Once Angry Birds went ahead and proved that the smartphone could be a legitimate honest-to-goodness gaming platform, developers have come up with games that were so addictive and so suited to the smartphone over any other platform that they have actually spawned their own genres and subgenres.
While Canabalt started on the PC, its notoriety was built on the smartphone. It’s a study in taking control away from the player—unlike the typical platformer, the player was not responsible for actually moving the avatar. By offering an avatar that constantly ran, Canabalt gives the player one job: jump at the right time. That’s it. On a smartphone, all you have to do is tap the screen. You spend much more time watching and thinking about what you are going to do than actually doing anything. It’s a game that’s often finished in under a minute, and it’s a game with no end, which means you can always improve. All the developers need to do to increase the difficulty is increase the speed of the game, and no matter how well the player does, there’s always the sense that next time could be better.
It offers a quick burst of engagement, followed by the allure of “just one more try”. Simple and brilliant, Canabalt spawned Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run, two more of the most successful smartphone apps to date. Suddenly, the “endless running” game exists as its own subgenre to the platformer.
Ninja Sprint tries to reintroduce some of the elements of platforming that were willfully left out of those classic smartphone games. The hero of Ninja Sprint, a half-cat, half-human ninja named Neko, is, like the hero of Canabalt, constantly on the run. Neko isn’t interested in getting out of the way of everything she runs into, however—Neko is more than willing to slash any baddie that gets in her way. She can’t fly, however, so you need to watch out for pits, and there are various traps to avoid as well. Neko can jump or slide to get out of the way of the various hazards lying about or to get in the way of the baddies. Neko can also use a special attack that clears the screen of any enemies that might have escaped her notice.
The controls for this are fine—touch the lower right corner of the screen to jump, lower left to slide, and upper left to fire off a special attack. The most natural way to do this is to hold the phone like a controller and use your thumbs like you’re holding that controller, though you could certainly put down the phone and do the index finger poke as well. That doesn’t matter; what matters is that the controls are easy and natural, and they make sense for an endless running game.
What those controls do not include, however, is a vanilla “attack” button. Neko, apparently gifted with a sword, never loses a fight. In fact, all you have to do to kill a monster, or a zombie, or a one-eyed, uh, thing is to run into it. This simplifies the game, but it also means the game isn’t as far removed from a typical endless runner as perhaps it would have you believe. Enemies are made into just another collectible to pick up, no different from the coins scattered throughout the levels except that you can’t buy power-ups with baddie guts. The special attack, then, doesn’t give you a better chance at defeating difficult enemies so much as it allows you to wallop any enemies that might have escaped your grasp.
No, the biggest actual difference between Ninja Sprint and the typical endless runner game is that it’s not actually, well, endless. There are four worlds with 20 levels each, and after the 80th level—which isn’t all that difficult to get through—you’re done. All that’s left to do is to go back through the levels you’ve already beaten and perfect them, picking up coins, stars, and baddie guts for the sake of achievements.
This detracts from the game by removing the magic number. This is the number that definitively compares you to the rest of the world, the number that, at any given point, is a measure of the greatest game you ever had. There is a cumulative score that shows up on the leaderboards and rises as you repeat the levels and get more monsters and coins, but each individual level ends after a minute or so, never allowing for either that zoned-in feeling that comes with the best endless runners, or that sense of accomplishment when a combination of skill and dumb luck pushes you farther than you ever thought you’d go. There’s no thrill here, only the feeling of rote accomplishment.
Ninja Sprint is only 99 cents. For 99 cents, you actually get quite a bit of entertainment, especially if it grabs you to the point where you feel the compulsion to perfect each of the 80 levels. The problem is, we’ve been conditioned by the already-classic smartphone games to expect a lot for our 99 cents. To be sure, Ninja Sprint is fast and colorful and cute, but it is no Jetpack Joyride.