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A breath of child-like adventuring fresh air, Mini Ninjas is a wonderfully light-hearted and easy romp through fantastic Japanese world overflowing with fun and a satisfying story. Taking a subtle eco-concious slant with combat, my son and I were really impressed with how appealing the whole game was and how it refreshing to find a kids game that wasn't tied to a film or a cheap cash-in.
There's honestly only so much cutesy action-platforming one father can take when it comes to videogames. If I wasn't sick on Mario and his innumerable clones then the Lego series would certainly finish me off and leave me begging for mercy when my son wanted to play games with his Dad. This is the kind of apathy that can leave me to dismiss games like Mini Ninjas as nothing more than half-baked movie tie-ins without the retina-searing 3D movie attached to it.
So I found my expectations completely blown away by this charming and appealing game that gave me some interesting gameplay to deal with and my son the kind of action game he loves. That's not to say we both had a shaky start when the game first started up. As impressive as the opening cut-scene is, the lengthy narration to build up the back story was far too long to hold anyone's interest. It was so long that we actually got out the DS and started playing that for a few minutes until we could take control of Hiro, the mini ninja himself, and begin the story properly.
Once the traditional 'evil Samurai takes over the world' plot points had been discarded we got down to playing the game and having great fun with its combat and exploration. There was nothing too complicated about taking on the enemies - a point that we both appreciated. Having a large range of combo's is all fine and dandy when you're a professional Street Fighter player, but that kind of system has no place in a game like this. Just using one of two buttons to launch attacks made the progression for my son much easier than say, Kung-fu Panda, which was a little more hardcore in its approach to combat.
There's magic and throwing attacks as well, but these were never complicated and I found myself ignoring them until we faced a larger number of opponents. The ability to possess animals was also a neat move and we found it great fun to take over the body of a bear and lay waste to a group of Samurai, or sneak around as a white bunny and discover more collectables.
The ability to possess animals was also a neat move and we found it great fun to take over the body of a bear and lay waste to a group of Samurai, or sneak around as a white bunny and discover more collectables.
The nice touch to defeating the enemies in this game was how they didn't die or just get knocked out. Due to the nature of the 'evil Samurai master plan', the animals of the land were turned into his minions and by defeating them we got to turn them back into frogs, foxes, sheep etc. It's a lovely creative touch that never came across as too cute and actually gave us both a pretty good feeling when beating up the bad guys. We weren't just raising a body count, we were stopping the enslavement of nature and returning the captured animals to the natural world. Not a bad sentiment to get across through the pummelling and high kicking of videogame grunts.
Even though the combat was fun, the exploration of the lands we traversed was equally as interesting. The vibrant colours of the grasslands or the rivers that we ran through really lit up the living room with an amazing sense of place. They looked cartoony of course but the way they had been crafted made the waterfalls and bamboo forests leap out of the screen and draw us further into the game. And the further we progressed through the story the more interesting it became. Part of this was thanks to the large array of characters we picked up along the way and this is where the real depth of the game opened itself up to me.
We each ended up with our favourites soon enough and whilst my son liked the variety of the other characters he was always happiest when playing as Hiro.
Each ninja that we rescued had his or her unique style or particular set of moves that made them so individual. Whereas Hiro was the small, nimble and quick fighter, Futo was the slow, lumbering brute that dealt the greatest damage to enemies - perfect for the bigger encounters that we faced along the way. We each ended up with our favourites soon enough and whilst my son liked the variety of the other characters he was always happiest when playing as Hiro. After all, its really his story at the heart of the game so my choice of Suzume is more down to aesthetics and her cute, flute-playing skills than anything else.
In the end our journey through the land and restoring nature to rights was an extremely satisfying experience for me and an entertaining one for my son. It doesn't possess as much humour as perhaps he would have liked with its eco-message and Zen aesthetics. But in a world when most games aimed at the younger audience overdo their Jack Black-style stand up routine, it was nice to play a game that didn't treat either of us idiots. With its heart and soul in such a strong place it never failed to engage and kept my sanity and his boredom at bay.
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