Wot I Think: Mini Ninjas

By Jim Rossignol on September 17th, 2009 at 3:42 pm.


It was something of a surprise to see Io Interactive announce that their next game wasn’t going to be another Hitman title, or any other kind of manshoot, but instead a new direction based on cute cartoon ninjas. That game, Mini Ninjas, is came out this week, to a mixed reception. Needless to say, I’m going to tell you Wot I Think…

Having played the demo of Mini Ninjas had limited expectations for the full game. It seemed a little twee, perhaps even irritating, and the simplicity of play in the demo didn’t seem like the kind of challenge I generally look for. Admittedly, a cute third-person action game isn’t even my usual fare, but I wanted to take a look at how some of the things I’d seen in the demo were going to be developed in the full game. I installed and got cracking. After a few hours of play I realised, to my surprise, that Mini Ninjas had me entranced. Just when I was about to give up because something was irritating or boring, the game went and did something smart or cute, and I was interested again. So what does it do right?

While bland at times, and sort of appropriately stereotyped with its medieval Japanese music and caricatured visuals, there is a level of cuteness throughout that ends up being endearing. The little baddie samurai are almost too sweet to kill, with their diminutive aggression and squeaky rage, but fortunately you’re freeing the woodland animals trapped inside them, so there’s a kind of cute equilibrium that is maintained by violence. The environments are occasionally uninteresting, particularly towards the start of the game, but they deliver enough in the way of beautiful moments for you to want to keep looking forward: paddling down rapids on your ninja hat-boat (which doubles as protection from arrows), or crossing a river full of floating lanterns that are an SOS message from a village upstream, or sneaking through a haunted graveyard to assault a sprawling, dark, Japanese fortress. All these things all add up to a fun place to be, and to explore. Yes, like a good childrens’ storybook, it feels like a well-crafted object – artful and solid, while retaining a air of innocence.

And you’ll need to explore, too, albeit in a linear fashion, to unlock new spells in hidden shrines and uncover useful secrets as you quest. If you’re a collector type then it will become compulsive, because the woods and valleys are littered with things to loot, such as mushrooms and roots, some of which can be returned to optional quest-giver birdmen characters, for other additional rewards. These guys occasionally act as shops, too, allowing you make potions from the things you find in the woods. So far, so cute, but it’s the fact that the game escalates through an interesting feature set that keeps it surprisingly engaging.

Mini Ninjas is a linear third-person action game that combines very simple combat with very simple movement to create a game that feels, at times, rather unambitious. You whack at enemies with two different basic attacks, and they go down easy. Of course this also means that it’s incredibly accessible, and very easy to play with mouse and keyboard – wall-running, leaping up barriers, sneaking about, all come naturally. However, the way that the game evolves – by giving you knew abilities, via a spellbook, an inventory, and additional even ninjas – is perfectly tuned. The curve of progress is the perfect drip feed of new stuff, and there are occasional peaks of surprise, such as when the bow-ninja first fires his explosive arrow, or when you realise you can scale the rooftops of a castle to infiltrate it.

Possibly my favourite thing about the game is the ninjaness of it – you can hide in long grass and bushes to remain invisible to your enemies. While they generally don’t pose too much of a threat to you, it’s incredibly satisfying to creep up on them, leap out, and deliver a flurry of deathblows.

Each of the ninjas has their own speciality, but it’s the core ninja, Hiro, that the game – and therefore your play – defaults to. There are quite specific situations that cannot be dealt with by him, but a puff of ninja smoke brings in any of the others, and then you’ll quickly swap back to Hiro again in an instant. As you gain more abilities, and Hiro becomes more potent in battle, you’ll find yourself coming up against marginally tougher enemies – making things like your innate stealth all the more useful. Long range exploding arrow enemies, and then floating witch-baddies, begin to make life more difficult, and you learn to use your skills and spells accordingly. By the end of the game the battles feel like they’re just getting interesting, and it’s a shame it doesn’t ever really stretch you, or demand that you find interesting ways to use the full set of ninjas.

Where they don’t really help – and where I was most disappointed – was in the boss battles. These are about dodging death and then running through what amount to a repeated series of quicktime events. They’re quite disappointing, even if the character design is at its most charming. There are also some issues with save points: activate one when you are on limited health and you might be in for a long backtrack to find health every time you restart a tricky section. Fortunately the game isn’t too tricky, but there’s no reason for the PC version of a game not to be able to save at any point. Really, no reason. Don’t go making excuses.

If there’s a real problem with Mini Ninjas, however, it’s that it’s not quite ambitious enough. There’s some lovely design in there, everything works and “feels” right in its place. Even the pervasive tweeness is happily counteracted by some fun ideas in ninja-combat and movement, which ultimately progresses far enough to keep you interested for most of the game. But there’s no real replay value because the levels are so linear, and because the toolbox never quite gets large or varied enough to reward experimentation in the way it does in certain other action games. It’s just not enough game. In the meal of gaming, it’s a well-made salad for starters.

Perhaps if there had been co-op or some other feather in the cap of this little assassin, then Mini Ninjas might have been a worth recommending. As it is overall experience feels lightweight, and destined for the bargain basement end of the purchasing spectrum. That might seem like a significant bum note to end on, but actually I’ve found the game more entertaining than not – there were even a couple of moments when I cooed with delight – and it gives me hope that Io will prove to have more strings to their bow that we other realised. Not a failure, then, just nowhere near being a masterpiece.

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61 Comments »

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  1. Lack_26 says:

    Yet another reason why I advocate bargain boxes at corner-shops for games. Then I would play games like this that I would otherwise not.

    • Mathieu says:

      And the game developer will not see a dime… Granted it’s not an indie title but it’s still something you need to have in mind when buying (or renting) a used video game.

    • Optimaximal says:

      But he wasn’t talking about used games, rather games that have just been discounted but are still new – in this case, the retailer is taking the hit, as the pub/dev got all they were ever going too when the game was purchased up front.

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  2. Lewis says:

    Still not played the full version of this. I found the demo to be utterly lovely.

  3. MrBejeebus says:

    Why did IO have to do it? I want hitman!

    Good review though

  4. Lack_26 says:

    @Mathieu,

    Yeah, I never really thought the idea through. But I just wish that real games were easier to buy, most of the ones in the shops are £20 plus, and in town. Which means I have to walk there (admittedly not to long a walk, 20-25 minutes power walking.)

    But it means I don’t make impulse buys of games, since I only go to these places with a specific objective. So I usually end up thinking long and hard if a game is worth my money, it usually isn’t.

    Oh yeah, and I hate buying stuff online, it means I have to fuss around with things like bank accounts and credit cards.

    Perhaps I should just buy a pile of amazon or hmv vouchers when I’m next time and leave them near my computer :)

  5. jsutcliffe says:

    I too find the lack of co-op a little bemusing. I had been thinking until I learned it was strictly single-player it’d be a fun game to get the missus to join me with.

  6. DollarOfReactivity says:

    I was really enjoying the demo until I got killed and lost a half-hour of play back to the last save point. I think I would buy this except for the limited save points – just too much frustration waiting to happen.

    Why does any game on large console or PC have save points anymore?! I was shocked playing COD-MW for the first time recently that it has them, too.

  7. qrter says:

    The 40 euros price on Steam did already seem a bit high (even within Steam’s pricing spectrum).

  8. Shawn says:

    I rented the game and thought it was great. The only problem was I just lost interest after a couple evenings. I really don’t think I made it very far into the game and perhaps the reason I lost interest was my exploration habits. I like to find everything in the level and in this game I end up trying too hard. I spend so much time running around doing nothing that it gets very boring. Of course if you don’t worry about finding all the items there is much more action.

  9. Octaeder says:

    The demo left me somewhat cold. The presentation was lovely but the actual game seemed pretty dull.

    Might be worth a look when it’s been through a few levels of price reduction.

  10. Mike says:

    Despite the ending, this actually makes me very interested in it. I didn’t really know enough about it, it looked and sounded pretty shallow and oversimple. But this makes it sound really quite good.

  11. Metal_Circus says:

    The demo was wonderful – Glad to see the game itself is similarly entertaining.

  12. Heliocentric says:

    What happened to my comment? Eh. In short: IO didn’t just go lofi but it seems low content, i guess in business practise thats fine as long as it was cheap to make, i understand that blood money was obscenely expensive.

    • Mike says:

      Well, yeah, but I think development is coming around to this way of thinking now, with faster, smaller experiments. It’s partly flavour-of-the-month because the iPod is in a lot of newspapers and that means people will pay money for small things, or something. But it’s also because, as you say, game budgets kind of hit critical mass recently. It’s getting way too big.

  13. PHeMoX says:

    “Not a failure, then, just nowhere near being a masterpiece.”

    Yes, but it’s also quite easy to mistake this for a failure, when it’s basically just different and somewhat experimental. I dig the style a whole lot and although I haven’t played with the game that much yet, I think it’s going to be an underrated title. I salut Io for even daring to try something this new. It has a great style.

    To categorize it as ‘bargain bin’ worthy sounds pretty negative to me, although I sort of understand. I must note though, that the Hitman games weren’t exactly perfect either.

  14. Muzman says:

    This sounds like the same thing with the first Hitman game. (well there wasn’t much twee or cute) It’s like they’re a little cautious and still coming to grips with the gameplay they’ve made. But Hitman 1 was apparently some sort of monster hit. Hopefully this does pretty well because I love the look of it and following that parallel Mini Ninjas 2 will be utterly awesome.
    Maybe some DLC levels or something.

  15. ran93r says:

    I feel somewhat ghetto for playing the DS version but it’s quite fun so far.

  16. ZIGS says:

    Why Eidos put IO doing this kind of games is beyond me

    • Psychopomp says:

      I believe IO makes their own choices.

      If Eidos had any say, they’d be Hitman Interactive.

  17. bansama says:

    I found the full game well worth it’s $29.99 asking price. It was extremely enjoyable. Not only that, but it’s one of the rare games my children can get involved with =)

  18. Patrick says:

    I always assumed that this was just IO’s kids’ game, so it’s a bit strange to see it continually compared to Hitman and criticized for not being complex enough. It’s called “Mini Ninjas” and has you as a little boy ninja saving forest animals from goofy villains. Hitman, seriously?

    As a game for kids it’s great. My son is 7 and loves it. He replays it (the early levels that he’s been able to beat) a great deal, and loves finding every little thing in each level. I found it a bit dull after a while, but I find Ron Gilbert’s games for children unengaging as well. That doesn’t mean that they don’t excel within their genre and with their audience.

  19. ChampionHyena says:

    WHERE

    IS

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    YEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAARGH

  20. SteveHatesYou says:

    The most striking thing about the game to me is how polished and bug-free it appears to be. That’s unusual, for an IO Interactive game.

  21. Frye says:

    How disappointing if the game is lacking depth. But i ordered it anyways. I played the demo and i liked it a lot. The engine looked a bit dated, especially when you look closely at grass / bushes and spin around. But i love the use of colors and character design, just very tasteful.

  22. Smee says:

    Hiro the Protaganist, hmm? Looks like someone’s a fan of Snow Crash.

    • Sonic Goo says:

      I believe there’s also a Hiro in, um, Heroes.

    • jonfitt says:

      It’s almost too convenient that for the purposes of stories needing Heroes there is a Japanese name Hiro.

  23. Jim Rossignol says:

    That or they just made the same connection. It’s a fairly obvious joke.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Sarble says:

    “knew abilities”?

  25. suspicious says:

    Is this accidentally an early draft that has been uploaded, there’s an oddly high number of incorrect words and repetition. Sorry to be an internet ass, but you are trying to be professional here, right?

  26. SAeN says:

    You can turn into a panda, WIN! :D

  27. We Fly Spitfires says:

    I love the art style of the game but otherwise it doesn’t appeal to me very much. Maybe I’ll pick it up for the PS3 when it’s on sale at some point.

  28. Hattered says:

    The exploration in the demo was disappointing. I bumped into so many invisible walls I lost interest in testing whether any interesting outcroppings of rock were scalable or not. Seemed a fun bit of whimsy otherwise, though the stages felt somewhat empty at times.

  29. jonfitt says:

    So on a related Hitman note:
    I played the original and liked the missions which could be approached logically and systematically, but hated the combat missions or the ones which were heavily reliant on timing the guards.

    I have not played any of the sequels. Is there one I would like?

    • Muzman says:

      Depends on which of the original game’s missions you are referring to. There’s only about 4 long and involved ones: the big resturaunt, the jungle compound, the hotel and the ship (and many think the jungle compound doesn’t really work that well). If you liked those big ones where you have to wander/sneak around and plan everything quite well to find the most subtle approach, the sequels are much more focussed on that sort of level design in pretty much every mission.

    • jonfitt says:

      I did not like the jungle sections, also I remember getting quite frustrated with the save system. I did complete it though.
      Do any of the later games have quicksave?

    • Muzman says:

      Yes. From memory you get a limited number that varies with difficulty level.

    • Premium User Badge

      luminosity says:

      The save system is by far the Achilles heel of the Hitman games. I can understand the limited saves, and in fact I usually play on the 3 saves difficulty setting because most levels feel designed in a way that 3 saves covers each major point of the level well. But the first game not allowing you to save sucked, and then in Blood Money which was otherwise lovely I found it completely unforgiveable that quitting the game lost you all your mid level saves, and you had to start over next time.

      Even ignoring the times the game crashed, losing all my saves for that level, it also made playing a level forbidding. Don’t have 5 hours to perfect Silent Assassin rating on this level? Too bad, come back on a day when you do!

  30. Scandalon says:

    Was going to play the demo with the wife, but it wouldn’t recognize my non-official 360 controller. Batman: Arkham Asylum did. (But not so great a wife game…)

  31. Heliocentric says:

    I usually played through hitman games once really carefully and planning killing only the bare minimum, then a second time like with an automatic killing everyone i saw.

    Much more relaxing. I tell you.

    • herme bags says:

      i have played mini ninjas. it is a good game but i think you would only play it once, once you have completed it. battlefield 1943 is ok but it is a bit boring after awhile.

  32. Premium User Badge

    luminosity says:

    My biggest problem with mini ninjas was the poor PC controls. By which I mean, there are so many entertaining and varied ways to engage in combat, from the other ninjas, to the spells, to the inventory items, sneaking, and just plain attacking of course. But the interface was obviously ported straight from console controllers to the PC — you’re limited to few buttons, and have to delve into menus to choose between things. A tighter control system that allowed you to access more things more quickly and easily would have made the game a delight where each fight was a chance to try something different. Instead, trying new things out was a chore and I really had to push myself to not stick to the same tried and tested and hotkeyed ways of killing things.

    Oh, and the boss fight in the water where you have to paddle over to the stairs each time was horrible. Bad IO!

    But uhh, otherwise, loved it. :)

  33. toni says:

    i found the game awesomely charming and the combat very satisfying. with the dozens of combinations of bombs, spells and the 5 additional ninjas i was ploughing through the enemies with a smile. it’s all easy to slash, but the combinations of attacks, defense and spells makes it a very orchestrated mayhem. bosses are boring but which game aint guilty of that.

  34. Lucas says:

    I love the Hitman games, especially Blood Money, but I have to applaud IO Interactive for going out on a limb with different stuff like Kane & Lynch and Mini Ninjas. There’s little sadder than seeing a well running dry and being endlessly pumped for little to no gain, so its good they knew when to move on. I hope they find their next “it” game soon.

  35. Choca says:

    The game is utterly beautiful and lovely, yet I finished it without “feeling” anything.

    It’s a long straight road with very few room to wander (think Dungeon Siege), with meaningless fights, boring bosses and secondary features that you just don’t need or even want to use.

    Plus the whole “there are six different characters but one is obviously ten times better than everyone else” is really stupid, like the lack of coop play (which would have given a purpose to the other ninjas).

  36. Dominic White says:

    Really, this IS a kids game, and it’s probably one of the best kids games since Lego Star Wars. It’s light and fluffy and cute and accessible. Comparing it directly in any fashion to the Hitman series just seems weird.

    • Owen says:

      I can’t see where it’s being directly compared it to Hitman series. He just states he was surprised with IO Interactives change of direction from the adult orientated Hitman to something aimed at a younger audience.

      Graphically it looks lovely and I’ll definitely give the 360 demo a try out. Maybe something for the missus, as she loves cute and cuddly. Just need to convince her of the slaughter aspect really. :)

      Also…loving the ability to reply to specific comments!

  37. Jim Rossignol says:

    luminosity: really? I had no problem with the PC controls, in fact I was surprised by how cogent they seemed to be.

  38. Paul Moloney says:

    The little female Ninja doing her stealth creep was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a game (just played the demo last night). I probably won’t buy it but it really should be a hit for the kids.

    P.

  39. toro says:

    Pros: polished game, some uplifting moments mostly because of the ambient music, great panoramic views [like BGE], good combat/artstyle, overall good gameplay.
    Cons: devoid of any meaning, linear with checkpoints, no real story, no map, no challenge, the same enemies in different outfits :)
    The last part of the RPS review is pretty much correct.

  40. Urthman says:

    I think Mini-Ninja’s deserves a few more bonus points just because there are too few decent PC games in this light-hearted cartoony style. I get tired of every game trying to be gruesomer and gorier and more kick-aB-k3wl3r.

    Other than the LEGO games and maybe Kung Fu Panda (the demo seemed promising but I haven’t tried it yet) there hasn’t been a good PC game like this since…Rayman 2? Maybe Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil would count if you stretch a little.

  41. Generico says:

    I loved this game, and I think it is worth every penny of its price. The game is perfectly executed. A feat that 99% of games fall far short of these days. The art style, the presentation, the voice acting, the level design, the technical polish; they are all flawless. The game successfully enthralls and entertains its players, which is the goal of ALL games; a goal that the vast majority of games fail to achieve. Not only does Mini-Ninjas have that magic, it can cast its spell on a wide range of players, another quality most games can not claim.
    Having been a PC gamer for longer than many PC gamers have been alive, I can wholeheartedly recommend Mini-Ninjas to anyone who wants to play a game that is entertaining from start to finish. If on the other hand you desire to be frustrated by a game, or fight with an unnecessarily convoluted control scheme in addition to onscreen enemies, there are myriad other options available. I for one think that Io should be applauded and supported for producing a game that is fun, polished, and endearing.

  42. dave says:

    Eidos has no saying in this. As it’s all owned by Square Enix.

  43. nkvelankumar says:

    how to escape from the snow in the game mini ninjas