Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Let’s face it, ninjas are an essential pop culture icon that video games will always, in some form or another, take a liking too. Ninjas are around, if not, the number one character that video games look to for game ideas, right up there with aliens, zombies, space marines, pirates and elves. So what happens when you turn those ninjas into cute looking amorphous blobs that fight demons in a line defense game? You get Ninjatown, silly.
Ninjatown is the similar to a 5 year old that knows more about quantum physics than you do. It’s cutesy, cuddly, and dare I say it, girly, enough to be considered a great gift for your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, or harem. But after the superficial looks of the game, you delve into a deep and surprisingly engrossing strategic game that, while simplistic in design, is well crafted and executed on the Nintendo DS.
I didn’t know this until I bought the game, but Ninjatown is based off a line of plushy toys by some guy who used to work at the now defunct Electronic Gaming Monthly. I find that kind of strange, but unsurprising, because the DS is a breeding ground for obscure lines of toys like Homies, Lego’s and Neopets. But this one is actually a good game; so don’t be fooled by the merchandise tie-in.
The storyline is hilariously simple. Brought to life by cutesy cut-scenes, the denizens of Ninjatown learn that a nearby volcano has erupted, and a being known as Mr. Demon has come out of the volcano to destroy Ninjatown. The mayor of Ninjatown thinks they are peaceful aggressors, and decides the best option is to give them cookies, but the Ol’ Grandmaster sees through this and rally’s the ninjas to defend their town.
The story is held up by hilarious dialogue, which puts a lot of smiling, tongue-in-cheek humor into the mix of the game. The look is cute enough, and the humor fits with that, creating a lighthearted tone. Surprisingly, the gameplay is quite the opposite.
As a line defense game, your goal is to stop major amounts of the demon enemies from getting to the end of a given map. To do so, you need to put up chokepoints with various kinds of ninjas, normal ninjas who fight with their hands, pea-shooting ninjas who fight from a distance, ice ninjas who freeze enemies, etc. Each Ninja archetype has a specific function, and utilizing the strengths and weaknesses of each Ninja type is the key to success. Having a choke point of only ice ninjas does no damage, but mix in some strong, slow moving heavy ninjas and you can effectively knock out the invading force. There really is not much too it at first, but by the later levels it becomes a challenge to the point where you may need four or five battleground areas for all the stray demons you let through.
Since each attack is done in waves, in between fights you have a lot of options that can effectively help you gain the upper hand in combat. You can build ninja huts at different locations and using the touch-screen, guide the ninjas to the specific point that you want them to guard. You can upgrade the ninjas to make them faster and stronger. You can eliminate unnecessary choke points; heal wounded ninjas, or even use special powers in between and during the fighting that are utilized by the Ol’ Grandmaster, such as blowing into the DS to push enemies back to the choke points.
Since the only object is to stop the enemy types from getting to point B, the best strategy is using the games currency, the aforementioned ninja cookies, to defend key points on the map. That being said, the enemy types actually present a challenge, requiring a decent amount of strategy to effectively get through the game. Fast enemies need to be frozen, for example, while flying enemies need to be shot down by long-range ninjas. The only downside is that each enemy type comes in a single wave of its own type. It would have been more fun and chaotic if it were a mix of enemies, requiring you to effectively use all of your ninja skills to take them down.
There is also a multi-player mode, allowing you to fight opponents online in similar fashion as the single player mode, each of you going wave-by-wave fighting the same demons, using different strategies. The player who defeats attackers first wins the round, until all the waves are complete. This multi-player game is similar to playing portal with two people simultaneously, you see who can finish a puzzle first basically. It’s a neat idea, and fortunately only one cartridge is needed to play the multi-player game, but it’s really obtuse and seems like a small afterthought over anything else.
Graphically and sound wise, the game oozes with it’s own personality. As I stated the before, the game is cutesy to the point of near unpleasantness, with clean colors and fluid animation throughout the DS screen. The characters are all distinct, have witty dialogue and strange quirks about them in the cut-scenes, and the animation while playing the game is flawless. Sound wise; the game has a music track that is basically a MIDI version of Fue music, soft, catchy, and repetitive.
I think it’s safe to say that ninjas have never had this much personality before, and that is why the game works so well. Line defense games live or die by not only the design of the game, but the persona given to the games details. Ninjatown works on its simplistic design of stopping waves of enemies by being a deep strategic fare with some lovely flair to it. And if that makes me less manly for buying it, hell, i’m half way there anyway. Ninjatown proves once again that the games looks can be deceiving, something that gamers should always take note of when looking for something good to play.