I actually completed another game the other day! Mark of the Ninja had been on my plate for months; I’d play it intensely for a few days, then my attention would inevitably wander off to something else. That’s nothing against this game though, because now that I’ve beaten it, my verdict is this: Mark of the Ninja is the best stealth game I’ve ever played.
That sounds like hyperbole, and it comes with the caveat that I’m by no means an expert in the genre. At a point in the past, stealth games were a revelation to me. I devoured Metal Gear Solid on the PS1, greatly enjoyed the first three Splinter Cell games and have admired, but never completed (to my shame) the original Thief games. All of these are great games, but they were very much stealth games in the purest form. You control a character that must not be caught, but you have the means of disposing of the enemy. Not much has changed in the genre since then, so Mark of the Ninja really took me by surprise when it provided me with stealth gameplay that is superior to all three of the aforementioned legends. The kicker is: Mark of the Ninja is also a 2D platformer.
In MotN, you control a Ninja on a mission to stop a technologically advanced enemy. It’s about infiltrating their multiple complexes, and along the way you have to sneak by guards, dogs, movement-sensitive cameras, laser beams and so on. What makes MotN such a joy to play though is the expressiveness of the gameplay. It differentiates itself from games like Splinter Cell in the way that it rewards every single Ninja-type action with points. That means if you hide behind a vase and a guard passes by, the moment he does it (for the first time), you get some points. When you knock out/kill a guard, you get points. When you hide a body in a dumpster, you get points, and when you dangle a body from up high and a guard sees it and freaks out in terror, you get points. The beautiful thing here is that this system encourages and rewards all these stealthy actions with points equally. You don’t need to adhere to being super aggressive or super sneaky. MotN wants you to find your own preferred style and play it your way. It’s not like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution for example, where the game ultimately wants you to play in a more pacifist way.
All this wouldn’t amount to much if the controls weren’t up to snuff. But they are. I played it with a gamepad, and once you wrap your head around the context sensitivity of the button layouts, you feel in total control. Other than that, level design is also hugely important. While to objectives are quite linear, the environments allow for a good degree of free-roam. Often you’ll find yourself with the task to get to a room, but there are multiple paths to get there. And even within one path, there are a multitude of ways to bypass obstacles. So in that way, MotN is a real sandbox of stealth gameplay. There’s a lot of room for experimentation, and because of the way it rewards it, it feels like a breath of fresh air compared to other titles in the genre.
The beautiful 2D art looks good in screenshots, but it’s much better in motion. And even better when you’re actually jumping, climbing and sneaking in these environments yourself. The animation is top-notch, especially for the main character. You inevitably will feel like a ninja. In that way, MotN really appeals to the inner child in me. I would run around, grapple-hook on top of chandeliers and do somersaults over unsuspecting guards just for the heck of it. It’s a joy.
Story wise, you get a pretty bare bones setup that really just exists to give everything a fictional frame of reference. The story really doesn’t impose itself on the game too much, and there are few cutscenes. The ones that are there are brief and actually quite entertaining to watch. You’re a ninja from a ninja clan. Some mercenary corporation attacks your hidden compound. You are sent to kill their leader. It does get more interesting at the end, and the finale was actually really well done. All in all, MotN knows that it has such great gameplay that story purposefully takes the back seat here, and it’s not really any worse for it.
My verdict would be that Mark of the Ninja is a great stealth game that seamlessly takes its place alongside the genre greats. The beautiful presentation, tight control and – above all – expressive stealth gameplay make it a joy to play. It’s got great replay value because achievement hunting and exploring different playstyles keep the missions fresh and interesting even if you know their layouts by heart. It’s light on story, but that is a purposeful design decision. The fact that this game single-handedly invented a gameplay formula for 2D stealth gameplay that works this well impresses the heck out of me and reminds me of the design brilliance of the original Thief. If you’re a fan of the genre, you really should’ve played this by now. And even if you’re not, it’s accessible enough for newbies to give it a good shot.