Ninja JaJaMaru is a pretty obscure franchise in the west. As I mentioned in the review for The Great Yokai Battle, it was a series that went by relatively unknown outside of Japan. It’s a shame too since my limited experience with the original Famicom game and the 3D Saturn title were pretty positive. Add to that my experience with the incredible reimagining, and I was hyped to see what the rest of the series had to offer.
As is normally the case with collections, we’ll be covering each title one by one to tell you how they fare. There’s very little to say about the overall package as a whole, since there’s not a huge amount added outside of the norm. You can stick on stuff like infinite lives, and there’s a handy rewind and save state function, but nothing much you haven’t seen elsewhere. It’s a pretty minimal presentation, but considering the reasonable price tag it’s good enough at the very least. The only real problem is the lack of in-game manual to refer to for each of the titles. Sure, these were mostly unavailable outside of Japan so the translation would likely have been a lengthy job, but some of the games really do require it (as I’ll go into later).
Many thanks to the publisher for the review code.
Those who read our recent review of The Great Yokai Battle will no doubt feel right at home here with the original game in the series. As mentioned in that review, it plays a little bit like the original Mario Bros to an extent, except the main character has a shuriken to attack.
Each of the game’s 24 stages (which loop) see you clearing four floors of enemies under a set time limit. Enemies increase in difficulty with their own attack patterns and ways to take them out. The starting witches jump rather floatily and fire short range lightning bolts at you, whereas the pink Clefable-looking creatures require you to jump on top of them to squish them and make them vulnerable to attack. As the game’s timer lowers, the game’s antagonist will start hurling a stream of bombs down at you making the game even harder. It’s as tough as you’d expect from an arcade-like game such as this, but it’s also nowhere near as hard as most arcade titles.
For a start, you have powerups hidden in certain blocks that can give you an advantage. There are minor ones that can boost your attack or speed, and major ones that make you essentially invincible. Whether it be riding a minecart or a giant from, these are a lot of fun and add some quirkiness to the title that adds to the overall enjoyment.
NINJA JAJAMARU BIG ADVENTURE
The next game in the collection ditches the arcade format, much as Mario Bros did with the transition to Super Mario Bros, and instead offers a sidescrolling platforming experience. There are still elements of the original, namely the breakable blocks and power ups as well as the titular ninja, but otherwise this plays very differently to the previous title.
The game has some amazing spritework and I really clicked with it instantly, however that enjoyment wore away almost just as fast due to the game’s rather bland level design. Every stage is a mish-mash of blocky platforms and enemies just appearing for you to take out until you reach the exit door. To make matters worse, most of the levels really drag out their length over the 99 second timer and seem to go on forever.
Bonus round bosses fare better, with you firing upwards as you attempt to take down your foe, but these are over in a flash and send you back to the intense tedium of the rest of the game. It’s a real shame too as this could have been a really great platforming game, but ended up being one that I’ll never want to return to.
NINJA JAJAMARU: OPERATION MILKY WAY
If you thought the last game was a far cry from the original formula, then you’re going to be in for a bit of a shock when you boot up Operation Milky Way as this fifth Famicom entry (the other two are on another collection!) barely resembles the franchise at all. Despite having the option to choose from the titular ninja or his beloved princess, there’s nothing else at all linking the game to previous entries. Heck, your attack is limited to a Mario-style jump attack rather than your traditional shurikens. It really is such a massive shift from the previous games that it’s notable very jarring.
But, once you get over all of that, it’s actually a lot of fun. Set in space, you’re tasked with taking out the evil intergalactic Don Destroyda and bringing peace to the universe. It’s a traditional platforming game and far better designed than Big Adventure with some mostly great level design and exotic locales. Whilst a lot of the obstacles are more traditional, there’s also a bunch that focus on your secondary ability. By holding the run button, you’ll charge a sprint that sends you flying off at super speed. It’s very reminiscent of the super peel out move from Sonic CD and can help you reach places that are too high or far to reach normally. It takes a bit of getting used to due to the game’s lack of instruction manual, but it’s also not terribly complicated to work out either.
What is more complicated though are the dartboard shaped black holes that typically end levels. Finding out how to use them was a matter of trial and error, and it was only in one of the later levels that I realised it was as simple as jumping high enough to align yourself with the hole and pressing up. Speaking of which, the enjoyment of the game is tempered somewhat by the inclusion of a few obnoxious stage sections including one maze that has you navigating the aforementioned black holes to reach the end before the tight time limit runs out. Considering just entering some of these damn holes can be a pain, I’m not ashamed to say I abused the rewind function so I could get on with the rest of the game.
Occasional missteps such as this aside, I can safely say that Operation Milky Way was my favourite game in the collection and it really surprised me by just how different it was.
After the experimentation of the last game, it’s nice to see the franchise returning to its roots somewhat. Super Ninja-Kid continues to be a 2D platformer, but it does try to incorporate some of the traditional Ninja theming a bit more. Whilst the Yokai creatures of the original games are pretty few and far between here, we still have ninjas, ninja magic, and skurikens. Oh, and a captured princess again. Guess she lost her badassery after her adventures in space.
What makes this game better than the second entry is that they’ve actually put some thought into the level design in order to make the game actually fun to play. There’s plenty of verticality and interesting platforming challenges, even if the fundamental controls feel a little bit stiff. Climbing walls can be a very awkward practice, and even jumping can feel oddly quite slow and clunky. It’s fine for the most part …. except when it isn’t. It’s a shame too as the game contains some frankly spectacular set-pieces, especially when it comes down to the bosses, but then you’ll get the odd level (such as a horrendous ice stage that requires you to navigate slippery platforms using the stiff controls) where it just becomes a pain.
It’s definitely visually the best the series has ever been, even if I found that the irritating sections outweighed the fun ones. Whilst it’s not a bad game, it’s also not one I’d be particularly keen to revisit later down the line.
THE GREAT ADVENTURE / THE GREAT ADVENTURE DX
I’ve lumped these two games together as the DX version is simply a colourised version of the other. Unlike most titles in the franchise, this one did see some kind of western release under the name of Maru’s Mission. It’s not quite the same game as certain elements, particularly the bosses, are different but it’s near enough the same. This one is certainly one of the better looking game boy games, and I found that the enemy sprites in particularly looked pleasingly chunky. Unfortunately I was also unable to get very far in this one due to an issue that prevented me from making it past the second boss of the game. With him refusing to take any kind of damage, I was left unable to proceed.
The Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection is a pretty mixed bag, with entries ranging from excellent to tiresome to non-functional. This minimalistic package is also missing some key titles (although some are available in a separate collection) as well as digital instruction manuals that would have definitely been helpful. That being said, the good titles justify the cheap price tag alone and retro game fans should definitely add this to their Switch library!