Ninjatown DS Review
Hey! Are you familiar with the ‘tower defence’ sub-set of real-time strategy games? I wasn’t, because I’m massively ignorant, and also stupid. Turns out they’re strategy games that give the player little to no control over their little minions’ behaviour or abilities, and simply allow you to build structures in various places that will defend you from incoming waves of enemy units. The trick is to place the right types of structures in the right places to make sure that all the incoming enemies are destroyed before they reach the point you’re trying to defend. Sounds a bit dull, maybe. But it isn’t.
And now, a surprise: Ninjatown is a tower defence game. Gasp! But there’s more to it than that – it’s a tower defence game dressed up in the wonderful work of a Mr. Shawn Smith. Once the editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly (an American games mag I used to read as a child, because my local supermarket inexplicably decided to import it, and it being American immediately made it cool as fuck), Shawn later turned his hand to character art, and he gave birth to the Shawnimals brand, through which he sells little plush toys and prints of his characters. Chief among his creations are the Wee Ninjas – we’re assuming ‘Wee’ as in ‘small’, but we’re easy either way – so it’s no surprise that they’re the stars of Ninjatown. Um, and the name was a bit of a giveaway, too.
The story goes that Ninjatown is under siege by demons who are trying to steal the secret recipe for the ninjas’ special ninja star cookies. That sentence alone should give you a fairly clear idea of whether or not you’ll ‘get’ Ninjatown. If it sounds a bit twee and irritating, stay away. If not, you should get a fair few giggles out of the game’s setting and dialogue, even if it does reference a few tedious internet memes (yes, there are over 9,000 demons, very good).
The game itself consists of a series of stages strewn across a bunch of different chapters, each of which introduces new unit types for you to play with, thus increasing your options and, in turn, the game’s tactical depth. To begin with, you’ll just use the standard Wee Ninja pretty much everywhere. Then you’ll get Anti-Ninjas, who are slower, but more powerful. So they hit harder, but faster enemies will whizz right past them. Until, of course, you get White Ninjas, who can throw snowballs that slow enemies down. So, with a bit of careful planning, you can set up some rather nifty traps, depending on the enemy types you’re defending yourself against, and the unit types you have available. The slow trickle of new units means you always get time to adjust to the pros and cons of the latest addition to the roster, and the differences between units are always meaningful, if subtle at times.
On top of this are the Ol’ Ninja Master’s powers, that you can activate during the course of a battle. Many of them aren’t too aggressive – using the wind to blow enemies away from their target, for example – while others are a bit more direct, like focusing the sun’s rays to burn enemies to a crisp. Their use is, obviously, limited; but they’re a nice idea nonetheless, and can really turn the tide of battle if you’re struggling. And struggle ye shall – while the game looks pretty cute on the outside, it gets fiendishly difficult as you progress through the story, as more units types are added and the scale and pace of the battles quicken with each level, putting increasing demands on the player to learn to multitask. So it’s just as well that Ninjatown’s interface is a total breeze to use, and it’s never too difficult to keep one eye on the map of the entire level, and assess the current state of your defenses.
While some may suggest the game’s art style is a little simplistic, there’s something wonderfully transparent about the game that, as chaotic as it gets, never leaves the player feeling too overwhelmed or confused. Despite the fact that the game is controlled almost entirely with the stylus (with the d-pad being used to scroll around the map), there’s no clutter or pages of menus with tiny, weeny buttons. Just nice, chunky pictures that do exactly what they look like they should, with text help at the bottom of the screen in case you get stuck.
So, should you buy Ninjatown? Probably, yeah. It’s not going make your mind EXPLODE, but it’s a really nice little game with plenty of charm and a clarity of design that you rarely see these days – especially on the DS, stuffed full of shovelware as it is. Ninjatown nicely bridges the gap between the casual market and, um, proper video games, by marrying up a cute and quirky franchise with a genuinely well thought-out game. But of course, it’s not New Super Mario Bros., or made by Ubisoft, so it’s probably going to fail to make a huge impact at retail. And that’s a shame, because it really deserves better.