Most people might take their stealth tips from Solid Snake or Sam Fisher. Me, I'm more in tune with, uh, the Kool-Aid man. Seriously. Just burst into the room in the most reckless way possible and "problem solve" by shooting people up close in the face—that's how I do things. Patience, finesse and furtiveness aren't my thing.
So before starting Mark of the Ninja up, I assumed my brash nature would be at odds with what the 2D game required of me. I was right—at first. The game starts with the assumption that you are already a smooth killing machine, and the pith lies in the tension between a player's clumsiness and the eventual embodiment of the refined ninja. The ultimate revelation comes in the transformation, in the metaphorical gain of the black belt. The game teaches you to feel at home in the shadows, to become quick on your feet, to bear the mark of the ninja proudly, with honor. And honor is one of the most important things in the game, but more on that in a second.
This much I can tell you about the premise, because I had a difficult time piecing the narrative together and not only is it lackluster, it's not really why you'll be playing the game anyway. You're a ninja. You're a part of a clan that is endangered. And there's a corporate giant of sorts that threatens you. You bear the mark of the ninja, which is dangerous and will eventually require you to kill yourself. But before then, you're to rid the world of Evil Dudes—and you know they're evil because they hide behind their technological doodads and you, you have honor. Honor means fighting with your sword, your fists, and using tools like smokebombs and bamboo daggers.
A curious approach to characterizing the Ninja, given that a quick Wikipedia search tells me that though their unorthodox methods of warfare allowed them to specialize in infiltration, sabotage and assassination, it was the samurai who upheld rules about honor. Doesn't hiding in the shadows and killing people secretly strike you as...well, not honorable? Wouldn't an honorable fight mean a no frills one on one where both people can see each other? And plus, it's not like that sword and dagger aren't technology either, no? Most things around you is technology, tech isn't just stuff like computers. So Mark of the Ninja strikes me like a (typical) conflation of Asian folklore combined with a naive, but common portrayal of how technology inherently erodes tradition (and ruins everything). Still, both of these aspects inform the mechanics and the narrative immensely.
The bulk of the game boils down to having a place that you must infiltrate, and the obstacles in your way change as you progress. First it largely involves mitigating a guard's field of vision and their patrol path while maximizing your own economy of movement. Not stealth—not because this isn't a stealth game, but because stealth is not necessary to traverse the levels of Mark of the Ninja. This isn't a negative thing. Those like me, the initially clumsy and unrefined types, won't get heavily punished for being unable to be sneaky enough.
It wasn't uncommon for me to go into a room and mess up, have something notice me, and then have to run away while alarms went off. And I could try again and again, for getting away—be it running back to the darkness, or going into a vent—was easy. Thankfully! Feeling like I got slapped in the face whenever I made a mistake in other stealth games would make me resolve to defy the game and do things my way. I mean, if I'm going to get caught anyway, might as well have some fun with it, right? Screw it. But here, trial and error wasn't frustrating. Once you become fluent in the language of the game, you can start doing things the "right" way. Move without being seen. Give your enemies more than just a "peasant's death," which is where you don't kill your enemies gracefully and silently. Or don't kill anyone at all—have it be like you weren't even there.
To be clear, Mark of the Ninja may not be harsh for being inept, but it doesn't reward you for it, either. You get a higher score if you play the way a ninja would, and levels have special sub-challenges that award you better scores and unlocks (and give you reason to revisit levels). That's probably where stealth veterans will find something to do. Having the game tally your performance at the end, with a count of who you killed, who you sneaked by, and so on, in conjunction with becoming comfortable with the way the game worked was the central motivator in learning how to truly become a ninja.
I saw how much better I could be doing, and I got a taste of the devilish satisfaction that comes with, say, slitting an enemy's throat and then throwing them off an edge without others noticing, that the game indirectly encouraged me to become better at it. It was like having the silent hardass—maybe a teacher, or a parent—grade your performance, coming up short, and then scrambling to meet their expectations. Because the truth of it is, they know you're capable of more—but you have to realize it and and apply yourself. Until then all you see is a constant reminder of imperfection—loud footsteps, spotted traps, alarms set off. It's just a matter of how much of of it you're willing to accept...a matter of honor, you might say. Appropriate, then, that levels score you by enumerating your "total honor."
As you go on, the levels become more complex through all sorts of additions—from guard dogs, to shielded enemies, to lasers and deadly gas and even weather effects. Most of these kept the game interesting and varied as you had to reconsider how to move through. At first these are simple configurations, but eventually you move onto complicated spaces bursting with things that can see me or kill me. The way you barely have any room to move seems daunting. But at that point, the game had taught me its secret art. I would crack my knuckles, and tackle the most well-guarded rooms. Still, the moments when the game shone the most tended to when it had just a few guards looking in the worst places (for me). No special high-security gadgets needed, just tight level design with a predilection for letting me approach infiltration in a handful of ways. Mark of the Ninja has this in
The exception was when the game started including too many puzzles that involved crates blocking lasers from eviscerating you. Initially something that mixed things up, eventually it became a cause for frustration that didn't feel like it added anything to the game. Other than cursing, I mean.
The ways you can approach the levels also evolve as you go along, too. You start off with items like daggers, which can break lights or smack a guard to catch their attention, and smoke bombs, which can trick sensors and give you room to escape. Then you get fancy stuff like flesh eating bugs, and you learn more complicated moves, like dangling someone out of the ceiling. Heck, you even get a cardboard box at one point—as you should!
I tended to stick to setting up a mine, then throwing a noisecracker that would draw enemies toward it. Sometimes my killing was more personal, in which case I'd have to catch the guard looking away from me, at which point I'd be prompted to press x and either left or right (determined at random). Not meant to be a challenge per se, but it's a good way to monitor if a player doesn't have patience and pushes buttons with a knee-jerk reaction.
The game also gives you ample information on your actions. The audibility of your actions is elegantly visualized—say, footsteps have a certain radius, and running has an even bigger one—and this allows you to plan your actions tactically. You know exactly where to throw a trap without having a guard see it, where a guard will search for you after they've heard something, where guards were last before you lost sight of them, amongst other things. This, in conjunction with ample tools and multiple ways of approaching a room, meant I would sometimes have a sadistic satisfaction in deciding how I wanted to take care of things this time. Is this what Jigsaw killer from Saw feels like? I hope I don't bring dishonor to my clan talking like this!
Mark of the Ninja did something that I find remarkable: it made the stealth game approachable, without compromising the genre. Now if you excuse me, I have a stop a man that's been corrupted by the tendrils of technology. I'll make sure he doesn't see me coming.