The Weekend Hangover is Too Much Gaming's Monday rumination of the games or game we played over the weekend. Sometimes there is alcohol involved in the hangover we’re nursing, but most other times there’s just too much gaming.
As video games of this era trend towards all encompassing lifestyle games that dip you into cyclical loops of combat and loot, quests and progression, campaigns and endgame, my attention drifts towards a simpler generation of gaming when it was fine for individual releases to be finite, self-contained experiences.
Mark of the Ninja is one of those experiences – a brief but thoroughly involving puzzle box of shadows and murder – that emerged in 2012 to become a critically praised gem. Yet because the annual deluge of video games is cruel and merciless, it’s become, like many temporary classics, forgotten in spite of such acclaim. Literal thousands of video games have made it such that no mere mortal brain can remember anything anymore.
It’s a shame though, because despite its modest indie production values, Mark of the Ninja ought to be held up as more than just a cult classic, but a standard bearer for what stealth game design should be. As the titular ninja – which leads one to wonder, who the mysterious Mark is that is being alluded to – you leap into the shadows, employ a variety of tools to accomplish your goals, and sometimes, gank someone with your blade.
What separates Mark of the Ninja from the many venerable stealth legacies of games like Thief, Dishonored, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid is the degree of precision by which its mechanics have been crafted and its levels and enemies have been laid out. When the noise of your footsteps are precisely measured, and when enemy cues are easily read, every mistake you make is yours and yours alone as developer Klei Entertainment leaves none of its design to randomly generated chance.
I suspect that for some people, the game’s broad cartoon style leads them to underestimate the craftsmanship of this, when in truth, it actually serves to support its design ethos. Shattered lights, distant footsteps, shadowed line art, they all communicate the state of objects with such clarity that playing Mark of the Ninja ceases to be about getting lucky and more about measuring the precise reach of your enemy’s senses and the exact applicability of your noise makers and smoke bombs.
The only source of frustration I had with Mark of the Ninja is the game’s decision to create a very sticky ninja. It’s a choice I respect mostly because it means you’ll never fall off an edge due to your impatience or exit a vent when you shouldn’t. But it also struggles to give you much control over your physical momentum, such that navigating tight corners and crawl spaces can be clumsy. Context sensitivity is also an issue as the button that lets you take cover in a nearby object also picks up bodies.
Fortunately, the combination of sensible checkpoints and the fact that your actions create reliable, reproducible results means that no mistake is ever truly fatal. Reloading a checkpoint is instantaneous, allowing you to repeat your plans until they execute perfectly, though it never devolves into save scumming.
The Remastered Edition is what I played this weekend, and mechanically the game plays the same as the original release. The big differences are the smoother animations in cutscenes and gameplay, added particle effects and support for higher resolutions. It also adds an additional level and the director’s commentary from the 2014 Special Edition DLC.