Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection Review: From the Land of the Rising Sun (Switch)

Five previously Japanese-exclusive Ninja JaJaMaru games from the 8- and 16-bit eras have been fully translated and released in English for the very first time. I'd love this even if the games were complete trash, but they're not trash, these are very solid titles from the 8 and 16-bit eras that fans of that time period will absolutely love.

Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection Review From the Land of the Rising Sun (Switch)

If there’s any group in the retro gaming community I love, it’s fan translators. There are thousands of games that never saw a release outside of Japan, some of which people are still actively lobbying for to get an official release in the west *cough*Mother 3*cough*. But most will not be that lucky. Most games that start off Japanese exclusive, unless they’re part of a massive franchise with global appeal, tend to stay Japanese exclusive. Fan translators give people the opportunity to play games that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. For that, I am grateful to them.

Some games, however, are lucky enough to escape the prison of Japanese exclusivity. And the next franchise to win this metaphorical lottery is Ninja JaJaMaru . To celebrate Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle’s console release (also marking his debut in the west), all of his old 8 and 16-bit adventures have been localized in English for the very first time, and released as the Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection compilation. I personally was drawn to Great Yokai Battle because I knew it would include these games. Getting to play a bunch of retro games that would otherwise be lost to me is great. For me, the novelty of that was worth the price of admission alone. It also helps that these five games are very solid. I’m sure some of them would be remembered as classics had they received a contemporary release in the west.

Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection is bundled for free with physical copies of Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle + Hell Deluxe Edition. It is also available as a separate digital purchase for $14.99 on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Don't expect these games to be a walk in the park though.

Don’t expect these games to be a walk in the park though.

Story: Princess Rescue!

The games in this retro compilation were released in the 80s and 90s, long before having an intricate story was necessary. All the story had to be was simply a means to set up the action and give the player a goal. The story in almost all of these games boils down to saving Princess Sakura, who gets kidnapped every game in a nearly identical manner to Princess Peach. If it works for Mario, then it works for JaJaMaru I suppose.

But some of these games actually do have more narrative than Great Yokai Battle, if only by default. Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure has scenes of JaJaMaru and the various bosses trash-talking each other, and Super Ninja Kids has simple cute scenes between each level. Does this sound like faint praise? Yes. But it’s at least something relative to Great Yokai Battle.

This is about as much plot as you can expect from these games.

This is about as much plot as you can expect from these games.

Gameplay: Blast from the Past

You get the usual retro compilation features of savestates and instant rewind, as well as toggleable cheats for each individual game. The emulation is mostly perfect (with one key exception we’ll get into later). As all the games vary wildly in terms of features, I’ll give each one its own mini-review, arranged in chronological order of release date.

The very first Ninja JaJaMarufirst released in 1985, is about as simplistic as a game of its vintage gets. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a classic maze chase arcade platformer. All the stages are boxed in arenas, and your sole objective is to kill all the monsters. As with most classic arcade games, the game loops endlessly, and the game is built around receiving a high score. It’s still fun, and it’s nice as a brief distraction, but there’s definitely meatier offerings in this package. Still, not bad for a game that came out just two months after the original Super Mario Bros.

This is about as retro as it gets.

This is about as retro as it gets.

Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure, first released in 1986, is a fairly similar game to the original. It has the same style of chibi sprites as the original, and the physics even feel identical. The main difference is that the game ditches the boxed-in arenas of the original in favor of a more conventional left-to-right platformer structure. There are also many different and more varied environments, including a park for some reason. It would be fun were it not for the fact that half of the item boxes are booby-trapped with instant kill bombs. 

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure, first released in 1990, is the sole Game Boy title in this collection. Like many early games for the Game Boy, it’s incredibly simple. I’d compare the game to Super Mario Land. It’s a similar situation. There’s a major theme of traveling the world, and there’s a whole bunch of wacky enemies that have never been seen before or since. Simple mechanics, though that’s to be expected for an early Game Boy game. This is the first game to offer you different weapons, which is nice. You only get one life, which is annoying, but the rewind feature should make this irrelevant. Definitely one of my favorites in this collection.

If at first you don't succeed, try again with five more of yourself.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again with five more of yourself.

Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way, first released in 1991, is definitely the odd one out. It was the 5th and final JaJaMaru game released for the Famicom, and I can only assume they wanted to try something unique. But I think they changed far too much. The completely out-of-place space theming would be bad enough. These games were otherwise faithful to Japanese mythology, with not even a hint of sci-fi. But the gameplay has also been changed completely as well, into a heavily momentum-based platformer, one in the vein of Super Mario Bros. 3. I’m not inherently opposed to this, but I think it comes across as if they had a completely different game that they slapped JaJaMaru into at the last minute.

Super Ninja Kids, first released in 1994, is JaJaMaru ‘s sole Super NES outing, and the final game in the collection. It’s a more conventional game than Operation Milky Way, a fairly straightforward 16-bit upgrade of what came before. This is probably the best game in this package. The graphics are very cute and there are a lot of nice visual flourishes. There’s a lot of nice variety in the gameplay. There’s even two-player simultaneous co-op. I’m not sure what else to say, this is a well-made 16-bit platformer.

Better hope that those ninja suits are lavaproof. (They aren't)

Better hope that those ninja suits are lavaproof. (They aren’t)

Graphics and Sound: A Colorful Journey

One must look at these games relative to the standards of their time, and when doing that, I’d say that all of these games hold up well. The chibi sprite work still looks cute and appealing. The music across all five games isn’t particularly amazing by retro standards, but it’s still catchy and memorable.

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure is the odd one in this retro compilation in terms of presentation. There’s been a recent phenomenon in the retro gaming community of fan-made romhacks for Game Boy games to colorize them, and that’s exactly what the devs have done here. You get the original monochrome version of the game, and a brand new Game Boy Color version exclusive to this compilation. In no universe would I have expected the devs to do this, and the fact that they did reflects well on them. It shows that legitimate love and care were shown to these games.

Another thing that shows the developers’ love is that all of these games have been fully translated into English. To be fair, there wasn’t much text to translate, but when old Japanese exclusive games see a global release in a manner like this, it’s far from a guarantee that they’ll be in English.

The addition of color serves the game very well. It looks beautiful now.

The addition of color serves the game very well. It looks beautiful now.

The main things I found to talk about regarding the visuals are the more general things with the compilation. The menus are very spartan, no music, and everything is very utilitarian. The main thing I find confusing about it is that, despite this being sold as a separate digital purchase, all of the menus and even the game’s title on the Switch’s menu have Great Yokai Battle branding. If this was going to be available exclusively as a bonus feature with Great Yokai Battle, I wouldn’t mind. But if you’re selling this as a standalone product, I’d expect the menus to reflect that. Another weird aspect of this is that the box and manual scans of these games are in Great Yokai Battle and not here. They should probably be with the actual games or at least found in both packages.

A Series of Tubes

Most retro game compilations and emulators feel obligated to include a Cathode-Ray-Tube (CRT for short) filter, an attempt at recreating the unique display methods of the televisions that retro games (like the games featured here) were intended to be played on. For some, playing games like these on anything other than an authentic CRT television is heretical. The problem is that most attempts at recreating a CRT filter look like complete trash. Most people toggle them on once just to see how they look, and then turn them off and never touch the option again.

See that old man? That was my face when I realized how this CRT filter looked.

See that old man? That was my face when I realized how this CRT filter looked.

Not the one featured here surprisingly. I tried it just out of curiosity and was surprised at the depth of customization options available. And though I lack an actual CRT to compare with, the illusion of it being a CRT is convincing enough. I would unironically use this, it looks great. The keyword being “would”.

The problem with it is due to performance. For the three Famicom/NES games featured in this compilation (Ninja JaJaMaru, Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure, and Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way), the performance goes right in the toilet the moment you turn the CRT filter on. All three games become unplayably laggy with awful audio stutter no matter what settings you use on the filter. Somehow, Great World Adventure and Super Ninja Kids run perfectly with the filter enabled. I’d think those would be the games that would get the worst of the lag. They’re Super Famicom/Super NES and Game Boy Color games vs NES games. They’re more powerful systems than the NES, so it would make sense that emulating them takes up more system resources. I’m not sure if there’s something behind the scenes I’m not getting or if it’s just garbage optimization. Maybe they run better on the PlayStation 4?

Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection was reviewed for Nintendo Switch using a key provided by PR Hound.

The Ninja JaJaMaru Retro Collection succeeds where it matters most, in delivering a bunch of forgotten games that will delight all fans of retro sidescrollers. I do recommend that you get it in the Deluxe Edition bundled with The Great Yokai Battle though. It's obvious that this was intended to be a bonus with a larger package, and wasn't really meant to be sold as a standalone product. In that context, it's easier to forgive the performance issues and the spartan menus. Though however you choose to get it, these are some solid retro platformers sure to put a smile on your face.
  • The fact that we've gotten these games at all is great
  • The translations and colorized Great World Adventure show that effort went into this package
  • The CRT filter looks amazing.
  • Very spartan menus
  • It's weird that this is being sold as a standalone product
  • The CRT filter tanks performance of the NES/Famicom games

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