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Kunai preview: ninja tablets and Game Boy Colors

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

Aside from the novelty of playing a post-apocalyptic ninja robot, KUNAI feels at first like a fairly typical action-platformer: go here, open door, grab sword, bash enemies for trinkets to pick up.

But then you get to the room with the titular weapon in it, and the game really starts to make sense. Essentially, a kunai works like a conventional grappling hook of the video game variety – fire it up in the air and it’ll attach to a wall, and you can swing around like Bionic Commando.

Then comes the really interesting bit: the game arms you with a second kunai, which you can shoot in the opposite direction; this way, you can scale a tunnel by firing the kunai at alternate walls, say, or cross complex networks of platforms by swinging first one way then the next.

Taking place across a 2D pixel landscape shaded like a Game Boy Color title, KUNAI unfolds as a light-hearted and fast-paced Metroidvania, with your trusty sword giving way to a satisfying blaster that despatches robot enemies with a similarly satisfying crunch.

It’s the feel of the kunai themselves that really make the game, though; perfecting those swings is a genuine thrill, with the physics and sense of weight feeling predictable and just right. The demo build we played in late 2019 included a boss battle which is cleverly designed around the kunai. You can use them to stick to the wall – all the better to avoid the robot baddie’s attacks – and then launch yourself for a Ninja Gaiden-style slash across the body.

If it sounds as though I’m citing a lot of ancient games here, then that’s partly because developer TurtleBlaze has made KUNAI with their own classic titles in mind. “There are a lot of video game and pop culture influences in there,” producer Bram Stege tells me.

There’ll be plenty of challenging boss battles in KUNAI, but the weapons at your disposal should help level the playing field.

“Of course, there’s hints of Metroid, but also Metal Slug, Super Mario Bros. 3, and probably every game we played on our Game Boys. It boils down to one simple rule: if we think it’s cool and we think it fits the theme, we put it in the game.”

When work began on the game back in 2017, KUNAI looked very different: the ninja robot and post-apocalyptic theme were nowhere to be found, and in their place was, Stege reveals, a cyborg monkey.

“KUNAI was initially a mobile game about a monkey that climbed vertically with his mechanical arms,” he says. “That’s where the grappling hooks came from. When we changed the main character from a cyborg monkey to a ninja-tablet, the arms became kunai, and we added more weapons to Tabby’s arsenal. The kunai mechanics have been the core of the game since day one.

“We’ve been tweaking the swinging, the rope length, the momentum, the wall-hang mechanics of the kunai, but also the knockback of the katana since day one up until today. We basically never stopped tweaking the controls.”

Like the controls, the graphics and backstory have also been tweaked and changed over the past two or so years; KUNAI initially had a more typical 16-bit art style, before artist Richard Lems began experimenting with a more monochromatic, pared-back look of whites, reds, and blues. As for the post-human plot – well, even Stege’s a bit hazy on that front.

“Erm, good question,” Stege says. “I’m not quite sure how we ended up here, to be honest. It started out with a badass ninja which became a tablet, since we wanted a more lovable, likeable character.

KUNAI’s big explosions are a finely crafted mix of hand-drawn sprites, particle effects, and a custom shader.

“Then the story started flowing from there, with Tabby being a ninja-tablet waking up in a pod. What’s the world like? Something bad probably happened, an apocalypse, for example, and since Tabby’s a tablet, the world must consist of mechanical creatures – which is where the CRT monitor heads on enemies come from… The process was really fun and came pretty naturally once we established Tabby.”

The likeable ninja-tablet fits hand-in-glove with the game’s action: like Shovel Knight before it, KUNAI will pose a challenge, but you shouldn’t expect the punishing cruelty that faced players of, say, the original Ninja Gaiden back in the eighties.

“The other big thing is making it hard enough for people not to blast through it on the first attempt, but not that hard that they’ll rage-quit,” says programmer Benjamin de Jager of battling the game’s numerous bosses. “Ideally, the player gets a step further each attempt until the boss is beaten.”

“We all strongly believe games should be about having fun,” Stege agrees. “And when you’re making a game where you play a ninja, you should also be able to do awesome ninja stuff, right? I always thought it strange in games where you’re a ninja, but still vulnerable.

“One of the core principles of KUNAI is that you feel awesome every step of the way. The game can be hard, but will always keep you feeling like you’re a total badass.”

Genre: Metroidvania
Format: PC / Switch
Developer: TurtleBlaze
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
Release: Early 2020

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