Full disclosure: Klei provided me a free Xbox Live Arcade download code for Mark of the Ninja for this article.
Mark of the Ninja — developer Klei Entertainment's 2D stealth action game which launches today on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft points (or 15 human dollars) — accomplishes something that a lot of titles have struggled with for years: It makes you feel like a badass without constantly calling attention to the fact that you are one.
We talk a lot about video games "empowering" players or providing a "toolbox," but what that usually amounts to is slowly turning the main character into a little god who creates increasingly large explosions while saying things like, "GRRRAAAAAAAAAAAH" and "HRRRRRRGH!"
Mark of the Ninja doesn't need to do that. You're a ninja, damn it, and that's enough. In this capacity, you can climb on walls, disappear into the shadows, and unleash a variety of sneaky weapons and traps to evade, terrify, and dispatch your enemies.
In short, your character has the mobility of Spider-Man, the arsenal of Batman, and the quiet confidence not to make a big deal out of any of it. That's what makes him so cool and so fun to control.
Action films in the '80s and '90s introduced the concept of "Wise-Ass Action Man," who is not content simply to do crazy, badass things all the time; he also has to make a clever joke afterwards.
Wise-Ass Action Man hits Random Guard with a banana.
Random Guard: Ooof! That banana really hurts!
Wise-Ass Action Man: I'm sorry you don't find it a-peel-ing.
Wise-Ass Action Man throws Random Guard 2 into a convenient piece of heavy machinery.
Random Guard 2: Oh, fuck! It's crushed my body from the waist down!
Wise-Ass Action Man: Talk about getting your ass in gear.
Wise-Ass Action Man flings a rabid badger into Random Guard 3's face.
Wise-Ass Action Man: When you get to Hell, tell Mr. Toad I said "Hello."
Random Guard 3: God damn you, Wise-Ass Action Man! The jokes hurt more than the badger!
This is all a lot of fun, sure, and game characters like Bulletstorm's Grayson Hunt and Shadows of the Damned's Garcia Hotspur have continued the tradition. But what happens when you're a ninja?
The Ninja emerges from the shadows, slipping his sword into Other Random Guard's throat.
Random Guard: hurrglglglglglglbleh
The Ninja: …
From a vantage point high above the floor, The Ninja tosses a firecracker across the room. Random Guard 2 hears the noise and goes to investigate. The Ninja takes advantage of the guard's moment of distraction to sneak up from behind and dispatch him with a single slice of his katana.
Random Guard 2: OH NO MY BLOOOOOOOOOOD
The Ninja: …
The Ninja executes a series of complex acrobatic maneuvers, crossing a room and killing every guard in sight. His sword flashes like the sun, and his hands — less sharp but equally deadly — move like the eager wings of a hummingbird. He is a dealer at the Blackjack table, and his cards are death itself. His every movement is as perfect as his aim, and when he has completed his work, the bodies of his enemies litter the floor like the scattered leaves of a lonesome tree.
The Ninja: …
Surely, we have room for both. But it's refreshing in these days of non-stop wisecracks to see a developer take the more minimalist path with its hero. The Ninja doesn't have to point out how badass he is because we know. And I yell it at the screen while I'm playing, anyway, so it's pretty well covered.