The DS version of Mini Ninjas packs almost as much punch as its Wii counterpart.
There's always a danger that the handheld version of a multiplatform game will be an afterthought compared to its console brethren. But with Mini Ninjas for the Nintendo DS, that's not the case. While the DS game adheres to the same story and themes present in the Wii version, it still manages to provide a unique gameplay experience that can be enjoyed alongside the other games, or independent of them.
This means that while Mini Ninjas on the DS has the same overall story as the other Mini Ninjas games – a set of brave, newly trained ninjas (three of whom are playable) must defeat an evil samurai warlord who is upsetting the balance of nature and transforming innocent woodland creatures into a samurai army – the actual content of the levels is almost completely original. And while the developers took the time to design all new worlds to adventure through, they didn't skimp on the content.
Indeed, Mini Ninjas is not a short experience. The game's levels are large; they require either one long play session or a lot of smaller ones to complete. The game can easily take 12 or 13 hours to beat, lasting just as long as the Wii version (and it adds a local wireless battle mode to extend playtime even further). Fortunately, the developers placed several save points scattered throughout each level, and you can even freely travel to previous levels if you wish. If you need to pause the game quickly, you can always halt the ninja action by flipping the DS lid down and putting the handheld into sleep mode.
The DS version of Mini Ninjas is more of an action game than its console counterparts. There's no ninja stealth action here, you must simply clear out enemies wherever you go. To this end, you can hit the hit the A button to perform a basic attack, or hold it down then release it for a charged-up power attack. Pressing X uses selected ninja weapons like blow darts or shuriken, and pressing Y allows you to cast a selected magic spell after aiming it. The game also lets you execute wall jumps and wall running, but these are more for adventuring and take a little patience to get right because of the unforgiving timing or angles required.
In the end, combat ends up a little simplistic. The special ninja weapons rarely seem to do enough damage, and spells, while useful, require time to aim correctly and are thus next to impossible to use in the thick of battle. The boss fights are interesting, since, like the Zelda games, they require you to figure out a specific pattern or strategy, but the rest of the combat often boils down to running from or blocking enemy attacks, and then repeatedly using your own basic attacks to do damage as enemies come into range.
However, the gameplay does have other elements. Mini Ninjas has a handful of quests for players to complete, some to advance in the game, and a few as side missions that aren't strictly necessary. In addition to that, defeating enemies and freeing caged woodland creatures yields experience that is used to level up, which nets you essential new abilities and health upgrades. The game also has lots of herbs hidden throughout levels that you can find and collect. These assorted flowers, grasses, and fungi are important components in potions that you can craft in certain locations throughout the game. However, some of the herbs in the game don't appear to have any use, and the plant distribution seems a little off since some herbs seem unnecessarily rare. Still, it is nice to have an incentive to explore the environments of Mini Ninjas rather than simply fighting your way through them.
With all these herbs, items, and spells to keep track of, Mini Ninja's touch screen use is entirely dedicated to user interface. The touch screen allows you to switch characters, combat items, or spells. The touch screen can also turn into an in-depth inventory for everything you've collected. Some of this functionality, such as choosing to take a moment to meditate, or putting on the ninja cloak, is even perfectly positioned and sized so you can simply slide your right thumb over to tap the icon right in the middle of gameplay.
The top screen is used to show the 3D world and characters of Mini Ninjas, and the graphics do a good job of realizing the levels on the DS. It's true that sometimes the locations can feel linear and walled off, but there are also some larger areas where the game is on par with its console versions in terms of the sense of scale. There are even in-game cut scenes between levels that are well animated and help break up the action. However, it does have to be said that the game's 3D graphics don't quite pass muster when conveying the subtleties of its art and character design. Still, if there were any doubt that the game had visual style, the new Plane of Spirits puzzles will settle the question.
The Plane of Spirits puzzles are touch screen-based puzzles that players solve in order to teleport beyond impassable terrain. They start by using the touch screen to trace indicated designs, essentially drawing a scene to life via line art that's beautifully inspired by oriental styles. Then players continue using the touch screen to draw additional elements into existence or remove other elements, thereby guiding their character past the 2D puzzle and back into the rest of the game's 3D world. The puzzles occasionally make use of the microphone as well. The art in this mode is particularly beautiful, as simple lines drawn across the touch screen are instantly rendered as realistic, solid, black brush strokes. These even have the power to convince you that you're creating artful calligraphy because the lines convincingly end up thick or thin depending on how you use the touchscreen. In fact, some of the Plane of Spirits sections even start out by making the player trace an entire Chinese character that represents the challenge they're about to face.
Mini Ninjas also leverages its Eastern themes in its sound design. There aren't a range of themes, but the general melodies that Mini Ninjas does offer really help the game sell its feudal Japanese vibe. The game shifts into a tense battle theme when enemies are nearby, but what's even better is that enemy samurai will actually cry out "Ninjaaaa!" when they spot you. The game also features a little bit of well-acted voice-over narration as it explains the back story, showing that it's got a bit of style to go along with solid execution.
Admittedly, the DS version of Mini Ninjas does have its flaws. Its controls aren't seamless, especially when it comes to wall-jumping, and it's a much more straightforward, action-oriented title than the other Mini Ninjas games. But it also manages to be a unique and meaningful experience, regardless of comparisons to those other titles. The Plane of Spirits puzzles are an excellent addition, and it offers a lengthy experience with unique levels and content. Add to that the game's general style and good execution, and Mini Ninjas is a game that shouldn't be overlooked, even if you have already played the console versions.