If there’s one style of game that is tricky to make work on iOS, it’s the old school platformer. This more than any other style of game has been dogged by issues with touch screen controls. When playing Mario or Castlevania it’s crucial that the controls act as an extension of your will – these games are tricky as all hell and require perfect timing, something that joypads generally provide well and touch screens provide badly. Despite the format’s limitations there have been some worthy attempts to nail an iPhone platformer, like Mos Speedrun, Pix’n Rush, The Blocks Cometh and the mighty League of Evil, a game which comes closer than anything else to replicating that old-school action. Now 1-Bit Ninja from KODE80 games leaps onto the scene looking like the bastard child of Super Mario Land with an innovative take on touchscreen controls and a difficulty level designed to make you scream abuse at the screen on public transport.
1-Bit Ninja is a sidescrolling action platformer with not one but two unique twists. The first is that your tiny ninja protagonist can only move forwards. Touch your thumb to the left side of the screen and the tiny ninja will hurtle forwards like a drunk whose just heard the bell for last orders. Touch your thumb to the right side of the screen and he’ll perform a jump. This eliminates on-screen buttons, making the interface slick and transparent much like the approach Jeff Minter took on his excellent Robotron clone Minotron 2112. The minimalist approach is initially disorientating, but the responsiveness makes up for the weirdness it engenders and after a while it becomes a feature, something that is integral to why the game works.
The second twist to the game is that if you swipe your finger across the top of the screen the display will rotate revealing a hidden 3D element to the level design. This simple gimmick allows you to spot hidden paths which are not visible in the standard 2D orientation and instantly makes the game look even prettier than it already does. The hidden paths often lead to hard to reach places in which large coins (or bits) are hidden. There are 5 of these coins hidden on each level and their presence and the complexity of finding them adds a replay value to the games 20 levels. Its a great little idea and something that elevates 1-Bit Ninja above slavish Mario worship and makes it feel contemporary as well as old school.
You’ll be playing for some time even if you ignore the coins. This is a hard, hard game. We are talking Castlevania 3 levels of viciousness. All of those lovely Mario tropes are there, the moving platforms, the fireballs, the turrets and it requires perfect timing to get through each level. The game has all the warmth and sympathy of a Daily Mail reporter and thinks nothing of hurling you back to the beginning of each level every time you die. This is an old school level of challenge that is almost impossible to manage on an iOS platform game but thanks to the precision controls and some clever level design 1-Bit Ninja gets away with it. When you die its your fault, not the fault of the game, the platform or your feckless absentee father. Some may find this frustrating, I find it namelessly comforting, like I’ve stepped through a time warp to 1993.
1-Bit Ninja is one of the better platform games released on the iPhone and it certainly has the finest and most imaginative control scheme. I’m not yet sure whether its as overwhelmingly awesome as League of Evil (which I’m still coming back to six months down the line) but I’m very much hoping I will be playing this game for a good long while. If you like your gaming retro and appreciate genuinely awesome interface design this is an essential purchase. Just don’t blame me if your spleen ends up exploding in frustration.
Ben Hopkins, the guy who made 1-Bit Ninja, agreed to answer some questions and talk us through the design process of the game.
Onemetal“How did you get into making games for iOS?”
BenI’ve been programming professionally for about 14 years now. In that time I’ve worked on everything from games to interactive websites to mobile apps. When the App Store started to take off it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get some of my ideas out to the world. Last year I had some success with my 3D app HoloToy that taught me a lot and really helped pave the way for 1-Bit Ninja!
Onemetal“What were your aims with 1-Bit Ninja?”
Ben1-Bit Ninja grew out of a desire to bring a true old school gaming experience to iOS. I wanted to create a game that would, for a second, cause people to forget for they were holding an iPhone or iPod. It’s a tribute to the heroes of my gaming past.
Onemetal“1-Bit Ninja has a marvellous minimalist interface and a neat 3D gimmick, can you tell us something about how they came to be?”
BenAs soon as I decided to pursue 1-Bit Ninja the first thing that had to be constructed was the control scheme. I wanted people to be able to play without the constant fear of miss-pressing an on-screen control, something that in my opinion plagues most touch screen action games. 1-Bit Ninja is all about pixel perfect jumps and timing so I started to look for ways to minimize the controls. Reminiscing back to my glory days in gaming it struck me that most of the time I would keep my thumb firmly on the ‘right’ button. By removing the ability to go left I could distill the controls down to just 2 buttons; run and jump. With just 2 buttons I could use the entire screen as the control area, remove the need for on-screen clutter and minimize the chances of the player miss-pressing a button.
Once the controls had been defined they started to shape the gameplay and level design and became an integral part to the overall feel of the game itself.
The 3D element to 1-Bit Ninja was there from the beginning. I had been working on an iOS MineCraft style engine and when I started designing 1-Bit Ninja I used this engine to prototype the 2D levels. As 1-Bit Ninja started to take shape the 3D component became a great way of hiding secret paths within the levels. Something I always enjoyed in the games I grew up with were the many secrets that level designers would hide in their creations and the clues they’d give the player as to their existence. In 1-Bit Ninja it became possible using 3D to employ these same design tricks while also giving the player an additional dimension to work with. If something looks suspicious in the level, pull the 3D camera around and check it out!
Onemetal“What do you think are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the iPhone as a gaming platform?”
BeniOS devices are amazing, they’ve brought powerful portable computing technology to the masses. As gaming devices they pack more of a punch than the majority of (non-handheld) game consoles I grew up with! I would say however that the biggest strength of iOS as a gaming platform is that it is a viable option for smaller developers such as myself to self-publish games that might otherwise not get made. People might say that a lack of physical buttons is a big weakness for games on iOS however I see this as an opportunity to experiment with new or alternative controls and gameplay. I think the biggest weakness of iOS as a gaming platform right now is the perception that it is only for ‘casual’ games, something I’d like to change.
Onemetal“Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?”
BenI have several updates for 1-Bit Ninja already in the works and I am also currently looking at an iPad specific version. Beyond that there are lots of ideas floating around for possible next steps in the 1-bit series!
Onemetal would like to thank Ben for his time. 1-Bit Ninja is available to download from the App Store now.