Review: “Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs” (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch)

Jaleco’s little red ninja that could is getting a bit of a renaissance lately, with a an all-new multiplayer game and multiple retro collections including both Ninja JaJaMaru: Retro Collection and Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs.

Today we’re going to take a look at Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs, a bundle of two RPG-style games from the 80s and 90s that have never been released outside Japan before.*

Developed by City Connection and published by ININ, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs includes: 

  • Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book (1989, Famicom/NES)
  • Ninja JaJaMaru: Legend of the Golden Castle (1990, Famicom/NES)

We’ll briefly go over both games, and then assess the collection as a total package. 

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book

Released in 1989 for the Nintendo Famicom (the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System), Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book (aka Ninpouchou in Japan) takes elements from previous Ninja JaJaMaru action games and drops them into a turn-based RPG more akin to Phantasy Star or Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior ). 

You take on the mantle of the titular JaJaMaru and embark upon several quests (four, to be exact) to keep the peace in the kingdom. As is typical with JRPG titles, The Ninja Skill Book drops the player on a large overhead map, and battles begin both randomly and suddenly. This switches the game to a first-person perspective and a menu-based combat system where you can attack, defend, use items, and of course use extra “Jitsu” skills and magic. 

In these battles, your party will be confronted with a number of enemies, including monsters, enemy ninjas, a variety of yokai, “stupid dogs”, and even a few sea creatures (once you obtain the ability to traverse the seas). You’ll only ever encounter one enemy at a time, which limits the strategy involved, but makes things more approachable to RPG lightweights (If that’s you, I am highly suspect of your interest in this game).

Of course, there are several boss battles to overcome, too. These are set up the same as typical enemy fights, but longer, harder, and more satisfying in that victory means JaJaMaru has met a key plot threshold or obtained an important item. No matter how big the battle, your party is always rewarded with gold and experience points used to level up. The enemies will occasionally drop a wicker box as well, which usually contains one of the game’s more basic items. 

Your riches can be spent by staying at an inn or buying weapons, armor and items from merchants located in towns and scattered across the larger map. It’s not always evident what each item does, nor which weapons and armor are better than others. To make matters more frustrating, the items don’t display any stats even after you purchase them, so there will likely be some trial, error and disappointment necessary as there is no game manual to help you out. Your inventory space is also rather small – just nine items per character – so it’s not like you can stock up, either. 

The main story in Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book is fairly bare-bones. I don’t recall any optional side-quests of significance, but you can always revisit previous areas and perhaps discover something that you missed before. The most interesting aspect of the game is that there is not only one main quest, but three that you can choose from at the title screen. Once you finish all three, the final fourth quest is unlocked. Of course, you don’t get to carry any of your stats or inventory or stats over from quest to quest, as that would have made things far too easy. 

As it is, I would say that Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book is a little bit easier than the typical 8-bit RPG. There is still some grinding to do from time to time, but most of your tasks are straightforward, and traversing the world is never too daunting. If you are a modern video game journalist in need of extra help, then there are several cheats that can be enabled before you start a save file, including lowering the encounter rate, one-hit kills, bonus experience boosts, etc. There are also “blessings” that you can select in the pause screen that will recharge your magic and health at any given time. If that wasn’t enough you have the option to rewind the action if you make a critical error, or if you get sucked into a fight that you are not prepared for. There’s a lot of “quality of life” options here, so if you have Polygon or Kotaku experience on your resume, even you can get through it. 

Buddha will sometimes appear and grant you new abilities

Aesthetically, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book looks pretty good for an NES/Famicom RPG. The colors are bright, the Japanese folklore-inspired enemy designs are fun, and the closeup interactions with the game’s NPCs give the game a nice shot of visual flare. The music, on the other hand, doesn’t have as much to brag about. It’s not bad, which often makes it “good enough”, but for a genre that is usually associated with strong overworld and battle music, none of the tunes in The Ninja Skill Book will stick with you once you put it down. 

Even in the late 80s, I doubt that most would have considered The Ninja Skill Book to be a must-buy RPG. The overall gameplay doesn’t stray very far from being derivative, though its multi-quest structure makes it easier to pick up and play even if you’ve left it for a while, which is a valuable selling point now that I’m a busy old man with a family and all. The menus and item descriptions need to be more helpful, but as a fan of 80s RPGs such as Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy, I still had a good time with my playthrough of Ninja JaJaMaru: The Ninja Skill Book.

Stupid, stupid dog

Ninja JaJaMaru: Legend of the Golden Castle  

Released in 1990 for the Famicom, Ninja JaJaMaru: Legend of the Golden Castle (aka Gekimaden – Maboroshi no Kinmajou in Japan) is yet another game that experiments with the JaJaMaru world, this time opting for a Legend of Zelda-inspired action-adventure game featuring the crimson-clad protagonist. I never considered this type of game an “RPG” when I was a kid, but “shmups” were also simply called “shooters” back then, so kindly ignore the old fart behind the keyboard.

The mermaid queen is hot to trot

Ninja JaJaMaru: Legend of the Golden Castle once again calls Japan’s young ninja hero to action. JaJaMaru must defend the land from a new set of demons and monsters, and ultimately solve the mystery of why the ninja in his clan have started to feel their powers waning. Of course, a long-forgotten ancient evil is at the center of all this chaos.

Amid this backdrop, JaJaMaru must traverse several dungeons and battle maps to defeat the supernatural hordes. The overworld map is one akin to Zelda II or Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, where you can move around the larger areas before diving into the fights. These action scenes are presented as an overhead action adventure very similar to the first Legend of Zelda, complete with single-screen maps, simple environmental puzzles, and even red, rock-spitting octopuses (not octopi, ya’ savages!) that inexplicably walk the land.

It’s very Zelda, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing. It’s odd to me that the 80s and 90s saw so many Mario and Street Fighter clones, but there weren’t many attempts to replicate the Zelda formula. In any case, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Legend of the Golden Castle is a fun Zelda-like game with its own unique setting, characters and charm (with the exception of so many bats and the aforementioned octopuses). JaJaMaru starts with a basic chain weapon, but more items become available as you progress (or as you can afford them in the local shops). These include bombs, long-distance throwing stars, and lamp oil to light dark caverns and dungeons.

As you may expect, the dungeons all end with a boss fight, and several of these are pretty tough, and there is no “grinding” for experience this time around. You will have to practice your skill and deftly learn the enemy attack patterns to be victorious, though you still have your pick of cheats that can be enabled before you start the game and the magnificent rewind feature. 

Call them Octoroks at your own peril

Aside from its choice of inspiration, Legend of the Golden Castle looks and plays well in its own right. The visuals are on par with most of the better games in the NES/Famicom library, with my only real complaint being that some of the battle screens are really vacant, which is not only boring, but it makes it easy to simply run past all of the enemies if you want to skip them. There are also screens which inexplicably have nothing on them – not an enemy, treasure chest, or item in sight. Just a dead end to make the stages feel more maze-like, but they seem like a waste to me. On the sound side, I felt a little bit more in-tune with the music this time around, though the compositions still didn’t make a lasting impression. 

Had Legend of the Golden Castle been released for the western NES back in 1990, I think that it could have been a solid seller, and even today, it’s a lot of fun to play for anyone inclined to an old-school Zelda-type adventure.

Unlike the other Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection that features the more traditional action games from the series, The Lost RPGs does not have any bonus galleries with character design art or box and book scans. That’s a little disappointing, especially considering how rare the import versions of these two games are outside of Japan.

However, you will still find all of the same customization features that you can use to tailor the experience to your liking. These include the aforementioned rewind and control layout options, as well as video filters and aspect ratio adjustments for both games.

For an asking price of $12.99, I think that fans of the original Zelda and old school JRPGs will probably be happy with Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs. If only one of the two games strikes your fancy, then you may find the price of admission to be a bit steep, even if these games have never been released in English before (as the text took money and effort to translate).

As for me, I enjoyed my time with both The Ninja Skill Book and The Legend of the Golden Castle. My only significant complaints are the lackluster soundtrack and confusing menu system in The Ninja Skill Book, and the lack of bonus content in the collection as a whole. In any case, I could see myself playing both games in this collection again, which is a pretty firm recommendation, though not an overly enthusiastic one.

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs is available now for Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Steam PC. You can also read our review of Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection, go here

*Disclosure: A copy of Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

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