This evocation of feminine mystery must have lodged deep within my borderline-teenage brain, because it stayed with me long after I forgot even the title of the game it was talking about. I recalled only that it was some side-scrolling brawler, and the arcades of the 1990s practically used those to prop open doors and whack cockroaches. Well over a decade later, I remembered that curious phrase and finally figured out that it described Ninja Combat for the Neo Geo.
The second stage of Ninja Combat leads the player to a group of women menaced by the game’s generic ninja. They even call for help with a plaintive sound effect. And you, as the hero, clearly should rescue these women just as you would a kidnapped president.
Then comes the surprise. Once you advance, the terrified hostages reveal themselves to be disguised ninja women and attack you. I’m not sure why the Gamepro blurb connoted this as “mean,” but I'll say this much: it would have surprised my younger self. Hostages were a cliche in arcade games even back in 1991, but we were used to freeing them for bonus points, whether it was the children in Moonwalker or the stone-encased citizens of Black Tiger (all of whom were old men for some reason). It’s a tradition that lives on today in any arcade light-gun shooter where unfortunate civilians cringe and dash through zombie outbreaks or anti-terrorist firefights. These citizens are inevitably mowed down by unwary younger players, who learn that shooting the innocent costs soldiers or police officers only a chunk of life meter. Or a few weeks of paid leave until the investigation clears them.
Ninja Combat isn’t very good. It’s the sort of primitive arcade title that gave the Neo Geo a reputation for mediocre games costing $200 and lasting about forty-five minutes. Yet it’s not without some invention. Enemy mid-bosses become playable characters once defeated, the cutscenes have some hysterical acting, and the enemy ninja include such novelties as harpy ninja, fan ninja, and burly executioner ninja whose Klansman-like hoods weren’t changed to appease North American audiences.
Is there more to Ninja Combat's little joke about captive damsels in arcade brawlers? Is it subtly telling us that the concept of helpless, imperiled women pleading for rescue is an outdated and chauvinistic ideal, and that those who accept it do so to their ninja-swamped misfortune?