Although ninjas enjoy swanning around in their pyjamas all day, they’re generally regarded as tough-as-nails warriors, eternally loyal to their master and able to slice the nuts off a squirrel at fifty paces. You almost never see them splayed out on the couch, beer can in one hand and remote in the other, watching back-to-back Top Gear on Dave. There’s always an evil warlord to be vanquished and a village or two to be saved, and if they’re really lucky, a childhood sweetheart to rescue.
Even though the eponymous mini ninjas are mere children themselves, their life is no less tough. Their world has been plunged into chaos with the rather predictable arrival of an evil warlord, who is abusing the ancient art of Kuji magic to transform innocent fluffy creatures into sinister-yet-squeaky henchmen. The mini ninjas are dispatched individually to restore the balance of nature, but none of them return. Soon the group of six is whittled down to just two: a powerful hammer-wielding lug called Futo, and an expert swordsman called Hiro who just happens to be a dab hand at the old Kuji spells himself.
The ‘plot’ is entertainingly divulged via a stylish black and white cutscene, then you’re thrust into Hiro’s ninja boots as he completes his training and sets off to rescue his rather useless companions. Although the ninja village isn’t particularly large, you’ll soon come across vast woodland environments that are drawn with a particularly pleasing cartoony style, similar to the 3D Zelda games. Some of the areas are breathtaking in scale, taking in vast chasms and canyons with little to no load time between sections. Unfortunately there are some quite bland and barren areas, and interactivity is limited to smashing a small number of pots and picking up the occasional flower or fungus. You can’t even beat up the chickens, like that impish rogue Link.
You’ll come up against a vast number of henchmen in your quest to defeat the evil warlord, armed with everything from swords and spears to exploding arrows and bombs. Thankfully your ninja skills give you a clear edge. Combat is like a very stripped-down version of Ninja Gaiden, with a limited number of slash, stun and block moves available. It’s very easy to get the hang of and extremely effective, although some proper combos would have been appreciated. The other ninjas become selectable characters as you rescue them and you can change between them at any time. Each has a unique weapon, such as tiger claws and even a flute, but only Futo’s hammer and Shun’s bow are of any real use. Hiro is the only character capable of using magic and his sword is more than enough to dispatch most enemies, so you’ll likely play the vast majority of the game as him.
Ninjas aren’t traditionally known for using magic, but the Kuji spells add an extra topping of fun to combat and prove useful in other areas too. You have your usual fireball and whirlwind spells for dealing with crowds of enemies in a violent and stress-relieving manner, but you could also sneak right by the lot of them by channelling your spirit into the body of a woodland creature. Or disguise yourself as a tree, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat. Of course, if you choose the stealthy approach then you’ll miss out on the experience that comes with killing enemies, and subsequent level-ups which bring extra health, abilities and magical strength.
Each ‘chapter’ ends with a boss battle reminiscent of the God Of War games, with quicktime sequences which alternate button-mashing and hitting the correct sequence at the right time. Fortunately these sections aren’t too tough and won’t leave you with bleeding, blistered digits. In fact, the boss fights manage to retain the same comic nature of the rest of the game. Take, for instance, the very first boss you come to - a huge ninja you meet in a temple that’s almost as big as he is. How he actually got inside the temple is left unexplained, but that’s irrelevant. He sets on you with his mighty sword but quickly gets it jammed in a pillar, giving you ample chance to run up the blade and slap him about the chops, then somersault over his head, pull his pants down and deal a hefty blow to his backside. Sweet.
Mini Ninjas is quite cute and cartoony in nature, which makes it all the more surprising that IO Interactive are the company behind it. Those guys are best known for the violent Hitman games and Kane & Lynch, both of which contained more death, destruction and foul language than the average Butlins holiday. Those games were also quite difficult, and this is another area where they vastly differ from Mini Ninjas. On normal difficulty, most levels should provide very little challenge to anyone with a basic experience of third-person action games. Even with vast numbers of enemies surrounding you, it’s possible to simply jump about the place and slash them to ribbons without even having to block. Health can quickly be rejuvenated by picking up apples, or mixing potions from ingredients you find. In fact, the only times you’re likely to die are when the camera suddenly zooms into a patch of grass as you’re mid-leap, or if you’re playing with the mouse-keyboard combo and get muddled. The harder difficulty level provides more of a challenge, but still less than most games of this ilk.
Despite this, Mini Ninjas is still great fun and will definitely appeal to younger gamers, who are unlikely to get frustrated and give up. Playing through to the end should take a good few hours, especially if you aim to hunt down all of the collectables - between the coins, ingredients, dojo statues and hidden shrines, there’s a lot to find. However, replayability is sadly limited, especially since there’s no co-op or multiplayer on offer. As a budget title or rental, Mini Ninjas would be perfect, but it’s hard to recommend as a full-price purchase unless you have gamer kids desperate for a new fix. Otherwise, wait until the cost shrinks as small as the heroes.
The Mini Ninjas recommended system requirements are a dual-core processor with at least a gig of RAM and a 512MB graphics card. To check your rig is up to the task, create a Game Debate account then login and return to this page, and the breakdown at the top should let you know.