Like bread always falling butter-side down and buses coming two at a time, it’s one of life’s universal truths that whenever ninjas are added to something, it becomes infinitely cooler (with the possible exception of the lamentable Ninjabread Man, of course). That is certainly true of Ninjatown, but these particular stealthy assassins are unlike any you’ve previously seen; forget notions of leaping from rooftop to rooftop at the dead of night, katana at the ready – the protagonists of Ninjatown are cute with a capital ‘C’.
Based on the wacky world of Shawnimals (as created by ex-videogame journalist Shawn Smith) Ninjatown is so sickly sweet you’ll feel as if you need to brush your teeth vigorously after playing it. Focused on a small hamlet populated exclusively by the aforementioned cute ninjas, this title borrows extensively from the hugely popular ‘Tower Defence’ genre – a section of the video gaming world that will be instantly familiar to those of you that dabble in online Flash-based PC entertainment.
The town in question is under attack from the malevolent ‘Wee Devils’, which spew forth from their base and attempt to unleash all kinds of havoc on the ordinarily peaceful ninjas. It’s up to you to protect the buildings of the town by strategically placing various houses, in which reside certain types of ninja. The ‘standard issue’ ninja is the Wee Ninja, which is fast but has poor defence. As the game progresses you gain access to different types of troops, some of which are particularly chuckle-some (the Businessman Ninja’s weapon of choice is his mobile phone, for example).
As you defeat enemies you earn ‘Ninja Cookies’, which are used to build structures and upgrade your Ninja’s statistics. Early on you can be pretty free and easy with this virtual currency, but later you have to seriously think about how you spend it. If you construct buildings to aid your war effort, will you have enough cash left over to boost the power of your existing troops? It’s a delicate balance that is often tricky to maintain but thankfully experimenting with your options is one of the things that makes Ninjatown so enjoyable, and the missions themselves are short enough to encourage repeat play if you happen to hit a dead-end.
One of the key problems raised by critics of the ‘Tower Defence’ genre is that the player lacks direct control over proceedings, but thankfully the creators of Ninjatown have taken this into consideration and included various ways for you to have a more instant effect over the on-screen action. You can use one-shot smart bombs, for example, or freeze enemies so they present sitting ducks for your elite band of soldiers. Alternatively, you can call upon the services of the legendary Ol’Ninja, who duly appears over the battlefield to dish out his own brand of justice to the nefarious enemy forces.
Graphically Ninjatown is endearingly cute, with a good use of bold colours. The animation is also top-notch, and you really do begin to genuinely care about your troops as they slog it out with the opposition. However, parts of the game do look a little sparse at times and it would be no massive exaggeration to say that this could have appeared on the 16-bit Super Nintendo – but then that is something that can be said of 90% of the DS’ back catalogue. Sonically the story is similar – everything here is perfectly fine and well-suited to the subject matter, if a little underwhelming at the same time.
Once you’ve fought your way through the game (which won’t take a massive amount of time, it has to be said) you can entertain yourself further by re-attempting certain levels in order to gain better rankings. Alternatively, if you have a friend that likes this kind of caper, you can indulge in multiplayer-style challenges – although given the nature of the game, you’re not in direct competition – instead it’s a race to see who can finish each level the fastest.
Ninjatown is an ideal example of how to use a niche licence effectively. Chances are you’ll never have heard of Shawnimals before witnessing this game, but once you’ve played it you’re unlikely to forget this zany cast of characters. The fact that it has such a solid concept to back it up only makes the cute and cuddly world of Ninjatown even more appealing. Long-term challenge is something that the game doesn’t possess, but it’s unquestionably great fun while it lasts.