Retro Game Review: “Ninja JaJaMaru-kun” (Nintendo Famicom, 80s August Special)
Konichiwa! Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the development of opposable thumbs.
Today, we’re going to take a look at Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, an arcade style 2D action game developed by Jaleco and released for the Nintendo Famicom in 1985.
Ninja JaJaMaru-kun is technically a spin-off, as the game stars the little brother of Ninja-kun from Ninja-Kid. Princess Sakura has been kidnapped by Damazu-Dayuu, and since Ninja-Kun is off adventuring elsewhere, the young JaJaMaru-kun must rise to the occasion and rescue her.
The objective of each stage is simple enough: JaJaMaru-kun must run and jump across a multi-tiered stages, all the while using a never-ending arsenal of ninja stars to kill all of the enemies before time expires. If you delay too long in knocking out the monsters, then Damazu-Dayuu will complicate your task by throwing bombs down at you from his perch at the top of the screen. The enemies naturally get more difficult as you progress, and they include ghosts, umbrella demons (Kasa-obake), boomerang throwers, skeletons, cyclops and yellow-ish square demons that look like walking crackers. While defeating many of them is straightforward, some of the later enemies will require a bit more strategy to overcome. JaJaMaru-kun can jump into breakaway blocks in the floors above him, which can cause enemies to fall, or even better, allow JaJaMaru-kun the ability to fall down on top of them, stunning them in the process.
These blocks also contain a variety of power ups, including an invincibility potion, a speed ball, coins for bonus points, and a speed cart of some kind, which makes you both invincible and quick. But be warned, you may occasionally find exploding traps where you’re expecting to find a power-up, so don’t jump too hastily. If you collect the potion, cart, and speed ball in one game, then you’ll unlock the giant frog that JaJaMaru-kun can ride around the stage while he chomps up all the enemies like a hungry hippo. But a frog.
Despite having the skeletal makings of a plot, Ninja JaJaMaru-kun is mostly a score-based game. Of course defeating enemies and clearing stages yields higher scores, but you can also collect the souls of defeated enemies before they ascend offscreen for bonus points, and Princess Sakura also drops flower petals from the top of the screen, which not only increases your score, but opens up a bonus stage “boss fight” if you collect three of them. You’ll take on Damazu-Dayuu mano a mano, which honestly isn’t very tough (it’s considered a “bonus stage”, after all). Knocking him out will mean you are victorious in rescuing the Princess… but of course the game continues as though your daring rescue never happened. It is my best guess that the game never truly ends, though there may be some kind of kill screen at some point. If you get there, be sure to hit me up.
For an early Famicom game, Ninja JaJaMaru-kun doesn’t look half bad. The animations are basic and the characters are necessarily small, but it’s not difficult to keep track of the action and JaJaMaru-kun himself has a cute design (he looks like an early concept of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Shy Guy, so I was bound to like him). And perhaps most importantly, the Famicom doesn’t struggle to display the game, as I only noticed just a bit of flicker when lots of projectiles are tossed out on the screen. There are four stage backgrounds that repeat, two that look like cemeteries and two that look like the interiors of run down buildings. I especially appreciate the “light-hearted creepy” aesthetic of the cemetery stages, but the indoor stages are a bit more rudimentary. Not to be outdone by the background design, the soundtrack consists of a single tune that repeats in every stage. It’s certainly not the worst melody, but it may wear out its welcome during extended play times.
Ninja JaJaMaru-kun exists in the weird space between simple, score-based arcade games and more complex, fully realized and finite experiences that one can “beat.” It takes a little bit of effort to really enjoy Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, as the jump arc and inertia take some time to get used to, and the jump-stun-attack technique isn’t easy to pull off on some enemies. Once you start to get in tune with it, though, making short work of Ninja JaJaMaru-kun’s ghosts and demons will become rather fun, though markedly less so if you don’t care about score-based games.
Despite never playing Ninja JaJaMaru-kun before doing so for this review, the game seemed slightly familiar. As it turns out, the game was a significant inspiration for Robot Ninja Haggleman, which was an 8-bit style game included in the Nintendo DS title Retro Game Challenge. Seeing as how I enjoyed Robot Ninja Haggleman so much, I shouldn’t be surprised that I also had a good time with Ninja JaJaMaru-kun. If I were to recommend playing just one, however, I would absolutely recommend Robot Ninja Haggleman as it is the nearly perfect realization of what Ninja JaJaMaru-kun tried to accomplish decades earlier.
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to get your hands on Ninja JaJaMaru-kun these days, at least in the digital sense. While it was previously released as a Wii Virtual Console title (which, of course, is no longer available), it is also one of the free games included with the Nintendo Switch Online service, which is bound to be the most accessible way to try it out if you’re so inclined. If you have either nostalgia or an antiquarian longing (look it up, Chuck) for the 8-bit era of gaming or a penchant for something very Japanese, Ninja JaJaMaru-kun is a fun way to pass the time, if it is indeed time that you are willing to invest.
Thanks for reading!
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