I’m a big fan of rooting through gaming’s history. I’m at the point in my life where I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced or observed most of the pivotal or influential games that have shaped the medium and turned it into what it is today. We all know the importance of, say, Super Mario Bros. or Ocarina of Time, so these days I tend to focus on the weird and esoteric: the nearly forgotten games, and even ones deemed mediocre.
I also lived in a generation for whom games weren’t plentiful: especially for a kid whose parents didn’t have a lot of money, which equated to receiving something new to play only once or twice a year, usually as a holiday or birthday gift. Sometimes you’d get a game and it wasn’t very good, but because it was all you had, you loved the hell out of it anyway. I ascribe to the notion that every game is somebody out there’s favorite. I also live by the philosophy that there’s value in almost all experiences as long as you aren’t expecting brilliance. Sometimes games are just OK and that’s…OK.
I bring all this up because I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the depths of Jaleco’s Ninja JaJaMaru series, a janky but entertaining platforming franchise that never made it outside of Japan for what are probably valid reasons (although a few did get localised under different names: Ninja JaJaMaru-kun became Ninja II in Europe, for example). However, in this age of expansive memory and an increased interest in archival re-releases, new license holder City Connection and publisher ININ Games saw fit to bring the majority of that catalog out.
There are eight games in all, spread across several different collections, so let’s go through what’s on each one (NB. the prices are for the Switch versions, but some are cheaper on PC or PS4). The first, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs (PS4, Switch, PC; £9.99/$12.99; digital only), features two RPG titles that have never been released in English before:
- Ninja JaJaMaru: Ninpou Chou (1989, Famicom/NES), aka Ninja JaJaMaru: Ninja Skill Book
- Ninja JaJaMaru: Gekimaden: Maboroshi no Kinmajou (1990, Famicom/NES), aka Ninja JaJaMaru: The Legend of the Golden Castle
Then there’s Ninja JaJaMaru: Retro Collection (PS4, Switch, PC; £12.99/$14.99; digital only), which contains the following five platform games:
- Ninja JaJaMaru-kun (1985, Famicom/NES)
- JaJaMaru no Daibouken (1986, Famicom/NES), aka JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure
- Ninja JaJaMaru: Ginga Daisakusen (1991, Famicom/NES), aka Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way
- Oira JaJaMaru! Sekai Daibouken (1990, Game Boy, now Game Boy Color), aka Ninja JajaMaru: The Great World Adventure
- Super Ninja-Kid (1994, Super Famicom/SNES)
There’s also a modern reimagining of the original game with lots of extra bells and whistles called Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle+Hell (PS4, Switch, PC; £17.99/$19.99; digital only). This is also available as Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell – Deluxe Edition (PS4, Switch, PC; £24.99/$29.99; digital and physical), which contains all of the games on the Retro Collection in addition to Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle+Hell.
Finally, there’s JaJaMaru: Legendary Ninja Collection (PS4, Switch; £36.21; physical only), which includes all of the above eight games. This collection is only available through Strictly Limited Games, and there’s also a Collector’s Edition for £72.41, which includes things like a soundtrack CD, posters, postcards and a book. Plus, Stictly Limited is manufacturing limited-edition cartridges for Super Ninja-Kid on the SNES, Ninja JaJaMaru: Ninja Skill Book on the NES and Ninja JajaMaru: The Great World Adventure on the Game Boy Color.
Phew, that’s a lot of releases! Rather than take a deep dive into every individual collection, I thought I’d just jot down a few noteworthy tidbits on this surprisingly vast series of games starring an adorable little ninja. Let’s begin!
Like much of Jaleco’s library, Ninja jajaMaru-kun feels a bit like warmed-up leftovers of different games: an attempt to catch some of the lightning that fell out of someone else’s bottle.
Here, you chase down various spirits in feudal Japanese-inspired locales and bop a certain number of them to move on to the next level. It definitely feels familiar, and it took me a few plays to realize what it was aping – the original Mario Bros.
While it’s fun for a while, and I appreciate the change in motif from your standard plumbing adventures, the controls are stiff and finnicky, which drags the experience down.
JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure
JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure has a similar evolutionary path to the last game – this time it tries its darnedest to be a competent Super Mario Bros. clone. Unfortunately, it misses the mark. The level design is pretty rote and uninspired, and the unforgiving controls were carried over from Ninja jajaMaru-kun. It’s interesting to play from a historical viewpoint, but there are dozens of better Super Mario Bros. clones out there.
Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way
Since I’ve already used two Mario allegories, I may as well stick to my theme – this is Ninja JaJaMaru’s Super Mario Bros. 2 moment. Whereas the Big Adventure iterated on the first game, Operation Milky Way kind of shoves its characters into what feels like a completely different game. Luckily, this one sticks its landing – it’s a lot of fun and has a curious but engaging play style.
This time you can play as either the titular ninja or the princess you usually rescue, don an old-fashioned space helmet and blast off to some… uh, intergalactic adventures. It doesn’t make sense, but neither does this really matter. Both characters play the same: you can jump on enemies, there are power-up blocks and you have an interesting dash that you have to rev up first before take-off so that you can leap over larger chasms.
Again, this game is way better than it has any right to be, and it’s possibly the highlight of the collection.
If you hadn’t already spotted the clue in the title, this is Ninja JaJaMaru’s big leap to 16-bit!
While it has a similar aesthetic to the first few games, it looks so much better on new hardware. What’s more, the controls have been ironed out a bit and, while still a little rigid, are much more manageable, to the point where controlling the little ninja becomes second nature.
The neat thing about this game is that its level design has more verticality to it than most platformers do: the only thing I can compare it to is Kid Icarus. Super Ninja-Kid doesn’t light the world on fire by any means, but it digs its own niche and fills it nicely at that.
Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure
This is the series’ obligatory Game Boy outing. It leans into the lineage begat from Big Adventure in that our little hero looks like his NES counterpart, but it tosses the wonky controls into the bin for a floatier, more contemporary experience.
While short, Great World Adventure does a lot of interesting things with its boss battles (the first boss has you beat it while it sucks your life away, making it a weird timed experience) as well as level design (it has a cool stage where gravity will take you either to the top or bottom of the screen) that you didn’t see very often at the time, especially on an 8-bit handheld.
Ninja JaJaMaru: Ninja Skill Book
Ninja JaJaMaru does Dragon Quest! This RPG feels like a very weird diversion compared with the platformers in the Retro Collection… But then again, our favorite comparator, Mario, took the plunge into experience points and active time battles eventually, too.
Ninja Skill Book almost feels like a ROM hack at times, but that isn’t meant to be a derogatory statement. It doesn’t go out of its way to stand out from the crowd beyond its feudal Japanese visuals, but it’s competent and engaging despite that.
Ninja JaJaMaru: The Legend of the Golden Castle
Ninja JaJaMaru does Secret of Mana! Just when I had my head wrapped around Jaleco using this franchise for an old-fashioned RPG, they turn around and make the follow-up more action oriented! While you still scour the countryside looking for adventure and gabbing with townsfolk for hints, instead of getting into random battles you enter overhead areas where you bash foes with a kunai that looks more like a yo-yo.
The change-up is really nice if I’m being honest. When all was said and done, I was compelled to play Legend of the Golden Castle far more than Ninja Skill Book .
Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle + Hell
Much like Pac-Man: Championship Edition, The Great Yokai Battle is a remixed love letter to the original Ninja JaJaMaru-kun. You’re hopping and bopping through those weird platforming/maze stages trying to rack up enough kills to move on to the next level.
Thankfully the controls are tight! You can play with a friend, too, which makes the game doubly engaging because I will always champion the couch co-op experience. There are also plenty of unlockables and surprises to look forward to, meaning that I played this for a lot longer than I would have otherwise.
While all these titles have the same basic, utilitarian UI design seen in other ININ games – which I’m not a big fan of – they still have the modern options you’d expect, like rewinding and save states. More importantly, it’s nice to have all these games preserved in such a well-thought out, nicely translated package. They put a smile on my face for sure – but I bet at least one person in Japan was really stoked, because it’s likely that one of the games on these compilations was their absolute childhood favorite.
The various Ninja JaJaMaru collections have been developed by ININ Games and City Connection, and they are available on PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC. We played the Switch versions.
Disclosure statement: review code was provided by PR Hound. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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