For a game that left us with such an abiding impression of unfulfilled potential, Mini Ninjas is remarkably likeable. The characters, for all the promise shown in their brilliant artwork, are disappointingly underdeveloped and the majority of the gameplay quite repetitive. The showpiece boss fights are feeble, the vaunted ‘control the animals’ feature might as well not exist and the camera controls are a royal pain at times, but despite all these issues the most difficult thing about writing this review has been trying to stop playing the game long enough to type some words onto the page.
At heart it’s a simple little fighting adventure with a bit of exploration, the occasional alternative route and no puzzles at all. Starting out with ninjas Hiro and Futo, you set off on a quest to locate your missing ninja buddies and defeat an Evil Warlord (that’s his name) who’s holed up in a faraway castle. Four elemental samurai bosses guard the path to their master, and the countryside is patrolled by platoons of lesser enemies conjured up from magically subjugated wildlife.
You can swap between ninjas at any time by holding the D-pad and moving the analogue stick. The chosen character materialises from a puff of smoke, the old one vanishes, and you’re awarded access to a new range of special moves and combat abilities.
Your original ninja sidekick, Futo, is the slow strong one, useful for smashing aside big groups of enemies. After that you find a girl ninja who can mesmerise bad guys with a tune on her flute. Then there’s one who can dangle by his toes from ledges and fire explosive arrows. Another thinks he’s a tiger and runs super fast. A second female ninja is quick and agile.
Unfortunately for this cast of superbly animated avatars, most of them will seldom be seen beyond their portraits on the character-select wheel. Hiro, the default ninja, has the best special moves, is the strongest in combat, is the only one you’re allowed to use against bosses and has access to a range of magical abilities that aren’t available to any of the others. Consequently there’s not much point in whipping them out other than to spice up the fighting and add a bit of variety to Hiro’s procession through the ranks of enemy ninja fodder.
Maybe we shouldn’t complain about this, because we wound up using Futo and the arrow-firing one on a fairly regular basis (the others are of little use), but when somebody’s gone to all the trouble of designing these characters, giving them backstories and proper personalities, it’s a shame that they’re so pointless from a gameplay point of view. And we never see them interact with each other beyond an opening cutscene with Hiro and Futo. What a waste!