You play as an indestructible assassin cutting through neon, mob grunts, and cryptic marks alike, who is also dealing with some memory and time-displacement issues. There’s no health, as it’s a one-touch-and-done affair, but the premise is that your main character has precognition—so each failed run through a level is just you plotting the perfect path, accounting for every potential threat until you settle on the ideal (or at least good enough) way to the end. It’s a fantastic narrative explanation for the repeated death and dismemberment of a main character, which one will undergo many again and again throughout this game.

The closest analog is the Mega Man Zero series, which set a high standard for galloping through levels with a flashing blade. Katana ZERO may not have been directly influenced but the shades are apparent and well-earned, with a taut friction that sings as you discover enough about a level to transcend the controller and execute a flawless plan. On top of all that, askiisoft has included an extensive tributary of dialog options to suss out the narrative. There’s no inherent worth to speaking to people with aggression over patient capitulation, but answering different NPCs with distinct attitudes will lead towards separate ends and effects on some levels as well.

Katana ZERO does not hold a monopoly on futuristic sword-swinging action for 2019. PAX East  also brought the recently announced Yacht Club and Mechanical Head Studios game Cyber Shadow, which makes perfect sense given Yacht Club’s well-earned reputation for drilling into the nostalgic pleasures of 8-bit era aesthetics and experiences through Shovel Knight. Cyber Shadow reps its model a little more clearly, playing on the techno-organic shinobi futurism of Ninja Gaiden with the clarity of a bell’s chime.

My time with Cyber Shadow was short but succulent. There’s a shake more to the dance in this one, dodging robotic drones and projectiles as you weave your way through rusted cities and haywire machinery. The NES homage is tight so far, which makes sense given that the developer scrapped the game after four years of work to restart with a clean slate after having learned so much on the first pass. The sprites shine and the levels shimmy and flow, propelling you forward to cut down each enemy with many satisfying slices.

So the katana is back, and it thrills this dusty heart to no end. And while ninjas are timeless that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved upon, as Katana ZERO gives us a compelling new explanation for our repeated failures as merely a thought experiment to the impeccable run, and Cyber Shadow combines the best parts of a robo-dystopia with non-stop romp of breezy death. Ninja games are my foundation, the ur-text of my education with a controller, and I’m as eager as ever to prove myself with the blade in two stylish dimensions again.

Casting Deep Meteo, Games