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By Thomas Wheeler

Every so often a set of toys comes along within the new-style G.I.Joe figure line that manages to be cool enough that I can overlook the fact that the figures just aren't especially compatible with the traditional-style figures that started this whole concept in 1982 and which continue to this day.

Such a set is NINJA BATTLES!

If nothing else, it's a heck of a bargain. Where else are you going to get five different, decently-made, well-articulated action figures, enough weapons and accessories to outfit the entire group, a battle arena for the lot, as well as a DVD and a comic book -- all for under $15.00?

That would've been a bargain back in 1982, never mind today. And it's a shame that it just missed Christmas, because it would've blown off the shelves. Heck, I would've gotten one for one of my cousins who likes G.I.Joe. But, he'll have a birthday this year, so there's always that.

But what is, specifically, the Ninja Battles set? What is its background?

Easily the two most popular characters within the G.I.Joe concept are Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow. And that's all the more amazing given how they got started. Snake-Eyes was introduced in 1982, as a mysterious commando dressed all in black, with his entire face covered by a ski mask. Technically, this figure was all black merely as a means for Hasbro to save a little money. Without having to apply any paint to one figure, they were able to better justify the costs of everybody else's paint applications.

Then in 1984, Hasbro introduced Storm Shadow, a ninja dressed all in white, and working for Cobra. Ninjas weren't as popular in 1984 as they are today. A certain foursome of Turtles had barely gotten started. Storm Shadow was pretty much it, and there was some head-scratching over what this guy was doing with Cobra. His original file card explained almost nothing of his background.

Then, in G.I.Joe #21, Larry Hama did something remarkable, and not just because it was the infamous "Silent Issue", a story told without any word balloons. The tale introduced Storm Shadow, who had kidnapped Scarlett and taken her to the Cobra Temple. Snake-Eyes rescued her after a fierce battle with Cobra troopers and Storm Shadow's red ninjas. During the battle, one of the wrappings came off of Storm Shadow's arms, revealing a mysterious tattoo. During that same battle, one sleeve of Snake-Eyes' uniform was torn open -- revealing the same tattoo.

The G.I.Joe universe would never be the same.

Clearly there was some sort of connection between the most dangerous member of the G.I.Joe Team, and this strange ninja working for Cobra. Over the years, we would learn the full story.

Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes were both part of the same Long-Range Recon Patrol squad in Vietnam. When Snake-Eyes returned to the States, his family had been killed in a tragic car accident. With nowhere else to go, he went to Japan, and joined Storm Shadow's ninja clan.

But tragedy struck when the Hard Master, the leader of the ninja clan and Storm Shadow's uncle, was killed by Zartan, who'd been trying to kill Snake-Eyes under orders from Cobra Commander. Storm Shadow joined Cobra to find out who had killed his uncle. Snake-Eyes returned to the States and joined the G.I.Joe Team.

Ultimately, Storm Shadow would learn the identity of his uncle's killer, and after resolving the matter as best as he could, then joined G.I.Joe alongside his clan brother. But towards the end of the original run of G.I.Joe, Cobra reared its ugly head again and brainwashed Storm Shadow back into their service.

Although the 1997 file card for Storm Shadow (which I wrote) placed him back with the Joes, the continuity that exists today indicates that Storm Shadow has stayed with Cobra since that time. The present powers at Hasbro seem to want to keep one super-ninja on each side. If nothing else, it makes for better marketing for sets like this.

The five figures in the NINJA BATTLES set include Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, as well as new characters Shadow Strike and Tiger Claw, and a character originally introduced in the 2003 Convention Set, Black Dragon.

SNAKE-EYES is a recoloring of the 2002 Snake-Eyes, and as such as more disproportionate than most of the others. He also has the quickly abandoned wrist and ankle articulation. It's a nicely detailed figure, but a little too "anime" in overall appearance, and ankle articulation or no, the figure's feet are pre-posed, forcing the figure into a super-hero-like "action stance" if you want him to stand up.

Interestingly, the particular "wave" of figures that originally included this Snake-Eyes was actually sculpted by Takara, while Hasbro was busy putting O-rings back in everyone else. Shows how really messed up those early assortments were, and why Snakes here might look even more "anime" than some of the others, although none have been very well proportioned compared to their "ancestors".

STORM SHADOW is a recoloring of the early 2004 Storm Shadow, the one that was so overly colorful with red and white trim that he looked like he'd been gove over by a troop of circus clowns. The version in the Ninja Battles set has a more tolerable color scheme, with some details left unpainted, and others redone in grey.

TIGER CLAW is a recoloring of a Kamakura figure. The name "Tiger Claw" was, I believe, used for a ninja character in Hasbro's old Karate Fighters concept, a fighting game that used action-figure-like characters who, when attached to a base, could swing punches and kick.

SHADOW STRIKE is a recoloring of an earlier Storm Shadow figure, but given that the figure is outfitted mostly in red with dark grey trim, you'd hardly know it.

Finally there's BLACK DRAGON, who, oddly enough, is a recoloring of the Iron Grenadier figure produced for the new-style G.I.Joe line. Given that the Iron Grenadiers were not ninjas, it's amazing how well he fits in with the group.

There's some copy on the package to explain the set, that is if nothing else a welcome relief from the "Valor vs. Venom" storyline that's been slapped on every package. For the Ninja Battles set, this paragraph reads:

The greatest ninjas of all time belong to the ARASHIKAGE CLAN, which was split in two by an act of treachery. Its two most powerful masters are SNAKE-EYES and STORM SHADOW, once as close as brothers, but now bitter enemies. SNAKE-EYES is part of the GI JOE Team, fighting for the cause of good, while STORM SHADOW works for the COBRA organization on the side of evil. Joining them are ninjas who are equally dedicated to achieving victory for their chosen sides. These two halves of the ARASHIKAGE Clan come together in an explosive confrontation that pits good against evil in the ultimate martial arts battle!

Here are the characters' file cards.

STORM SHADOW COBRA NINJA File Name: Arashikage, Thomas M. One of the most dangerous men on the face of the planet, STORM SHADOW was once a master of the ARASHIKAGE Ninja Clan. Now, he sells his arcane skills to the evil forces of COBRA in order to pursue his twisted plan for revenge against his former sword brother SNAKE-EYES. Ninjas are mystic warriors, spies, master swordsmen, acrobats, conjurors and tricksters. They can do all sorts of amazing things - or at least seem to do them, because the ninja's prime directive is embodies in a major precept of the ancient warrior sage Sun Tsu, who said, "All warfare is based on deception." This should give COBRA pause to consider the loyalty of STORM SHADOW and ponder the question, "What does he really want?" "A sword hidden away in its scabbard does not lose its edge. The same can be said for my loyalty and honor!"

SNAKE-EYES G.I.JOE COVERT MISSION SPECIALIST File Name: CLASSIFIED Primary Military Specialty: Infantry Secondary Military Specialty: Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor Birthplace: Classified Some people say that ninjas own the night. If that's the case, SNAKE-EYES owns the whole twenty-four hours. Anybody who isn't a mouth-breather has a reasonable chance of sneaking up behind a sentry in the dark. Snake-Eyes can do it at high noon on a gravel path with no cover. A qualified expert with all NATO and former Warsaw Pact small arms, he is proficient in twelve martial arts systems and a master of the same ninja clan (Arashikage) that produced Storm Shadow. His one known hobby is collecting spike-knuckled trench knives. At one time Snake-Eyes and the COBRA ninja Storm Shadow were sword brothers, but circumstances forced them apart and led Storm Shadow down the evil road to COBRA. Although others see them as bitter foes, Snake-Eyes looks at the COBRA ninja and sees the only best friend he ever had, so he dreads the day that he may have to draw his sword against him in earnest.

SHADOW STRIKE COBRA NINJA SHADOW STRIKE infiltrated the ARASHIKAGE Clan to corrupt it from within. Secretly working for COBRA COMMANDER, SHADOW STRIKE pretended to be a loyal member of the elite ninjas. He watched and waited, looking for an opportunity to betray his brothers and sisters of the sword. When he found a weakness that he could exploit, he began the slow, careful work of breaking the foundation and unity of this ancient clan. Continuing his ARASHIKAGE training under STORM SHADOW, he has become a gifted warrior with quick moves that are almost faster than the eye can see. His strength and his weakness are one and the same: he arrogantly believed he is above the notion of clan loyalty; he values individual action over team unity. This belief keeps him alive to fight another day, but undermines the ability of the COBRA ninja force to defeat their common enemy. "I am a blade of grass that pushes against a rock until the stone splits. That which appears harmless can destroy a mountain, with time and persistence."

TIGER CLAW G.I.JOE NINJA APPRENTICE File Name: Johnson, Chad M. Primary Military Specialty: Infantry Secondary Military Specialty: Weapons Instructor Birthplace: Douglas, Massachusetts TIGER CLAW has recently earned his code-name after completing his highest level of training as a ninja apprentice. Taight by martial arts master SNAKE-EYES in the ways of the warrior, TIGER CLAW has joined the cause of reuniting the broken halves of the elite ARASHIKAGE clan. After watching a martial arts movie as a boy, he was determined to learn the art of stealth and the art of the shadow. He pushed himself hard to master the arcane lore and demanding skills that enable ninjas to accomplish the impossible with grace and power, earning him a rightful place on the GI JOE Team. He is also a qualified weapons instructor with expert knowledge in all indirect fire systems and individual, crew-served and anti-armor weapons. "I dedicate my strength, my skill and my sword to the fight for good."

BLACK DRAGON NINJA COBRA NINJA WARRIOR Primary Military Specialty: Mercenary Secondary Military Specialty: Ninja Master The elusive and shadowy Black Dragon Ninja forces have been secretly brainwashed by Dr. Mindbender to guard Cobra Commander in case the Arashikage Clan ninjas ever decide to take control of Cobra for themselves. But it's not that east to fool the suspicious Storm Shadow. He discovered the brainwash command and used the Arashikage "Atsui Nami" deep mind control technique to overwrite the evil doctor's subliminal commands. Now the Black Dragon Ninja forces outwardly act as if their allegiance is to Cobra Commander, but in reality, they are loyal only to Storm Shadow. "We are swift and silent, shadows in the darkest hour of the night, unless by you until we strike."

Actually, that one for Black Dragon is lifted from the Black Dragon Ninja that came with the Toys "R" Us Cobra Ninja 6-pack a while back, and really isn't especially applicable here, and I'll explain why. Let's turn to the comic book and the DVD.

For those like myself who have followed G.I.Joe from the outset, there's some real continuity problems with both, even between each other, let alone what Larry Hama laid down as G.I.Joe lore. But, in and of themselves, perhaps seen as "alternate universes", they're not bad.

The comic book introduces us to Iron Master, who tends the forge of the Arashikage Ninja Clan, to which both Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes belong. He introduces the history of the Arashikage Clan, and not only the rift caused by Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, but an earlier one, caused when Iron Master's sword brother, Black Dragon, abandoned the ways of the ninja and formed a mercenary army.

This ties in reasonably well with the 2003 Convention Set, as the Black Dragon character shown during this "flashback" matches the appearance of the figure that was offered in the set, even though that Black Dragon's file card specifically states that the character is not a ninja, nor are his troopers, and I'll grant that ninjas can get a little overused in the Joe universe at times. On the other hand, Iron Master says that Black Dragon had turned his back on those ways. Additionally, the comic book features the Black Dragon Troopers that were part of the Convention Set, and it's nice to see them here.

The story in the present day has Black Dragon, who although listed as a Cobra on his file card, is working independently, kidnaping the apprentices of Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes, specifically Shadow Strike and Tiger Claw. Black Dragon is after immense power that can be provided by uniting two halves of a clan medallion, worn by the apprentices, at a certain place at a precise time.

Iron Master tells both ninjas that they must work together to overcome Black Dragon and rescue their apprentices, which they do, but then they part ways once again.

There's some consistency and some holes in the story. Iron Master comments that Storm Shadow is brainwashed. And yet the story also claims that the Hard Master was killed by gunfire, not an arrow. Still, it's a capable tale, if strangely uncredited. No writer or artists are listed. The artwork isn't bad, but it's not that spectacular either. No mention of current comics publisher Devil's Due whatsoever, although I have heard that the comic was written by current comics writer Brandon Jerwa, and the artwork was "in-house" from Hasbro. Overall, from a quality standpoint, I'd put the comic book above the little insert comics that come with the two-packs of figures, but somewhat below the standard comic book.

There's a few things worth noting. For one thing, the comic book cover says "Valor vs. Venom" on the cover, the only time this logo appears anywhere in this set. Why they didn't use the Ninja Battles logo they developed is beyond me. Also of note are the classic likenesses for Slice, who appears as he did in his last traditional-style form, and Jinx, who appears in an orange version of her traditional-style Tiger Force uniform, which is how she was illustrated on that file card, even though the figure was done in green. Yeah, I know -- I'm being picky.

Then we have the DVD. I expected a retelling of the comic book story, but this isn't the case at all. In fact, it's a revised telling of what caused the split between Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, and as such sundered the Arashikage Ninja Clan. One point that both the comic and the DVD make is that the Hard Master was Storm Shadow's father, not his uncle, as the original comic book, whi ch I consider official continuity by default, states.

Iron Master tells the story to Tiger Claw, who has just passed the final tests to become a ninja. Iron Master ir forging his sword. He tells of four tests, which it's worth mentioning are hinted at in the comic book, that Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow had to endure, and how these tests brought out the true characters of the two ninjas. This portion of the story is told in what I would describe as semi-animated comic art. Still shots with mild computer enhancement and minimal animation are used here. The artwork itself isn't bad at all, but it's very limited. This is interspersed with CGI animation taken from the SpyTroops and Valor vs. Venom movies.

One cool shot from the comic art animation shows a massive horde of B.A.T. troopers, and they're very clearly the original Battle Androids from 1986.

But again, there are story inconsistencies, even between the DVD and the comic book. In the DVD, Shadow Strike is not Storm Shadow's apprentice. He is in fact a Cobra spy, who helps to subvert Storm Shadow to the Cobra cause, which is finished by Cobra Commander with the brainwashing. This at least is in keeping with the file card description for Shadow Strike, if not the comic book, although there is some indication even on the file card of the "apprentice" role. Yeah, it gets a little confusing. One consistent point, at least, is Storm Shadow's brainwashing, as is the notion that Storm Shadow believes that Snake-Eyes killed the Hard Master. This, however, is not in keeping with established history. But I'll leave it alone for now.

Black Dragon doesn't even appear in this DVD, which could arguably be said to take place before the events of the comic book, assuming it's even possible to make the connection, given Shadow Strike's different role. The DVD ends with an all-new CGI segment, which turns up as the comic art fades into the CGI mode, in a very impressive special effect, I must say, with a huge ninja battle between the Joe and Cobra ninjas (with Duke getting a couple of good punches in). And it's not just the characters from the set. Kamakura, Jinx, and several others turn up.

So, my final word on this set? I'm a little bothered by two things -- the lack of consistency story-wise between the file cards, the comic book, and the DVD, and I really wish these had been traditional-style figures. That second one, admittedly, is a little too much to hope for just now, but I do think a bit more attention should have been paid to the storyline between the various elements. Admittedly, though, even Hasbro acknowledges that the new-style G.I.Joe merchandise is intended more for kids than collectors.

Having said that, the various elements on their own are quite cool. The DVD tells a fascinating tale of a history of the Arashikage Ninja Clan and its best-known operatives. The comic book tells my favorite kind of tale -- where the good guys and the bad guys have to team up because there's something that threatens them both. The comic book is a little simplistic, but not bad. And the figures, even if they're new-style Joes, are decently made, introduce two new characters, and bring a one-time Convention Exclusive into the current mainstream continuity (with a little help from the comic book).

I'll have to say this -- between some of the storylines that are developing, both in the toys and the comics, the Convention Sets, the TRU 6-Packs, and special sets like this, whatever I may think of some of the actual product, there's no denying that the G.I.Joe storyline is as epic and extensive as ever, quite probably moreso!

And, as I said before, where else are you going to get a set of five decent action figures, two of which are new characters, and pretty cool ones at that, weapons and accessories, a battle arena, a comic book, and a DVD -- for under $15.00? Certainly the set is selling well. I've seen three shipments of it blow out of my nearest Wal-Mart in about two weeks time.

If you're a collector of G.I.Joe from the very start, and you can put up with the type of figures and some story inconsistencies, this is a cool set. If you're planning to give this set to a kid who's not all that concerned with those details, and arguably that is who the new-style Joes are intended for by Hasbro's own admission, guaranteed he'll be delighted. Overall, even with a few faults, the G.I.JOE NINJA BATTLES SET is an impressive item in the G.I.Joe line, and it definitely has my recommendation!