Game Review: “Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection” (PS4, Nintendo Switch)
Konichiwa! Today we’re going to take a look at Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection, a compilation of side-scrolling Ninja JaJaMaru games from the 80s and 90s recently published by ININ for the Nintendo Switch and PS4.*
Developed by City Connection, Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection includes six games… eh, more like five. We’ll say five and a half. The games are as follows:
- Ninja JaJaMaru-kun
- Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure
- Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way (or Ninja JaJaMaru: Ginga Daisakusen in Japan)
- Super Ninja Kid/Kun
- Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure
- Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure DX
We’ll briefly go over each game, and then assess the collection as a total package.
Released in 1985 for the Famicom (the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System), Ninja JaJaMaru-kun introduces us to the spritely young hero, JaJaMaru, who must rescue Princess Sakura from the clutches of the evil Damazu-Dayuu.
JaJaMaru-kun must run and jump across multi-tiered stages, all the while using ninja stars to kill all of the enemies before time expires. If you delay too long, then Damazu-Dayuu will throw bombs down at you from the top of the screen. The enemies include ghosts, umbrella demons (Kasa-obake), boomerang throwers, skeletons, cyclops and yellow-ish square demons that look like walking crackers. 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. You may occasionally find exploding traps too, 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 named Gamapa-kun that you can ride around the stage while he chomps up all the enemies like a hungry hippo.
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. Princess Sakura also drops flower petals from the top of the screen, which not only increases your score, but if collect three of them, you open up a bonus stage “boss fight” against Damazu-Dayuu, which honestly isn’t very tough.
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. There are four stage backgrounds that repeat, two that look like cemeteries and two that look like the interiors of run down buildings. 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.
Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure
Released in 1986 also for the Nintendo Famicom, Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure breaks away from its predecessor by transitioning into a more fully realized side-scrolling platformer. You’ll progress over twenty stages filled with monsters and yokai, again in hopes of rescuing Princess Sakura from another supernatural evil. Many of these enemies are taken directly from the first Ninja JaJaMaru game, and every couple of stages are capped off with a boss fight, which feature hardier demons that float above your character and attack you with lightning, boomerangs, columns of fire, etc. These battles aren’t remarkably difficult, but the game still has a time limit and it’s not always easy to knock them out before the clock runs out. Once you finish stage ten, these boss fights start to repeat – except now you will have to contend with two boss enemies at once.
For the big bad boss fights of the game, JaJaMaru will inexplicably ride astride your trusty amphibian steed Gamapa-kun, who can now breathe fire. The entire game repeats once you complete stage 20. Yeah, there is an ending of sorts if you defeat the final boss, but it’s a very basic one-screener and you’re dropped right back into the thick of things with an ever-accruing score, if you choose to soldier on. Erm, ninja on?
Graphically, Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure looks like solid, early NES/Famicom fare, with minimal animations but distinct character models. You’ll probably tire of the music once you get few stages in as there aren’t many tracks, but it’s serviceable. Most importantly, your character controls well and the stages are entertaining enough, albeit simple. Not revolutionary, but fun enough, and worth a play if you’re into 8-bit gaming fare.
Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way
The odd duck of the series, Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way was released for the Famicom in 1991 and takes JaJaMaru to where no ninja has gone before: outer space.
This time around, you can play as either JaJaMaru or Princess Sakura, though they both play the same, from what I could tell. This involves being able to dash, spin attack, and jump on enemies using a large hammer. These mechanics are a significant departure from the earlier games, as you can’t even throw shuriken this time around. Add that to the colorful but bizarre take on the stage designs, I really wonder if Operation Milky Way began its life as a completely different game and was changed to a Ninja JaJaMaru title late in development to help it sell.
No matter who the protagonists in the game are, Operation Milky Way is by far the roughest game in the bunch. It looks very good, and there are clear inspirations taken from Super Mario, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and even a bit of Duck Tales. While that all sounds great in theory, Operation Milky Way lacks an identity of its own.
The game’s worst sin is that the dash, spin and high jump controls are extremely difficult to get the hang of, and sometimes spinning through the high portals was an aggravating chore. I was never able to fully figure out how to reliably perform a high jump, which is often necessary to progress. I also found that moving right and left would frequently glitch after landing from a jump as though I was hung up on the background somewhere, requiring me to jump again to break loose. Add to that an ear-piercing music track (just one, mind you, but it does repeat at multiple stages in the game), and Operation Milky Way is not just the odd duck of the series, but the ugly duckling – without the swan part.
Super Ninja Kid
The first Ninja JaJaMaru title on the Super Famicom (the Super Nintendo Entertainment System), 1994 Super Ninja Kid brings the series back to form after the unfortunate detour taken by Operation Milky Way.
It plays much more like Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure, this time allowing for two players to take part in saving the princess (who oddly has a different name this time around). It still borrows some influence from Mega Man and Sonic in terms of collecting additional weapons and abilities, high speeds, rolling, and robotic enemies, and adds in the ability to climb walls and pick up enemies, too. Unfortunately, some of these mechanics aren’t especially intuitive, and having a manual would have been helpful (though the Internet Age provided everything that I needed). The climbing never quite clicked perfectly for me, but it’s still a far cry from the dash and spin jumping from Operation Milky Way.
There are eight main stages to navigate, most of which are laid out fairly well and feature the trademark color overload that is typical of many Super NES games. I should point out that there was a side-scrolling shoot ’em up stage (or simply “shooter”, as they were called in the 90s), where JaJaMaru mounts the back of a fire-breathing dragon, which was a fun and unique break in the gameplay that completely fit the spirit of the franchise.
There is no time limit this time around, which gives you the freedom to explore the stages more than you would in the previous games. Considering that the boss fights aren’t terribly challenging and that touching enemies stuns you rather than causes damage (similar to earlier Ninja JaJaMaru titles), and I wouldn’t say that Big Adventure is a difficult game. The end result is still a very solid, though not overly remarkable SNES platformer. It’s definitely worth a play, and maybe even a replay.
Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure
Released in 1990, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure is a black and white game for the original Nintendo Game Boy, while The Great World Adventure DX is a Game Boy Color version of what appears to be the same game. Since there isn’t much to separate them other than the additional visuals, most comments refer to both versions.
The opening story cinematic is remarkably similar to other retro games (Ghouls and Ghosts, Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, and Castle of Illusion all come to mind). The hero and his lady are enjoying some alone time when a supernatural evil appears and steals your lady away. This time, however, you will have to explore the globe to track down Satan and save the princess. Your travels will take you from Japan to Romania, Greece, Egypt, Brazil and eventually to the United States, where the map indicates that Satan is hanging out somewhere near Portland- that sounds about right. Each stage is designed to resemble each setting, and there is some decent variety thrown in from time to time, such as the ability to climb on ceilings and swimming stages where you must harpoon sharks and manta rays to advance.
The enemies are specific to their settings, too, such as werewolves, Frankenstein monsters and a Dracula boss in Romania, a Golem and Gorgon (Medusa) boss in Greece, mummies and a Sphinx in Egypt, etc. Several of the mini-boss enemies will give you access to a new ability or weapon that you must use to defeat an upcoming boss, and these boss fights are remarkably easy, with predictable patterns and safe spots (the Golem). The hydra in Brazil can be defeated in roughly two seconds if your thumbs are quick enough. The Sphinx merely asks you one of two extremely easy questions about Egypt. The only tough boss battle was against Satan when he goes invisible halfway through the fight.
Honestly, the game as a whole is a bit too easy. You can throw your shuriken in multiple directions, and your ridiculously high jump spans almost the entire screen. You can often jump over enemies or walk along ceilings to avoid many of the fights, which gave me flashbacks of Kirby’s Dreamland. You can also collect enemy souls to build up your health all the way to 999, which is honestly not that tough to do either. Like Kirby, though, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure is still an enjoyable game, and one that I would have been happy to have on my Game Boy as a kid.
As is the case with many retro collections, there are some bonus galleries and customization features that you can use to tailor the experience to your liking. These include rewind and control layout options, as well as video filters and aspect ratio adjustments for all of the games, though why you’d want to put a CRT filter on a Game Boy game… Oh – to make it look like a Super Game Boy. I just realized the reason.
There is also a handful of images in the form of promotional artwork, character design sketches, and original box scans. It’s a little weird that the collection doesn’t have a scan of every game’s box and cartridge, though. There isn’t much in the way of text to accompany these images, and there isn’t any behind-the-scenes information about the series. Personally, I’d really like to know why Operation Milky Way game is so off-base with the rest of the series. Of course, I can do some rudimentary internet research for that purpose, but I shouldn’t have to, am I right?
One final gripe that seems to affect the collection as a whole is that several PSN trophies are glitched, most of which annoyingly stem from Operation Milky Way. That makes what should be a fairly easy platinum impossible to achieve, at least not at the time of this writing, for those who care about such things.
There are some other games in the Ninja JaJaMaru series that are not included with this particular collection, including a couple of 8-bit RPGs that are available separately as part of the Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection, and a 3D installment title Onigiri Ninpouchou released for both the original Sony PlayStation (PSX) and the SEGA Saturn, and I’m not so sure that there are many folks clamoring to get an HD port of it.
For this particular grouping, I had fun with most of the offerings in Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection. Sure, there is one game that I don’t intend to return to, but one out of five (five and a half) isn’t too shabby.
*Disclosure: A copy of Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.
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