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Mini Ninjas regressive style was refreshing for a waylaid gamer like me. Life hearts, checkpoints, and level-based design hark to a simpler time when plumbers and night-capped elves were in fashion rather than steroid-pumping, gun-toting square-jaws.
The only problem was my memory of simpler days was better than any time I had with Mini Ninjas. Beneath the retro skin is a game that is needlessly repetitive and unremarkable. Mini Ninjas is no advert for retro gaming. It's more an advert for tried-and-tested casserole design - someone needed to taste this while it simmered.
Mini Ninjas suckered me in initially. A game about ninjas who are miniature? What's not to like about the concept? It's like chocolate on top of more chocolate. That's what I thought Mini Ninjas was going to be. Cutesy art style, a young hero learning his ninja trade in his home village, all that was missing was him proudly holding aloft his black ninja garb to no-one in particular.
Each level has a Mario 64-like simplicity. Fetch the stuff, give the stuff to the dude, kill the bad guys, and get to the end. When it came to killing bad guys the game was more like Ocarina of Time with its mostly-one-button combat. But throw in a bit of fishing, some magic spells, an aerial weapon substitute in the ninja stars, and it was like I was struggling to get comfortable with the N64 controller all over again.
But while Mini Ninjas stirred memories of Hyrule and reminded of Banjo Kazooie, on closer inspection it was simply too basic. Simplicity became monotony. Accessible one-button combat became an endless trial of repetition. The goal became cathartic light at the end of a big long tunnel.
Mini Ninjas regressive style was refreshing for a waylaid gamer like me.
Since coming back to play games again, I've enjoyed game's ability to riff on a single theme. Super Mario Galaxy, for example, takes the straightforward idea of adding gravity to the Mario universe, but it takes it in a whole host of directions. There are so many stars to find and yet not one proves a mundane task. Galaxy is so simple yet so multifaceted. One of the things I don't miss from retro days is how repetitive old games could be. Even some of the early Zelda games saw you fight through the same old enemies over and over, and returning to them now can be an arduous chore.
Mini Ninjas, much like the stoic ninja, has shunned this evolution. Ninja after ninja, screaming 'Ninja Ninja!' in a stupid squeaky voice. After half an hour it was cute. After twelve hours I had to go wash out my brain. If I never see or hear a ninja again, it will be too soon.
For all this barracking, I had a soft spot for Mini Ninjas.
I'll admit there is a lot of different magic to use, and many different types of ninja to play, as well as a variety of goodies to discover. But it lacked a reason to go after any of that. The most effective way to deal with the enemies was to stick to what I was given from the start - simple sword stun and attack abilities. None of the wonderfully realised alternative ninjas were as effective as my main guy.
For all this barracking, I had a soft spot for Mini Ninjas. But beyond a sentimental attachment to games of my former years I had to admit that this was below par. I still levy against it because it could have been so much more. It could have been more than a reminder of simpler days, potentially evolving the classic action adventure like Castle Crashers did the brawler. But it ended up being something of a retrograde step - in a bad way.
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