Mini Ninjas Review for Nintendo DS

Mini Ninjas Review for Nintendo DS

The Way of the Ninja

From the makers of Kain & Lynch (Io Interactive) comes one of the most adorable and interesting new franchises for gaming platforms. Mini Ninjas brings exciting, martial arts action to consoles, with cute sensibilities that will likely make the game a hit with general audiences. But how does the handheld version fare?

Mini Ninjas screenshot

Mini Ninjas on DS follows the same basic premise as its console brethren, though the gameplay is presented in a more mission-based format. You’ll play as Hiro, with an option to switch out with two other main characters, Futo and Suzume. A once-defeated, evil samurai has returned to mystical Japan and is taking possession of the local wildlife in order to construct an army of wretched minions.

The progression of the game is well-crafted, weaving minor quests into more integral portions of the story. Your ninja team will aid villagers by retrieving stolen sushi and rice, or rid the countryside of ghosts who are unable to pass on to the spirit realm. Your main quest, however, will lead you to shogun castles where you’ll face off against the samurai horde. The game world is surprisingly large, with lots to see and tons of items to collect. In spite of the ability to teleport from one map area to another, however, the story progression is completely linear.

In concept, Mini Ninjas DS has a lot going for it, but in execution, it is a painful game to play through. From the wonky controls, to an almost-broken camera system, the game begs to be sent back to the drawing board to be completely reworked. As good as the game’s story and level ideas are, you’ll rarely find yourself enjoying what Magic Pockets (the handheld development team) have laid out for you here.

Mini Ninjas DS is divided into two games, really – the action-adventure portions (the bulk of the game) and the spirit world. Most of your time in the game will be spent collecting various plants and other items littered throughout Japan, fighting small groups of samurai, with a bit of scavenging and platforming tossed in for good measure. Again, the formula is sound; the mechanics, however – not so much.

Mini Ninjas screenshot

In adventure mode, you’ll move throughout 3D environments, controlling your character with the D-pad and face buttons. You’ve got a basic attack, you can jump and even wall run, execute jutsus, and make use of offensive items, such as throwing stars and smoke bombs. The camera is controlled with the left shoulder button and the D-pad, and R lets you block incoming attacks. It’s a good set-up, but few things work quite as well as they should.

The controls fail on even the most basic level. Hiro will often get locked into moving along a particular path, though you may be pushing the D-pad in the opposite direction. In these instances, the only way to get him to change directions is to completely let up off the D-pad and redirect him. This is especially troublesome when in combat or trying to negotiate certain platforms.

Mini Ninjas screenshot

Combat is incredibly frustrating as well, and in most cases the best course of action is to simply mash the attack button and flail until you’ve cleared the area of enemies. Your character will often strafe when attacking and moving at the same time, though the behavior isn’t consistent. Turning to face foes, therefore, can be an exercise in futility. To make matters worse, the camera routinely flies upward when engaging in close combat, giving you a great view of the top of your character’s head and little else. You’ll ultimately spend most of your time in battle blindly slashing until the music cues you that the threat is gone.

The touch screen acts as the game’s hub, presenting you with options to switch out characters on the fly, change jutsus and projectile weapons, look at the map, or meditate. Meditation replenishes your Ki, which in turn allows you to use your jutsu techniques. The maps are well-constructed, though the objectives can be confounding at times.

Lastly, though both Futo and Suzume offer some minor differences in playability, you’ll rarely find cause to call upon them. Hiro is the only one who can utilize jutsus or his rice hat (which allows him to quickly raft through rivers and such), and it’s just much more convenient all around to keep him in the driver’s seat throughout most the adventure.

Mini Ninjas screenshot

On the flipside to adventuring, you’ll occasionally be called upon to enter the spirit world. These portions of Mini Ninjas are mostly made up of puzzles that take place in 2D, sumi-e (ink and wash painting) environments. The spirit world isn’t just pretty to look at; these little bits of gameplay make up what are undoubtedly the most elegant and enjoyable portions of the entire game.

Each visit to the spirit world is only a minute or two long, but the puzzles come as a breath of fresh air that almost makes trudging through the adventure worth it. You’ll usually be required to use your ink brush to create structures on the canvas; you’ll then use a knife to reveal hidden elements within the painting – the goal being to see your ninja safely to the other side of the spirit plane. There are even some boss battles that take place in the spirit realm, and though they offer little challenge, there’s much to appreciate in terms of sheer creativity.

Unlike many of the puzzles that comprise Professor Layton games, navigating the spirit world isn’t an element of Mini Ninjas just tossed in randomly. In most cases, these puzzles are represented by spirits blocking your path, and only by defeating them or successfully negotiating their traps will you be able to press onward. It’s a shame the spirit-world puzzles weren’t the main focus of the game, as they’re wonderfully delightful to work through.

The presentation in Mini Ninjas on DS, however, is yet another disappointment, especially in light of the wonderful job done on the console versions. The character models here are blocky and ugly, and the game has none of the cute appeal we were hoping for. Environments often show off an impressive expanse, though some areas look slapped together and rough around the edges. On the other hand, when you enter the spirit world, the game becomes a simple yet lovely display of beauty on the dual screen.

The music and sound effects fare a little better, with a surprising variety of themes that fit snugly alongside the game’s overall motif. The same, silly samurai utterances from the console iterations are present here, but they don’t have nearly the same comedic effect due to the game’s lifeless visuals.

Mini Ninjas on DS is an incredible disappointment. There are clearly some great ideas present in the game, and the story set-up is built upon a solid foundation. Once you push the start button on this machine, however, it breaks down and falls in on itself. The controls are haphazard and unreliable, the combat is frustrating and antiquated, and the visuals are sometimes messy and unpolished. The game retains almost none of the cuteness of its console counterparts – a major factor of this new series. Desperate DS owners might want to consider renting it just to experience the spirit-world puzzles, but no one should seriously contemplate buying this game.

The world of Mini Ninjas on DS is surprisingly expansive, with lots of variety. The 3D environments are solid, but the component parts themselves seem to have been given little love with regards to their construction. The Japanese ink painting-inspired spirit world, though, exudes a simple beauty. 2.6 Control
The character control is unreliable and jenky, with a camera that’s a mess. The touch-screen controls for the spirit world, however, are intuitive and well thought out. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A nice variety of loops that are relatively transparent. Sound effects match the environments and action well. 2.9

Play Value
There’s plenty to do and see in Mini Ninjas DS, and the virtual world is massive for a handheld game. Unfortunately, that’s just more dissatisfaction you’ll have to endure. There is value, however, in both the single-card, multiplayer option and being able to replay the spirit-world puzzles you’ve unlocked

2.8 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Three heroes with specific combat styles and weapons.
  • Multiplayer duels in multiboot (only one cartridge needed).
  • Exclusive Plane of Spirit tactile 2D puzzles.

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