Wrath Of The Black Manta
- Taito, 1989 -
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The Artlessness Of The Ninja
When children start disappearing and the authorities cannot figure out the cause, it is up to the Black Manta to save the day. It becomes personal when his teacher's prized student, Taro, becomes one of the kidnap victims. Will the Black Manta master his Ninja Arts or is this game an artifact of its era?
For such a figure cloaked in mystery and steeped in legend and lore, the ninja was thrust to the heights of in-your-face popularity in the 1980s. With the supersaturated archetypes of soldiers, police officers and cowboys running thin on both content and originality, martial artists and ninja began filling the void for action in popular, Western culture en masse.
With its compelling backstory, the Black Manta seems poised to become the newest, crime-fighting superhero.
Historically, the ninja is renowned for stealth, sabotage and subterfuge in feudal Japan. He/she received special training to master his/her discipline.
It is the acquisition of these arts—ninjutsu (sometimes ninjitsu) or the ninpo arts—that becomes a driving force, motoring a big part of the mechanics of gameplay in Taito's 1989 action platformer, Wrath Of The Black Manta.
These ninpo arts impart superhuman abilities upon the ninja whom headlines this game: the Black Manta. And it is a good thing, too; because our solitary ninja will need all the help he can get to fight off a heinous organization whose global reach is threatening children everywhere.
As the game opens, crime is plaguing New York City. Children are mysteriously disappearing. As the feared Black Manta—one-part aspiring crime fighter; one-part drug enforcement agent; 10 parts American(?!) ninja—you navigate a number of cities across the globe, rescuing the aforementioned missing children in search of your faceless sensei's prized student, Taro, who has, also, been kidnapped.
Across the game's five levels—each staged in some of the international hotspots of the world: New York City, USA (presumably three different times[?!?]); Tokyo, Japan; and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil—Black Manta platforms his way in this mock arcade/throwaway script from a 1980s, low-budget, straight-to-video, action movie that plays overtly like Sega's classic hit, Shinobi, with a half-hearted effort at Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden cutscenes thrown in for good measure. [To learn more about the NES version of Ninja Gaiden and how its animated Acts inspired Wrath Of The Black Manta, read our Ninja Gaiden - Delights... Cameras... ACTION! review here.]
Wrath Of The Black Manta
probably impresses most with its artistic touches on portraits and boss enemies.
Each stage feels like a smudged carbon copy with Shinobi's designs in mind - heavily-derivative, but not quite distinct or sharp enough to hold up on its own (with, perhaps, exceptions being small segments of the Tokyo, Japan set and the Rio De Janeiro set that have the Black Manta riding the wind in a human-sized kite - a tale of legend that has yet to be confirmed in the annals of the ninja).
To make things worse, unfortunately, after "Part 1 - New York City", every stage in Wrath Of The Black Manta feels, looks and plays like an instant replay of the one before.
Essentially the scenes of each level have the Black Manta doing his best Joe Musashi (the hero of Shinobi) impersonation: leaping up-and-down between two planes of play, scurrying through large, blocky spreads of concrete streets, sewers and warehouses, ducking behind crates, swinging his short sword/knife up-close or dispensing "darts" from a safer distance at simple-minded henchmen who do little to stop the Manta's march forward.
Instead of untying or cutting the guarded hostages loose like in Shinobi, the Black Manta has to work a bit harder at finding the kidnapped in his game. Secret walls give way and crumple under Black Manta's dart attacks, revealing hidden offices and rooms. Many other children can be found trapped in cages, behind any number of doors that are readily-visible and accessible in open sight throughout each of the game's locales (similar to Namco's Rolling Thunder or Capcom's later play-alike, Code Name: Viper).
Upon freedom, some of the children will share invaluable information about hidden doorways or locations or will provide other hints that will keep the Manta in hot pursuit of Taro's whereabouts.
Black Manta improves his abilities and chances vastly as he learns new Arts of the Ninja or Ninpo Arts.
By entering every door (although many, inexplicably, seem to be labeled as EXITs in-game [?!?]), if the Manta doesn't find children, he may be able to pick up full life refills or gain expansions for his POW Indicator.
The POW Indicator plays an important role in the Black Manta's chances of survival. It allows for the unlimited charging and expulsion of the Ninpo Arts that the Manta possesses and earns. The longer the gauge stretches, the longer the duration or the strength of the Ninpo Art used. (Holding down the B button (B) charges up the Ninja Arts.) This is a generous and potent gift that the game developers bestowed upon the player.
Only one other type of item can be found in the game. Letters are scrawled-out scraps of paper, left behind as clues.
One important letter—in particular, found early in the game—points the Manta in the right direction for solving the mystery behind whom is committing all of the unusual crimes and what their motives are. It reveals that: "The man in red knows something."
While exploring each city, the Black Manta will continually encounter and will stay on the heels of a "man in red". If Black Manta runs up on him, he will discover that he is an informant. (By faulty controls, the Black Manta can, sometimes, initiate contact and force a conversation through headlock, chokehold or half-Nelson. There may be an easier way to engage in contact, click here to learn about this strategy below (↓).)
If the Black Manta stays persistent, he will extract key intel on the insidious goings-on of the shadowy organization, DRAT (probably not the most subtle or smartest acronym to name your criminal enterprise - Drug Runners And Terrorists).
Following the Black Manta's last meet-up with the reluctant mouthpiece in red, the big boss of the current city awaits. DRAT brings its heavy hitters in to shutdown the meddlesome Manta with one of the absolute best aspects of the game - its main enemy design. Tiny shows what it means to be a big boss, stomping on the scene.
One way to bring him down to size and to equalize DRAT's other enforcers is by way of the Ninpo Arts that we mentioned earlier.
Glitches—like this instance of the Black Manta, unexpectedly passing through metal piping—combined with other issues found in the game detract from its lasting reputation.
Just as Joe used special attacks to inflict major damage across the screen in Shinobi, Black Manta uses his Ninpo Arts to a similar effect.
Upon defeat of a stage, his master imparts wisdom and shares new arts to power Black Manta forward. Some of these Ninpo Arts are of a more traditional type, like Art of Invisibility. Others are more modern and fictitious, taking liberties with the ninja lore: Art of Lightning (sending lightning bolts at enemies) or Art of Missiles (blasting off fiery missiles from his bare hands). (By pressing SELECT at any time, you can change up the collection of Ninja Arts you can use.)
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Up until this point, Wrath Of The Black Manta compares favorably to its motivational source, Shinobi.
It tries to do more than just be a simplified, action title. It endeavors with its attempts at a backstory and with its slow revelation of the reason and culprit behind the missing children.
By careful pacing, the Manta slowly pulls together the pieces of the tale per informant confrontations and dialogue reveals from the rescued children and interstage acts. The game tries to organically build up interest in the mysterious crimes.
The "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s was an anti-drug initiative in the United States. Throughout the game, the Black Manta does his part in the War on Drugs.
It even participates in preaching a prevailing message of the time by condemning drugs and getting the message out about "just saying no" to its target audience of gamers.
But, while it successfully deviates from its inspiration in the previous manners (and with other changes in gameplay and mechanics), it ultimately languishes in the long shadow cast by Shinobi's superior, sustained, higher level of quality and effort.
Overall, it feels like the development team of Wrath Of The Black Manta poured most of its resources and productivity into the creation of some of the game's graphic work and then just decided to skimp on the rest of the production quality by resorting to use lazy, copy-and-paste tactics on the remainder of the game's image art, as well as the other components of the title: the level design, the mechanics and the music included.
For example, the game's graphics take on an uneven keel, seesawing from impressive, intricate portraitures and detailed bosses to an unimaginative, repetitive look and layout of the majority of the stages.
Watch out for that hole in the street! What hole, you ask? The background art didn't get the same grade-A attention as other imagery in Wrath Of The Black Manta.
To take it a step further, while it is true that portraits of the kidnapped children are, arguably, some of the best imagery seen throughout, the appeal begins to wear off after one realizes that every single, rescued child on a stage looks identical. The only thing that distinguishes one from the next is the dialogue.
(Even a simple palette swap of the clothing or skin tones or different facial expressions would have been an appreciable upgrade. Instead, is the gamer to believe the preposterous notion that each imprisoned child found on a stage is a part of a set of identical siblings (be it quintuplets, sextuplets or whatever multiple birth number present on that particular level) wearing the SAME exact clothing and having the SAME exact hairstyles?!)
The next offender of lethargic leveling-off of quality control goes to the game's programming.
As previously stated, aside from the uninspired level design (and redundancy - yes, out of the game's five levels - two of them are stationed in New York City, with DRAT Headquarters probably being there as well!), the game's mechanics feel stale and predictable.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Unfortunately, the game shows its frayed edges, as the creators' lazier tendencies start to show after "Part 1".
Continually chase down "the man in red". Enter every door. Save cloned hostages. Stand or kneel against walls and throw your "darts" to reveal hidden areas that eventually feel humdrum.
While it is true that many games rely on repetitive in-game tasks and goals, Wrath Of The Black Manta's actions can feel more like tedious chores - especially after the first city.
The new, first-person perspective seen during the elevator segments in Wrath Of The Black Manta
gives the game a fresh and welcomed change... too bad, it only appears near the game's end.
The music is another letdown. While the main stage theme is solid and the secondary track found inside rooms is decent, those same songs are recycled throughout... no effort was made to create unique songs for each of the five locations (and that is barring two songs since New York City is played through twice).
(On a similar note - by 1989, gaming had evolved beyond using a single song throughout an entire game and it was common practice for games in the action and arcade genres to have several, unique tracks assigned per level.)
If you stack these more-or-less "cosmetic" issues on top of the much-more egregious violations of unsteady hit detection, unreliable controls (at times) and glitches, not even the Black Manta can sneak away unscathed.
As we come to a close, perhaps the Black Manta's wrath was misguided? Maybe what was really incurring his wrath was his frustrations with the tedium, repetition and mediocrity from the development team's bare-minimum efforts. Unfortunately, it is a shame because their inactions may have sabotaged the makings of a more memorable game.
In a most ironic twist, as the Black Manta dedicated himself to perfecting his Ninpo Arts, it is the developers' nonchalance and lack of commitment that ultimately results in a truly artless assault on most of the potential this game could have had.
b. jones © 2022
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