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Mini Ninjas (Xbox 360) artwork

Mini Ninjas (Xbox 360) review

"When there's something to do, which is much of the time, Mini Ninjas can be a lot of fun just because of the number of offensive options that it provides."

Samurai warlords have an unfortunate tendency to eventually escape from anywhere that heroes imprison them, usually hundreds of years after the fact with anger and dark energy to spare. It's a law of the universe, one that's in full effect as the unlikely tale of Mini Ninjas begins. I say "unlikely" not so much because the plot is fantastic, though it is, but because until this point developer IO Interactive has been known for the gritty likes of Hitman: Stealth Assassin and Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. It's quite the change of pace.

If you can get past that surprising development, you'll no doubt be relieved to find that a change in subject matter hasn't resulted in a disappointing game. Mini Ninjas certainly has room for refinement, but it's no throwaway project completed by some theoretical 'B' team. There's actually a lot to like if you're not put off by the "chibi" approach. The worst thing about the game is that it often seems content to rework classic ideas rather than developing new ones. Even some of the more spectacular moments (a journey down a mountain with an avalanche not far behind, for instance) have been done elsewhere to memorable effect. If you've already done that sort of thing once, its impact here can be dampened somewhat despite the excellent execution.

Of course, the Mini Ninjas target audience is primarily comprised of people who don't have a lot of experience with the classics of yesteryear. Not only that, but they don't have the razor-sharp reflexes that were often the result of years spent playing quarter munchers. Perhaps for that reason, you'll find that things typically progress at a leisurely pace. That's particularly true of the opening area, where the player assumes control of a pint-sized ninja who must trot around his village while growing comfortable with the various moves at his disposal in a safe environment. Like so many digital ninjas before him, your pint-sized hero can run along walls for short distances, hang from ledges and sneak around while dangling, wall climb and more. If that's not enough, you'll also be able to find special companions throughout the adventure. When they join your cause, they bring along unique special moves and abilities.

While the expanded roster is welcome and adds some variety to the proceedings, most of Mini Ninjas can easily be cleared using just the main ninja character. Futo, a secondary character with a powerful hammer, is the only other ninja that you'll absolutely need to use to clear the game. He's pretty slow, so you'll probably rely primarily on the main character and his repertoire of magic spells. These are obtained in out-of-the-way locations, just off the beaten path. You aren't likely to stumble upon them by accident. Since the skills are so useful, the developers made sure that the very first spell you learn is designed to detect the hidden shrines that house additional abilities. If you know that a stage holds a spell or two, you can take the time to explore as magical butterflies point you toward the elusive objectives.

When there's something to do, which is much of the time, Mini Ninjas can be a lot of fun just because of the number of offensive options that it provides. You're able to sneak stealthily through tall grass and surprise small patrols of soldiers (stealth kills are great), or you can run toward them, leap into the air and then press the appropriate button to unleash a special attack that allows you to dart around in a blur and assassinate several goons at once. Such efforts consume special energy, but your energy is plentiful if you keep the destruction flowing. The game doesn't punish you for attacking just about however you like, either, a welcome fact that makes it easy to decimate entire patrols in seconds. Finding new soldiers, slaughtering them and then scaling a mountain to find even more victims is a total blast no matter how old you are and no matter how cute your warrior appears.

Unfortunately, the occasionally lengthy bits between combat aren't so enjoyable. Maps tend to be expansive, with numerous open spaces where your only company is swaying grass, trees or dancing shadows. Mini Ninjas is atmospheric and that can be a thrill, but atmosphere only goes so far when what you really want is to reach the next thrilling encounter. Moving through stages in a linear fashion usually won't expose this flaw, but the minute you start hunting for the different items that you are asked to collect--not just spells, but a whole assortment of knick-knacks--things slow to a crawl. Then when you're done treasure hunting, you'll often need to follow your helpful compass (triggered on your command but otherwise absent from the screen) just to get back to where you need to be as you work toward the next challenge. Inexperienced gamers will likely be thankful that enemies don't re-spawn, but veterans of more demanding campaigns won't be so thrilled.

Another occasional disappointment is the camera system. While it's generally easy to navigate each beautiful stage (even when you're close against rock walls or hanging from a ledge), problems arise if you decide that you'd like to look down on the action from a higher angle. The game will let you do so and you'll see all of the action unfolding exactly the way you like, but leaving the camera unattended for two or three seconds prompts it to drop back down to a less useful perspective. This quirk can be exasperating when you had everything set just where you wanted it. Perhaps the goal was to make things more cinematic, but I just found myself annoyed every time it happened.

Though I've complained in some detail, I should emphasize that the camera and the occasionally barren environments aren't nearly enough to break the game as a whole, especially since it has a few highlights that attempt to make up for those regrettable lapses in excellence. To find an example of that, you need look no further than the possession system. The evil samurai warlord is raising his army by possessing innocent critters with magic that turns them into mindless soldiers. When you hack them up enough, those soldiers then revert to animal form. Once that happens, you can assume that shape for yourself using your own ninja magic. This allows you to enjoy some covert action, since soldiers seldom think to attack a frog or a rabbit. Running around as a hell-raising boar can be quite the riot and it's fun to hop up to enemies as a frog and then slap them around after returning to ninja form. It's not a major component of the game, but it's interesting just the same.

Boss battles serve as another highlight. They don't happen all that often and the overall strategy to win each of the first four is nearly identical (just get in the right place in relation to your enemy and mash the buttons indicated on-screen), but their presentation is clever enough that each encounter feels distinct when you're in the middle of it. Whether it be a flatulant soldier who blows his stink in your direction or a massive bird that attacks you on the roof of a steep tower, any boss that you battle is lively and dangerous enough to warrant your full attention.

Given the track record that its developer has enjoyed to date, Mini Ninjas had a lot to live up to. For the most part, the game came through just fine. The presumable target audience should be delighted by the beautiful environments--even if they aren't as dangerous as they should be, final stages excluded--and there are enough little quirks to keep things interesting if you're not obsessed with unearthing the next platformer masterpiece. Perhaps the most telling thing of all--at least in my book--is that when I reached the end and it left things open for a sequel, I found myself hoping that it does materialize.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 26, 2009)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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Lewis posted September 26, 2009:

Funny - I came out of Mini Ninjas will almost exactly the opposite impression. I found the slower, exploratory sections to be frequently beautiful, with a real sense for aesthetic stimulation. The action? Pretty much bland, repetitive and mundane, and what brought the game down to painfully-close-to-average for me.

I loved huge portions of it. But too much of it bored me. Such a shame, as I really wanted it to be game of the year material.
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honestgamer posted September 27, 2009:

I guess that just goes to show how ridiculously hard gamers are to please, eh? Half of a game's potential audience will adore the very thing that the other half despises.
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Lewis posted September 27, 2009:

True. Though you're definitely certifiably insane for liking the boss battles. Liking the bosses, sure - they reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki's characters. But the battles themselves? Preposterous, poorly explained and painfully mundane nonsense.

I've said this a few times around the web now, but I really do get the impression Mini Ninjas didn't realise how close it was to being absolutely brilliant, and didn't trust in its own conviction enough.
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zippdementia posted September 27, 2009:

I haven't played the game, but I always find Jason's reviews very convincing. He has a habit of naming his audience and his audience's attributes (in this case I really enjoyed the whole opening where he talks about the pacing of the game for the quarter-munching crowd) which I always find locks things in right away for me.

I think the few times we have played the same game I haven't agreed with Jason's opinion, but that's a matter of taste. When it comes to getting across his point, he really can't be knocked.
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CoarseDragon posted October 01, 2009:

According to Ulrik Hauen-Limkilde IO designed the game for a younger audience (main reason there is no blood). Ulrik also said that they put a lot of detail into the game so much so that even the Samurai speak Japanese.

Anyway I liked your review, for the most part, but perhaps following the developers lead you might have made a stronger point of the fact that the game was truly designed for the 15 and younger set who have little to no experience with gaming. I think that puts the design and game in general in a different perspective.

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