Who would have thought you could make a ninja cute? And yet that is exactly what we have here with Mini Ninjas, a sort of anti-Ninja Gaiden that shrinks everyone down and gives them big heads. But that doesn’t mean it’s all pink fluffy clouds and rainbows – these ninjas still pack quite a punch.
Mini Ninjas, in a nutshell, is a 3D platformer that mixes a hefty dose of Mario and Zelda with anything from Ratchet and Clank to Sonic. In fact, if you’re familiar with Zelda: Wind Waker, you’re off to a good start; like that game, Mini Ninjas combines a cute and kid-friendly aesthetic with a bucket load of gameplay depth. It’s this dichotomy that runs right through Mini Ninjas, and is the source of both its high and low points.
Let’s start with the plot. An ancient evil has returned to the land, so the wise old ninja master sends off his best students one by one to defeat it. However, none return, so it’s up to the last two ninjas remaining to sort things out.
The main character is Hiro (yes, just like the guy from Heroes), a young ninja with the unique ability to cast magic spells. Hiro is your average every-ninja, capable of sneaking, moving fast, wall-climbing, and all of that. From the start you’re joined by Futo, who’s really not the sneaking kind at all – he’s big and heavy, and very useful when you need to clear away enemies very quickly.
Together, you must set off to get to the bottom of the evil presence in the land. As the intro explains, this evil has been capturing innocent (and cute) animals and transforming them into mindless Samurai minions. These are the enemies you’ll be wading through for most of the game. In true Sonic style, when you defeat a Samurai, they turn back into their original fluffy animal.
This is cool to see in itself (and avoids the issue of people being killed, for the benefit of young people watching/playing!), but there’s also a gameplay side to it. One of Hiro’s powers is to inhabit the body of any animal around. Possess a rabbit, for example, and you can sneak around without baddies noticing you so easily. Get control of a bear, on the other hand, and you can plough through enemies with ease.
It’s a fun addition, but only one spell of many. Scattered throughout levels are hidden shrines that offer additional spells, which range from fireballs and lightning storms to camouflage and the ability to slow down time. You can call up a radial menu to select spells on the fly, but you’ll soon need to start configuring them in your inventory.
Speaking of inventories: there are a ton of items you can collect, from flowers to mushrooms to gold coins. Completists will have a field day here – it’s rather like Lego Star Wars in that regard. Most of the items have a purpose, thankfully – ginseng and the like can be combined (with purchased recipes) into potions that restore hit points or stamina.
Then there are the unique moves available to your ninjas. By holding down the appropriate button, you can – for example – line up multiple enemies as Hiro and instantly kill them all as he zips between them. Suzume, the third ninja you find, will instead play on her flute to mesmerise any bad guys around.
Oh yeah, and then there are a series of hats that, when you wear them, give you further special powers or buffs. You get your first hat at the start of the game, and it protects you from arrows and acts as a raft for periodic river adventures.
Combine all of the above with a plentiful array of button mashing moves and abilities, and you’ve got a heck of a lot to play with. All the ninjas you rescue along the way (who you can flick between at any point) just add to the options available. It’s great that there’s so much depth here to play with – it certainly nullified most of the repetition involved in beating up Samurai after Samurai. But on the other hand, when a game clearly designed to look kid-friendly uses nearly every single button on a modern controller, you’re going to run into trouble. I’m a bit concerned that younger players might just get frustrated or overwhelmed, but maybe I’m worried over nothing – kids these days are probably more dextrous with this sort of thing than me. It just seems like the developers could have designed the numerous gameplay systems with more simplicity in mind.
Complexity issues aside, this game simply looks and feels like it was made with care and attention. So much of it seems to scream “generic platformer”, only to woo you with a well thought-out special move combined with cute graphics. I initially didn’t think the little ninjas had much charisma, but by the end I was attached to their understated reactions to events. Oh, and they talk in short, cute snippets of Japanese, which is much less annoying than Sonic and his menagerie of badly voiced friends.
I’ve already mentioned the graphics, but here it is again: they’re cute, and they work. I kept thinking they should be cell-shaded, but maybe that’s been done to death. As they stand, the graphics are a nice change from “realistic” greys and browns – I always appreciate a bit of colour. The characters are all well-animated, perfectly in line with their cute appearance. This is complemented by the sound, a pleasant mixture of Eastern-themed music and funny sound effects. The enemy Samurai, in particular, are hilarious to listen to.
If your kid is after a solid platformer, Mini Ninjas is worth a look – if you think they can negotiate all the gameplay systems. Heck, if you’re into platform games yourself, most parts of this game could stand next to Mario and be far from ashamed. My only other complaint is a lack of any multiplayer option. Sure, the gameplay has been designed around one player swapping ninjas on the fly, but it would have been really cool to battle the bad guys with at least one other friend. Hey developers, how about a multiplayer co-op sequel?
I hear tell that a demo is out. Just like any Nintendo game, don’t think the cute graphics means the gameplay is basic – give this one a whirl and see if it can drag you away from your gritty first person shooters.