As video games have become a lucrative business over the years, big publishers are more and more reluctant to take risks. They seldom surprise us with innovative ideas and new franchises in fear of not reimbursing their initial investment. Because of this, new games like Mini Ninjas release once in a while, or don’t release at all.
Contrarily, we get yearly instalments of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games which all but guarantee a return upon investment. In many cases, these are good games with a lot of manpower and development put into them, but are hardly innovative. There’s only a set number of times you can scale a historical building or complete a deathmatch before getting fed up. Hence, we rely on indie developers to bring us something unique.
But thankfully, every once in a while, a bigger publisher steps up to fill that perpetual void and releases something special. In 2009, that something was Mini Ninjas, an age-friendly 3D action-adventure game published by Eidos Interactive. So how come this game, even after a decade on the market, still receives new ports and endless praise?
Let’s don stylish kimonos and travel back to Edo-era Japan – 2009, to be precise – and find out what made Mini Ninjas resonate with players of all ages.
Sore Wa Ninja Desu Ka?!
The first thing that might come to your mind is – Eidos?! Don’t they publish Hitman and Tomb Raider games?! Kane and Lynch?!! And now ninjas?
It’s true, with a past tendency towards mature projects, releasing a family-friendly game was rather surprising. And that made this game all the more interesting to explore.
Mini Ninjas had a very simple premise. For centuries, ninjas and other residents lived in peace and harmony. That is until the Evil Samurai Warlord awakens and gradually turns every wild animal into a samurai servant and amasses an army. In doing so, he disrupts the balance of nature and prompts action from the kind-hearted Ninja Master.
Valiant ninjas sent by the Ninja Master to investigate this don’t return and only two of them remain: Hiro and Futo. Having no other choice, the Ninja Master reluctantly sends his youngest and least experienced apprentices on a quest to stop the Evil Samurai Warlord and find their missing companions.
Evidently, the story was easy to digest for the younger audience, yet still attractive to anyone thanks to the colourful presentation. It was told through gorgeous cutscenes with each character receiving a separate vignette-style introduction.
Sushi o Kudasai
Surrounding environments spanned multiple distinctly Japanese landscapes, like open rice fields, lush forests and snowy mountains. Scattered off the beaten path were vivid Sakura trees and ancient shrines hidden deeper in the woods. Mini Ninjas employed a number of bright and warm tones in its colour palette and looked like a beautiful storybook.
It wasn’t all just for looks either, as characters could climb trees or rattle a bush to gather fresh fruit and berries. Ingredients like flowers and mushrooms could also be collected and used to brew health potions and whatnot. Using his rounded hat as a raft, Hiro could conveniently catch fish which just as conveniently instantly turned into sushi.
Coupled with traditional Japanese music, this serene, almost otherworldly atmosphere made Mini Ninjas into a memorable and relaxing experience for anyone. While the game was targeted at a younger audience with its colourful aesthetic and lack of violence, players of any age could easily enjoy its charming nature.
Kawaii Desu Ne!
Combat, again, was simple, but not exactly easy; on its highest difficulty, Mini Ninjas provided a fair bit of challenge. As the plot progressed, new ninjas were recruited, but Hiro and Futo, of course, took the spotlight as pivotal characters. Each of the six ninjas played differently and could be switched to on the whim. Wielding a katana, Hiro employed a rather standard set of abilities, but his main selling point lied in the hat.
During combat, Hiro could deflect arrows with his hat or, once again, use it as a raft to traverse a roaring river. Later on, he even used it to flee from an avalanche down a steep mountain. Futo was a complete opposite to Hiro, possessed a bulkier body and wielded an imposing wooden hammer. Of course, there were also Kunoichi, Shun, Suzume and Tora, each of whom possessed a unique set of abilities and styles.
Boss battles were about as serious and violent as any other encounter in the game. One of the samurai bosses had an obvious stomach problem, so his main ability was a fart.
Defeated enemies – including bosses – didn’t die in a pool of blood or gore since they were little animals in the first place. Instead, they would turn back into their original cutesy form: as a rabbit, a fox or a bird. Hiro could also temporarily possess any animal in the vicinity to either sneak past enemies or locate items and ingredients. Animals had a keen sense of smell, so finding useful collectables was much easier due to this.
Mata Aimashou, Ninja!
With its bright visuals and cutesy animals, Mini Ninjas certainly appealed to kids, but it wasn’t childish. Anyone who appreciated Japanese culture and a good adventure would likely have a good time. It’s a game for kids or kids at heart. Hence, the game received high scores and praise from reviewers, regardless of their age.
Following its release, Mini Ninjas spawned multiple ports, spin-offs and even an animated series. Alas, we’re yet to receive a proper sequel. But with Square-Enix now owning the rights and the publisher’s predisposition towards non-mainstream titles, like Nier and Dragon Quest: Builders, there’s definitely hope for Mini Ninjas 2.
Until then, tell us about your experience with Mini Ninjas. Did you play it? More importantly, did you enjoy it? Leave a comment down below.