Quick, what was the first live action movie based on a video game? No, you only think it’s Super Mario Bros. due to the evil lies of the mainstream media and probably the Illuminati. Put on your hipster glasses, we’re talking about a movie that not only beat Mario to the punch, but has at least eighty percent more ninja robots and retro-futuristic Japanese gun-swords than the Mario movie could ever hope to have.
original title: 未来忍者 (Mirai Ninja)
Japan, 1988, Keita Amemiya
The Suwabeh Clan sees heavy losses, with the most important being a green clad warrior with an unfortunate wispy mustache, which prompts his palette swap of a brother to come to his rescue only to be blown off a cliff. Upon climbing back up he sees his clan massacred and cheesily shouts to the heavens while clutching his brother’s bullet loaded katana behind a shitty Cyber Ninja logo. The next thing we see is the titular Cyber Ninja, Shiranui, having a wicked mecha ninja duel and tearing some robot heads off before being threatened by an awkwardly armored mercenary of the Suwabeh and fleeing into the woods.
After that, not much in the way of plot goes down. We jump back and forth between the Dark Overlord’s evil bishop arguing with the movie’s Starscream, Shogi, the Suwabeh clan training and planning an attack on the Overlord’s fortress, and Shiranui sulking around and eventually joining forces with the Suwabeh to stop the Dark Overlord from being reborn and probably doing something evil, I guess. It’s bog standard Japanese camp with plenty of dumb tropes ranging from amnesia to dramatic secret brother reveals. But the plot isn’t what matters in Cyber Ninja. You aren’t strapping in for a beautiful tale of woe and familial bonding across the chasm of death, you wanna see a robot ninja kick in the collective shit of dozens of faceless bad guys and a gigantic, building sized cannon blowing up an evil living fortress. That’s exactly what you get, too.
The action is legit. For all the cheese, the fighting and visual design overall really shows an unexpected professionalism. And that’s because it’s the first feature length movie from a famed tokusatsu director who’s had his hand in Kamen Rider, Sentai, Kikaider, and later created his own series, Garo. Keita Amemiya knows how to film dudes in stupid costumes hitting each other. He also knows how to make those dumb costumes look infinitely less dumb, drawing up some of the coolest looking characters you’ll see in this genre. Cyber Ninja is especially good at showing off his immense talent, with almost pornographic close-ups showing off how each fictional weapon works, elegant armor designs, and villains that look like action figures you couldn’t possibly afford. His knack for surrounding himself with a great crew means that even his first movie has awesome editing and fantastic choreography with some surprisingly great special effects considering the budget. It’s not on the level of Amemiya’s later work, especially not Zeiram or Hakaider, but it’s still slick and fun to watch. Interestingly, one robotic enemy actually looks eerily similar to the form Zeiram takes in Zeiram 2. So that’s probably a thing.
So, the first video game movie? Maybe not the first overall, no, there were animated features based on a handful of games before Cyber Ninja, but it was, in fact, released as a tie-in to the Namco arcade game of the same name. Some sources say the movie came first and others say the game was the basis for the movie, but the most likely explanation is that they were created to promote each other, going into production and releasing at the same time. So maybe it’s a bit debatable to call it the first video game based film, considering the movie may have gone into production first, but there’s no denying that the movie’s structure is similar to any linear action game of the time, playing out like a sci-fi Ninja Gaiden designed to sell arcade cabinets and VHS tapes alike.
Considering the cloudy history, it could go either way. Personally, I’ll assume a Kick-Ass situation, with both going into production at the same time and drawing from each other as both projects came closer to completion. So let’s call it the first live action video game movie, if only to replace memories of Dennis Hopper’s fly covered pizza and fungal sphincters birthing Lance Henrikson with robot fights and wicked rotoscoped laser battles.
Availability:Cyber Ninja was released on VHS in the US and Canada (though renamed Warlord up north) in the early nineties by Orion Pictures and this VHS seems reasonably obtainable with a quick eBay search. There’s no official single release of the movie in either region, but there’s an out of print ninja film collection from VideoAsia and First Look. You can get this collection for less than ten bucks new and it’s worth it for Cyber Ninja alone, though the video quality is far from great, making its VHS based roots known with plenty of distortion and tracking, so keep that in mind.