Review | Rubber Ninjas
Format: PC | Genre: Fighting | Publisher: Rag Doll Software | Developer: Rag Doll Software | Release Date: 25/07/09 | RRP: $19.95
By Fraser McMillan
Fighting games are, like RPGs, notoriously homogenous in their structure. Going by the name of the genre alone, you’d be unlikely to conceive of a template so standardised – or, indeed, the one-on-one, 2D versus set-up at all. In every RPG, we are accustomed to expect reams of stats, levels, loot etc., but think for a moment of what ‘role playing’ actually means.
Presented with just the bare-bones definition, one could expect to assume a character’s persona and ‘act’ with it in the context of their surroundings. The genre, however – lifted almost wholesale from ancient tabletop RPGs – is mired in fantasy, hit points, turn-based combat and the +8 Enchanted Blades of Doomhammer. Is, let’s say, Far Cry 2 an RPG then? By genre definition, not at all; by literal definition, absolutely.
Similarly, the fighting genre has its own perplexingly explicit tropes. We then have the less prevalent but similarly particular beat-‘em-up and so on. Their titles mean absolutely nothing, but we know what they entail because a single release boasted its own type and a pantheon of imitators followed, forming the basis for the genre.
Rubber Ninjas, the newest release from Rag Doll Software (a.k.a. Matteo Guarnieri), is a definitely a fighting game in the literal sense, and ostensibly the genre classification as well – two or more models pummel one another over two axes. In reality, though, it’s an entirely alien entity. Superficial parallels can be ignored because, mechanically, Rubber Ninjas is like little else aside from its forebear Ragdoll Masters.
//Using your fingers
It’s probably the best not-a-fighting-game-fighting-game ever made, though admittedly those that fit such a concentrated description could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. Rubber Ninjas is great fun and ticks almost all the boxes a fighting game should: easy to pick-up-and-play, tough to master; it contains surprising depth; there are a variety of styles to have a crack at; there’s an element of strategy; the multiplayer is excellent. It’s concurrently familiar and an altogether different beast, and here’s why: simplicity.
Fighting-game-fighting-games are notoriously demanding. They require extraordinary dedication and reflexes, daring devout fans to program lengthy move lists to muscle memory in order to merely compete. In other words, they’re super hardcore. Rubber Ninjas bothers with none of this nonsense. Four buttons tug the player’s floppy avatar to and fro, with its comically exaggerated flails making for some surprisingly awesome moves. Think Team America’s puppet fight, but more wobbly.
Whenever one ninja bounces off of the other hard enough – depending on which body parts made contact – damage is dealt, with individual sections of the model highlighted if hit. Blood-like stars shower fiercely from each wound, occasionally consuming the entire screen in an insane clusterfuck. Some of the attacks can appear mercilessly brutal, and the vague controls offer just enough influence so as to preserve the element of skill. Tactics may be diluted to timed flails, but they’re there, and the spectacle of each fight is really something. There’s something hilarious about the way the ninjas move, rag-dolling all over the place as they do, and Guarnieri has made a fantastic job of collision detection to ensure everything looks and feels right. When contact is made, the camera zooms in and displays the near-miss, block or attack at the coolest possible angle, doing all sorts of Matrix-esque spinning to enhance the effect.
Weapons, rather than being arbitrary double damage sticks as they are in other fighting games, have a spatial impact that imbues each with its own value. As well as affecting the dummies’ physics, they are effectively – as real clubs and swords are – extensions of the person. A bloody great big stick actually has the properties of a bloody great big stick, which is nice to see. Included in the full version is the two player mode in which both character model and weapon can be chosen before bouts, and it’s an absolute riot. Thanks to the unpredictability of the fighting mechanic as a whole it has a zany, slapstick appeal, and triumph over the opponent after a drawn-out bout of dodging and frustration is to be savoured.
The single-player campaigns change things up often enough to retain interest, the shallow controls holding their own for a good few hours. It’s a casual fighting game, no doubt about it, but it’s almost perversely engaging for exactly that reason. Sadly, it loses its sheen for chronic lack of personality, with the sphere of combat only serving as a background image. Too many games use this aesthetic for it to remain visually arresting, and though it fits well and makes sense, throwing the little ninjas into a Street Fighter inspired market or beach hut would have done wonders.
Mechanically, it’s probably one of the best fighters ever, especially for those of us who want to feel like we’re actually beating the faecal matter out of someone. Unfortunately, uninspired music and visuals mean it burns out before its time, but with a bigger team, a little more time and a bit of added flair, this engine could go a long way. Thankfully, a purchase secures user-made campaigns and continuing development builds, so perhaps it’s something to look forward to in future. Still, we’ve got the best non-fighting-game-fighting-game of all time to enjoy until then.