taito's the legend of kage is one of the most perfect videogames i have ever played. it's certainly the fastest. it is this speed, however, that causes new and unprepared players to become frustrated. this game, like the ninja, is swift and merciless.

we open with the abduction of princess kirihime by a band of ninja, who are swiftly pursued by kage ("shadow"), our hero, who will chase them through four scenes and four seasons. he will be set upon relentlessly by enemy ninja, armed with shuriken and katana blades (and bombs starting in the second season), as well as the occasional fire-breathing monk.

controls are straightforward, even effortless: tilting the joystick left moves kage left, tilting it right moves kage right, tilting it up sends kage into the air (it would be a disservice to sully this graceful manuever with the pedestrian name of "jump"). tilting it down drops kage to a lower level, if there is one. button one swings kage's blade - used to dispatch close enemies and to deflect swords and enemy shuriken. (it also serves one other crucial purpose, mentioned below.) button two flings a shuriken (in any direction) to disable enemies.

the scenes that kage soars through are like quintessential ideals of videogame stages, some stretching endlessly left and right as enemy ninja bleed over the edges of the screen. each stage has a distinctive thrust and a distinctive goal, these being:

  • the forest. this is the scene most associated with kage, with our hero leaping between the trees while staving off ninja attacks. (the trees can be climbed with up and down.) your goal here is to slay yobo, the red fire-breaking monk (you may also encounter blue monks), who lurks near the left side of the area.

  • the castle moat. this stage is no taller than the screen - making high leaps impossible - and stretches endlessly to the left and right. to infiltrate the castle you must slay ten ninja (tracked by a meter at the bottom of the screen). most ninja lurk in the moat before attacking - look for their reed snorkels.

  • the castle wall. this stage also scrolls endlessly left and right; your goal is upwards. avoiding ninja and their projectiles as you leap up the wall, using well-placed shuriken to pick them out of the air.

  • rescue kiri. she's being held on the fourth floor. climb stairs using left and right. when you reach the prisoner, use your blade to cut her bonds. after escaping, you will be confronted by a boss opponent - yukinosuke kiri, the ninja, or yoshiro yukigusa, the flying samurai. slay this last enemy to proceed to the next season.

in addition to the arcade original and recent appearances in taito compilations, there's also a servicible if flat-colored (and more sparingly animated) famicom/nes port, which has power-ups that allow kage to take extra hits and different bosses.

the legend of kage is one of the games that will be there at the close of the universe, when all have been reduced to their archetype and essence. there will be one ninja game, and it will be kage.