If action films and pop culture of the 80’s have taught us anything, it’s that ninjas are the most awesome things ever.

Need to rescue anybody? Get some ninjas. Need to vanquish a group of mercenaries? Break out the ninjas. Got evil demons invading your city? – bam, ninjas! Think that sounds a tad impractical? Well, you’d be dead wrong, as even just one ninja could be more than enough to get the job done. Naturally, an obscene amount of ninja games came out for every console/cabinet/you-name-it across the board then. Even games that had nothing to do with ninjas would often just throw them in there for good measure. They’re a lot of hits and misses within this “genre,” and every so often one can fall through the cracks and fade into the ether, no matter how ambitious – Enter Wrath of the Black Manta for the NES.

False advertising

Wrath of the Black Manta was released by Taito (Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble) in April 1990 for North America. It was originally released in Japan the previous November as Ninja Cop Saizou with a good number of changes being made when crossing the Pacific.

Our story begins in New York City in the late 80’s with Black Manta, the ever-ready warrior of the night, is apparently just casually wearing his ninja gear around the house. He’s greeted by his sensei who looks a bit like a backlit Mr.Miyagi. Manta addresses his sensei with nothing but the utmost and deepest respect…

And yes, he’ll keep that stern look of worry throughout the whole game.

Turns out “Miyagi” needs Manta to go on a rescue mission as an epidemic of kidnappings has been going on around the city for some time. But now that his pupil Taro has been taken and it’s become a personal matter, it’s time to finally get around addressing the issue.

Starting out, Manta has an endless supply of throwing stars and his short sword for close range combat. “Miyagi” will give Manta new ninja magic at the ends of stages such as lightning, teleportation, fire, etc. If he really wanted Manta to get Taro back faster, he would give him all the spells from the start, but whatever. The controls are decent enough but could be a bit more fluid. The cover art has him as a black-clad ninja flying through the air doing a sweet jump kick with a kama in one hand and a wakizashi in the other, but in actuality there are no jump kicks of any kind, and Manta moves like an angry dad, sternly walking to his kid’s room to tell them to turn the music down… And the elephant in the room – the purple, short-sleeved ninja gear kind of stands out during the daytime.

The plot of the game does do a pretty good job of keeping up the mystery of the kidnappings until you find out they’re the work of a vague global organization that wants to be a drug empire, and also kidnap children, and run a campaign of terror, and simply rule the world. They’ve got a lot on their plate. You eventually find that the evil El Toro is the mastermind behind this criminal enterprise known simply as DRAT (Drug Runners And Terrorists). Rule of thumb: never let Charlie Brown name your violent terrorist organization.

From the Big Apple to Japan, to Rio, and back to New York, Manta is racking up the frequent flyer miles chasing down El Toro all over the map. Throughout these levels, you’ll get clues via notes left by Taro in his wake as he’s being transported around, so it’s a good thing he grabbed a huge pack of stationery before his abduction. Manta can also nab villains to put in choke holds and interrogate. Typically, they say they know nothing and don’t seem especially intimidated by Manta. At one point, the latter even has to resort to threatening to turn one of them over to the police. So in spite of the game’s title, Manta’s running a bit low on the wrath as he basically just trusts what anyone tells him, deals out empty threats, and tortures no one.

This makes for one of the more interesting parts of the US version; Manta’s pretty chatty and has some weird conversations with people he encounters. I have to add that, around 1990, when you weren’t hearing “Homey don’t play that!” or “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” ad nauseam, “Just Say No” and other anti-drug messages were heavily woven into the fabric of social conversations. Video games in the U.S. were no exception and were really pushing the message as well so this game has a strong vibe to keepin’ it straight-edge in lieu of just sticking to a plot like Ninja Cop Saizou does. Text was even altered for one scene in which Manta goes so far as to question a woman he just rescued on her potential drug usage, entirely out of the blue.

That’s the tip of the awkward iceberg on dialogue though. Another little gem is Manta browbeating a thug..

Though the levels get a bit harder as you progress, the challenge is offset by the magic Manta gets between levels, making the game generally consistent. There are shoot-em-up parts to some levels where you battle ninjas while both parties are equipped with kite/magic carpet things and the last level borrows from Shinobi with Manta as a wireframe in a first-person perspective, throwing shurikens at assassins. Boss battles are pretty interesting with 20-foot tall men, voodoo warriors, magic ninjas and bi-ped robot guards. As far as the music, it’s decent enough to pass as a level of a later Mega Man installment, but lordy, does it get repetitive.

So once you defeat El Toro and save Taro, the day is saved. Manta turns out to have been Jon Favreau all along, and gets a promotion from “Miyagi.”

Manta has clearly mastered the art of Ju-fro.

Ninja Cop Saizou is a bit longer, with a much different art style, some weirder elements and is a bit more crazy and/or fun overall. Even the final boss is an evil alien drug lord wants to build a worldwide drug empire comprised of kidnapped children, poorly informed thugs, and magic carpet wielding ninjas…. sounds like the plot to a pretty sweet 80’s action film.

You rescue Eric Roberts in Manta and Kate Micucci in the Japanese version, it would seem.

While not a great game, it does have good points in that it tries to be a hybrid of the better aspects of other more successful games while keeping a good level of quirkiness throughout, even if it can come across as a PSA at times. So give it a whirl, but the Famicom’s Ninja Cop Saizou is arguably a bit more polished.

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Michael A. Jones     nerdsintheburbs@gmail.com     www.nerdsintheburbs.com

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