It may say "Mini" on the cover, but these ninjas, and this game, are not to be underestimated.
It's immediately apparent that Mini Ninjas has a style of its own. However, the game's qualities don't stop at its unique visual style. Beyond that, Mini Ninjas turns out to be a well executed and fun diversion.
One major point in favor of the game is its controls. Using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, Mini Ninjas keeps combat and controls relatively simple and uncomplicated, with basic attacks triggered by the B-Button and stun attacks, useful for breaking enemy defenses, executed by swinging the Wii Remote down. This is the core of a relatively simple move set, spiced up with jumping, sprinting, sneaking, items, and spells. Things get a little more specialized when players confront giant samurai bosses, but much like in the Zelda games, the idea is to stumble upon, and then repeat, specific yet simple strategies. There are some minor quibbles, like having to hold down the Minus button to move the camera, or the lack of a level map to refer to, but mostly, the interface of the game makes Mini Ninjas easy to play.
The benefit of this simplicity is that it's easy to start exploring the world. Even the game's potion-making and level-up mechanics are lightweight, enough to make players look forward to gaining a level and gaining another heart of health, but not substantial enough to distract from the core game.
Of course, part of being a Ninja is avoiding detection, not just wading into every situation with shuriken blazing. In Mini Ninjas, stealth is as easy as finding a bush or some readily available tall grass and crouching down. You can even sprint while sneaking from cover to cover, slowly making your way to a more exposed position. This way you can get extremely close to enemy soldiers, useful since sneak attacks from behind add enough bonus damage to typically make only one such strike necessary. Whether you charge into battle or take out sentries one-by-one is usually up to you; the game allows players to confront their enemies in whatever way seems the most fun.
However, groups of enemies complicate matters, and once spotted, enemy samurai will rush to your last known location and start searching the tall grass for you. The AI can exhibit other behaviors too: enemy squad commanders start to run away, cower comically, and look away when they swing their sword behind their backs if all their subordinates have been dispatched. Planning careful ambushes like this can decimate enemy forces, but later in the game, enemies prepare some ambushes of their own, waiting for the player to reveal their position and then swarming from their hiding places.
Part of the reason that the gameplay has this open-ended feel is the excellent level design that Mini Ninjas exhibits. While the game is organized into linear stages, the environments feel wide open and expansive. Draw distances give the mountain valleys an epic feel, and there are side paths and collectibles to encourage exploration. Coupled with the game's easy controls, it's almost like Mini Ninjas evokes a Zelda-lite sort of urge to seek out every nook and cranny. A lot of the game takes place in pastoral grassland and forest, but there are also some surprise white-water rapids, rice paddies, graveyards, caves, and snowy mountains. Of particular note are castles, the levels which precede every major boss. These large outdoor environments are particularly designed to make being a Ninja awesome: you've got castle walls to scale, rooftops to sneak over, and almost always a choice in exactly how many enemies you want to fight, or sneak past, on your way.
The immersion factor is helped by the game's consistently clean, stylized visual style. Mini Ninjas doesn't attempt to push boundaries in this field; the draw distances often let you see entire meadows, but the water is little more than a stylishly opaque flowing surface, and sometimes you can see individual bunches of grass pop in as you get closer. However, Mini Ninjas uses this modest technology to create colorful, convincing, and evocative environments. This extends to other parts of the game too: the characters and enemies are cleanly drawn and animated in such a way to give them style and personality. The clean and crisp art style, only vaguely inspired by oriental art, is perfect for a game that's full not just of action, but of light-hearted adventure and comedy.
The graphics are not the only area marked by modest successes balanced by equally modest shortcomings.
At 13 hours in length, Mini Ninjas is long enough to feel epic and satisfactory, and in some ways this is the perfect length for an attainable sense of fun without hefty and draining time commitments. However, this means that while Mini Ninjas can sometimes evoke action-adventure headliners like the Zelda games, its own journey is a shorter and more restricted experience.
Likewise, the game's audio gets the job done in a pleasant but unremarkable fashion. Unlike other games that seek to create aural set-pieces, Mini Ninjas has a relatively constrained variety of ambient music and themes that are reused throughout the game. This isn't to say that the audio work is unsuitable, though. The sounds of the game can be both soothing in exploration and striking in battle, and the game's few instances of voice acting and narration are perfectly executed (bringing to mind the wise, grandfatherly tone Japanese actor Mako used in the 1980's Conan movies). However, the sound design ultimately veers away from the bombastic in order to give the game a sense of calm consistency.
Also, Mini Ninjas contains several gameplay elements which, though well implemented, feel extraneous or unexploited. There are five playable ninja friends who can be switched at the touch of a button, but there's seldom a reason for players to switch away from Hiro, the initial protagonist. This is due both to his ability to cast useful magical spells and also the lack of utility, or appropriate situations, for some of the other characters' abilities.
The game's potion making aspect is a pleasant excuse to scour levels for collectible herbs, but there's practically never a situation where this becomes a major reason why a player will or won't have difficulty. Likewise, while there are plenty of combat items, like pepper bombs and shuriken, it's possible to play the entire game without using any of them. For example, I was excited to collect spiky caltrops that I could drop for enemy samurai to step on, but it turns out I beat the entire game without ever using the exotic ninja accessory.
One final quibble is that the game lacks a map system, a strange omission when the game's environments are as large and interesting as they are. Instead, players can press the Plus button to meditate for a little while to review their objectives and get an arrow pointing to the next destination.
Mini Ninjas may not blow down any doors, but it is unique and very well executed. It's also fun, with appealing visuals and interesting environments designed for exploration. In some places, the game may fall a little bit short, but don't let that fool you. In the end, it's all Ninja, and not to be underestimated.