US: 8 Sep 2009
There’s been an interesting trend over the last few years of American cartoons mimicking the style of Japanese anime, big eyes, speed lines, and all. But despite this new style, the content hasn’t changed much. It’s all still superheroes and frantic comedies. Mini Ninjas tries to buck this trend of simple mimicry by embracing its chosen subject, finding a way to incorporate as many ninja myths into its gameplay as it can, but it still ends up feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is symbolic of the disconnect between what the game wants to be and what it actually is.
It wants to be an open-world adventure game like The Legend of Zelda, but it’s really a linear hack and slash. It hides its linearity with big spacious levels. You’re always outside, which makes the world feel bigger than it is, and your path through grassy fields, rice paddies, and snowy mountains is very wide. There’s a lot of space to run around in, but your ultimate path forward is always just straight ahead. You’ll find the occasional side quest, but there are only four in the entire game. There are hidden shrines where you can learn magic, but the paths to these secret areas are clearly lit with fireflies. The game wants you to think exploration is rewarded, but it’s not.
Mini Ninjas gives you a lot of options for combat, but most of it is unnecessary. There’s a huge variety of weapons, some that are naturally associated with ninjas (swords, bows, shurikens, caltrops, smoke bombs) and others that are not (spears, hammers, claws, a flute), and you can switch on the fly between five different ninjas that specialize in a given weapon. But the main ninja, Hiro, is usually more than enough for any combat situation, and since he’s the only one of the group that can use the powerful kuji magic, there’s little reason to ever switch him out. Some enemies are easier to kill with certain ninjas, but those encounters are few and far between.
The variety of combat options pays off with the kuji magic. Some spells are just fun (possess animals), some are supportive (wall of wind, shock blast), some are vaguely effective in combat (freeze enemies), and some are highly dangerous (fireball, lightening storm, meteor shower). They all may be somewhat unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, since all enemies can be killed fairly easily with normal attacks, but combat is made easier, faster, flashier, and more fun with the magic.
You can buy recipes for special potions, then mix those potions with ingredients that you find scattered throughout the levels (a slight reward for exploration), but the support these items offer is never needed. Normal attacks or kuji magic are usually effective enough against enemies.
Even with all these items, all these spells, all the recipes, herbs, and ninjas, Mini Ninjas doesn’t amount to much more than your standard hack and slash. But unlike most games of this genre, it’s a fun hack and slash. Its Saturday morning cartoon version of feudal Japan is charming, and it’s hard not to smile at the bumbling henchmen, however clichéd they may be. Yes it entirely unnecessary to possess a bunny, use it sneak into an enemy camp, and pop out for a stealth kill, and this may just be an example of self-imposed rules added to make the game more challenging. But even still, doing so is not without its appeal. The final level reaches heights of absurdity that seem out of place amongst the rest of the game, but the concept is awesome and well executed and makes for a satisfyingly climatic finale.
Mini Ninjas doesn’t live up to its own ambitions, but it succeeds where it matters: it’s an entertaining romp.