Every so often you run into a game that seems to come right the hell out of nowhere: no hype, no build-up, no multi-million pound/dollar/goat-and-chicken ad campaign, just released and dropped on to your lap like an errant cat. Now, standard procedure for these games is to avoid them like the plague – sneaking out a release with no warning? That’s less a sign of quality, more a sign of trying to grab a few sales before the press wise up and rip the thing to shreds. But occasionally, it’s just a simple case of a game slipping though the cracks, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t have a soft spot for these underdogs: they do, after all, make up about 4/5ths of my collection.
Our hero is, well, Hiro, a trainee ninja. The Evil Samurai Warlord (who is nothing if not honest about his villainy) has been running around, causing disasters and generally acting all evil and warlordy. The Ninja Master of Ninja Mountain (upfront titles being something of a running gag here) has been sending his students out to try and put a stop to his plans, but all have thus far failed. He’s forced, then, to rely on his last two, and least likely students, Hiro and Futo, to put an end to the Warlord’s plan.
The first thing that struck me while playing was how familiar the game felt. Not in a bad ‘we’ve seen this all before’ way, but more like climbing into bed after a few days spent on someone else’s couch. If you’ve played any of the classic Playstation 3d games, you’ll be right at home here. I was reminded most of games like the Spyro series back when it was still good. You run around the map beating up some of the most adorable evil samurai I’ve seen in my life, rescuing Tengu (crow spirits) and performing tasks for friendly villagers you encounter along the way. Some are more or less mandatory, like helping a fellow ninja recover his stolen weapons, while others just net you items or experience. Yes, that’s right, this is another action game with RPG elements. Why there’s quite so many of them around these days boggles the mind, but we’ll come back to that later.
There’s three characters you’ll control: Futo is slow, but carries a huge and powerful mallet; Suzume is faster, but weaker, while Hiro… well, really Hiro can do so many different things, there’s no real reason to use the others until you really have to. I mean, he can perform magic, use his hat as a makeshift raft, he’s decently agile and powerful, he gets a good selection of weapons and so on… It’s nice that they offered us the option of different characters, but with the lack of abilities they offer, they become religated to glorified special skills more than anything.
The levels themselves are fairly large, if linear. But they’re let down by the map, which, frankly, sucks. They’re too vague, with a suggestion of where you are and where you should be going. There’s no way of zooming in or getting any more detailed info, and more than once you’ll find yourself wandering around lost or having missed a gap in the wall or so on. The distance you can see is similarly limited, so you sometimes can’t see Tengu or tiny narrow gaps (which are also usually obscured by grass) until you’re practically right next to them.
The boss encounters too, have an annoying lack of markers or pointers. Take the first boss, for example: a gigantic samurai you fight in a two-tiered room. It’s easy enough to work out that you need to climb up to the second floor, and given the size and range of the guy, it’s easy to work out that shurikens are the order of the day. But beyond that, the game offers no real helpful pointers. Where do you aim? His head? His body? The big urn thing strapped to his back? If you look closely at the little impact markers when you hit the head, you can just about see that they’re a slightly different colour than if you hit him anywhere else, but it can be hard to make out on such a small screen.
As mentioned earlier, there are vague RPG elements to the game. There’s a little ring onscreen that fills up as you kill enemies and complete tasks, but all that really does is give you extra health and increase your spirit and stamina meters. The quests, however, fall victim to the same vagueness as the map: early on, I found a bunch of plants which I was told were to be handed to someone in the area. Problem was, I never found the person in question. There were no markers on the map, and not much of a quest log to speak of, resulting in me never finding the person I was supposed to give them to.
The one thing that really stands out in this game, however, is the Spirit Realm sections. In order to travel between areas, you’ll sometimes have to enter the spirit world with Hiro. This takes you to a little area that’s one part Okami, one part Game and Watch. You have to guide a little drawing of a ninja from one side of the screen to the other using the touchscreen by drawing in shapes, cutting out pieces of the stage, blowing into the mic and so on. They start off easily enough, but before long get fairly complex. It’s a very nice touch and not something you’d expect to see.
Mini Ninjas surprised me, I must admit. I went in expecting Generic Adventure Game #12 With Ninjas and found that there was actually, y’know, a game under there. More than that, a game actually worth playing! It does get a lot of things wrong, but those problems aren’t entirely insurmountable. It’s a throwback, sure, but fun never gets old.
+ Cute graphics
+ Classic 3D adventure gameplay
+ The Spirit Realm areas offer a run diversion
+ The way the enemies shout ‘Ninja!’. It just makes me smile
- The map screen is entirely unhelpful
- Cluttered lower screen means you’ll occasionally hit the wrong item or skill
- No real reason to use the other characters when you don’t have to
Score: 7 / 10