Mini Ninjas developer Io Interactive has already acknowledged the most recent Zelda games' influence on its latest venture, and it's not hard to see where a pinch of Link's magic dust has been sprinkled. Be it the vibrant look of the game or the pudgy, bouncy characters, a similarly high standard of loving care has been lavished over just about every aspect of this game, no matter that this is plainly aimed at a less adult, less bloodthirsty audience than Io's previous games (sneaky baldy Hitman and gritty-narky Kane & Lynch).
You play as Hiro, the aptly named star of the piece thrust into a mission to rid his kingdom of the Evil Samurai Warlord. Said badman has been quietly building his Fortress Of Doom, stealing local chickens and other wildlife and emitting a noxious aura out of sight of the realm's ninja peacekeepers, and it's going to get a whole lot more messy than people just doing without egg and soldiers of a morning.
Children Are The Future
The sensei in Hiro's village is not about to forego a protein packed breakfast however, and sends his best ninjas to investigate. Unfortunately none return, so the sensei is forced to turn to his newest, rawest and indeed smallest recruit.
It turns out that Hiro happens to have a natural way with kuji, the magical skill of using your hands to manipulate unseen forces to your advantage, and so as well as a full arsenal of shuriken, potions and, deadliest of all, a fishing rod, he is also able to harness this magic with a tap on the D-pad.
The first spell he learns points him in the direction of more kuji shrines, where he acquires new spells and new skills. These treasure hunts form rudimentary side quests. As you enter a new area, it's a good idea to seek out a nearby shrine, though to activate it you'll first need to seek out a certain type of flower. It's all very ethereal - again, that creeping Zelda feeling seeps into your mind as you spot the path to a shrine marked with sparkly fairies.
Mini Ninjas leans more heavily on combat than it does brain teasing, unlike its DS brother, and it's a pity more isn't made of the lush feudal Japanese setting. Although you have a measure of freedom to potter about finding bonus hidden ninja statuettes or oyster mushrooms, the drive of play has you going from village to temple to stronghold - regulation A to B to C progression, with too few causes to ponder how you could ambush a patrol or how you could use a bamboo thicket to your advantage. That's the problem with creating a pretty world. You want to explore it fully, and discover even more prettiness.
Unleash The Beasts
It's unfair to focus too much on what Mini Ninjas doesn't do because it does many things extremely well, none more so than comedy ninjitsu. You've an entire dojo-full of moves at your disposal, like the diving, spinning sword one that skittles enemies with a flick of the Remote and a stab of A, or the focused attack that selects a group of targets for a super slap by pressing A and B. There's much more too, earned as you progress and improve Hiro's skill ratings. Beating enemies is the main way to do this, but releasing caged animals you come across also helps.
There are numerous animals scampering about around you, which is more central to the plot than just giving Mini Ninjas a sense of life. The Evil Samurai Warlord has built his enormous army by snatching various animals and transforming them into his armour clad minions, so beating them therefore releases them back into the wild. One of the best kuji spells allows Hiro to assume control over a nearby critter, which is the best means of injecting strategy into proceedings. A fox can slink by a patrol, avoiding a scene; a bear will smash a large, grizzly swathe through a samurai squad; rabbits will sniff out trails to waypoints. You get the picture of the possibilities here.
Don't be put off then by the for-kids tag. There's a lot to enjoy about Mini Ninjas, not least the ability to switch between five other characters - Futo, Hiro's obese, hammer wielding mate, and the four ninjas dispatched earlier by the sensei, though none of them are such a complete all-round package as Hiro. If there were a little more variety to the gameplay, this would be damn nigh essential. As it is, it's a high-end, polished game that'll crease your chops into an appreciative grin.