I don’t always play 2D stealth games, but when I do, I play Mark of the Ninja.
Aside from the first Metal Gear games, stealth games didn’t really come into their own until the advent of 3D, and part of that reason is because 3D allows for more hiding space. And yet here is a 2D side-view stealth game. Mark of the Ninja makes this work by granting your ninja the powers of Spiderman: he can climb walls and cling to most ceilings, and has a grappling hook that will zip him to a distant point. Better yet, aiming items like the grappling hooks or throwing knives is done from a pause state, so you can break a light, lay a smoke bomb, and grapple out all in an instant. Do you feel like a ninja yet? The stealth kill animations are just the icing on the unseen cake.
The real pleasure of 2D over 3D is more precise controls and positioning, and this is what makes Mark of the Ninja so fun. Just pressing buttons in this game brings a smile to my face. Every movement is quick and crisp. The Cartoon Network inspired animation presents the action well even in the dark, with between-level cut scenes to match. (It’s obvious this game dev studio is staffed by a lot of animation guys who love games.) And there’s several game systems with which to play: sound propagates through some surfaces but not others, lighting levels change to reveal or conceal, switches and traps can be turned to your advantage. Guards can be terrorized by poison or by actions such as stringing up victims, which in turn can cause friendly fire incidents. Even smell plays a role when guard dogs enter the scene. All this we have, on top of the usual stealth tropes like alerted and distracted statuses, hiding bodies, and kill versus no-kill runs. Different character classes and some intriguing but not too hard achievements add replay value over and above the numeric end-of-level scores.
What I’m saying is, there’s a lot of game in this game. The chains of cause and effect that you can create and then set off like so many dominoes approach Rube Goldberg levels of intricacy.
My sole complaint is a control one. The A and B buttons are so overloaded with functions that you’ll frequently grab a body instead of opening a door, or you’ll hide in a dumpster instead of grabbing a body, etc. There’s an unused button on the controller that really should have been for dragging bodies. (The developer commentaries had it do something else that was removed from the final version of the game.) I feel that Running should be on the stick with Walking, and I never got used to using B to enter doors but A to enter vents. And trying to cling to a ceiling after descending a wall, slipping under the overhang, had me falling so much that I yearned for D-pad movement, or at least a little more leeway in the desired direction to press.
Normally these kinds of controller snafus make a game too frustrating to bother with, but since death only sets you back a room or two I pressed on and simply got used to the suboptimal config. Still, I hope a sequel addresses this issue.