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Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle + Hell Review: Busting Demons Like It’s 1985 (Switch)

Ninja JaJaMaru, a classic character from the early days of the Famicom, makes his grand return and proper English debut! JaJaMaru battles through hordes of demons in an 8-bit throwback that calls back to his very first adventure. Simplistic and rough around the edges, but retro fanatics will probably enjoy it.

Ninja JaJaMaru The Great Yokai Battle + Hell Review Busting Demons Like It's 1985 (Switch)

If the release of stuff like Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, and last year’s Kao the Kangaroo is any indication, we live in a world where no game character, no matter how obscure or forgotten, is truly off the table when it comes to getting a revival. If Bubsy and Kao can get a comeback, why not Ninja JaJaMaru? JaJaMaru is not a character familiar to westerners, he’s the star of a boatload of 8-bit ninja games that never left Japan. But as cutesy, overtly Japanese media is far more accepted outside Japan than it was in JaJaMaru’s time, there’s no time like the present for JaJaMaru to make his grand debut in the west.

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle + Hell is available February 21st, available for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, either as a standalone digital purchase for $19.99 or as a physical purchase for $29.99 bundled with several classic Ninja JaJaMaru games.

Story: What Story?

JaJaMaru’s return after 26 years of dormancy takes the form of an 8-bit ninja game, taking heavy inspiration from the very first JaJaMaru game. Given the fact that it’s an 8-bit throwback, especially to a game released so early in the 8-bit era (the first JaJaMaru game came out in 1985), I wasn’t expecting much of a story. But I didn’t expect the game to not have any story whatsoever. Even digging through the game’s store page, you don’t get the tiniest scrap of narrative. I’m not expecting the game to have a sprawling epic narrative, but I was expecting at least something.

Granted, the game doesn’t technically need a story, and I guess I can commend the developers on not wasting resources on something the game didn’t need. But on the other hand, It couldn’t have been that hard to throw together a few still images and text for an introduction. It would have been a good opportunity to add more personality to the game.

The only story you need is "Shoot at it until it dies".

The only story you need is “Shoot at it until it dies”.

Gameplay: Watch Out for the Yokai

Most 8-bit throwbacks tend to be somewhat more “substantial” than the games that inspired them. Not really the case for JaJaMaru. This sticks closely to the template set by the first JaJaMaru game, making it a classic arcade-style experience through and through. You have 22 stages, and your sole mission is to kill all the monsters in each level. Just run and jump and blast them away with shurikens. It’s hard for an 8-bit ninja game to be simpler than that. The game gets very chaotic in the later stages, and doubly so in Hell Mode, but there’s some strange energy to it that I enjoy.

This is the sort of game where you’ve basically seen everything it has to offer within the first five minutes. The stages are boxed-in arenas, the play mechanics are simple, and the focus is on building a high score. I personally don’t see this as a bad thing, but you probably won’t get the most out of this game unless you’re a perfectionist obsessed with ranking on the leaderboard. If you’re just playing casually, you can beat Normal Mode in two to three hours.

Many power-ups will aid you on your quest.

Many power-ups will aid you on your quest.

To help make things varied, there is a massive character roster. 30 characters fight against the Yokai invasion, and many of the enemy monsters are playable, with you regularly unlocking more characters as you progress. I love the fact that the roster is big, but many of these characters are very questionably implemented. There are ten JaJaMaru palette swaps (that have different weapons and abilities at the very least) and the Yokai aren’t balanced at all. Karakassa and Kakutan have movement quirks that leave them unable to platform properly, and characters like Ojita and Onigiri have such short attack ranges that winning against bosses is virtually impossible.

H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

The “+Hell” in the title refers to the aforementioned Hell Mode. It is a fairly traditional hard mode, that has you replay through remixed versions of the normal mode stages. Enemies are stronger and more numerous, and all the bosses have new attack patterns. But there are some key differences that make Hell Mode my preferred way to play. In Hell Mode only, you actually have an experience point system, where the Red and Blue JaJaMarus (and only the Red and Blue JaJaMarus sadly) become stronger and gain new abilities, something that I feel makes the game a lot more interesting and fun. In addition, the increased enemy density makes it much easier to build up the combo chains necessary to make your score rocket into the stratosphere. Hell Mode is difficult but I find it more fun than the base game.

The first boss gets this long-necked Yokai to assist him, for instance.

The first boss gets this long-necked Yokai to assist him, for instance.

Unlocking Hell Mode, on the other hand, is difficult, but boring. You have to beat Normal Mode, as to be expected, but there’s one other requirement. As you play, you will accumulate coins that will let you earn more characters and pieces of concept art. The unlocks come at a fairly decent pace, but Hell Mode requires a whopping 10,000 coins to unlock, something that’s very unreasonable given how slowly you obtain them. I absolutely got wrecked on the final set of stages, even in Normal Mode. The game keeps all the coins earned from each failed attempt, and I was still several hundred coins short. If you blaze through the game without dying, it’ll probably take you an hour or two of grinding in order to access Hell Mode. Why they didn’t just have Hell Mode unlock on beating Normal Mode I have no idea.

Graphics and Sound: Something Cutesy This Way Comes

Much like the gameplay, the visuals also come from the time of the Famicom (the Japanese equivalent of the NES). Literally, in fact. Most of the monster sprites are borrowed straight from the first two Ninja JaJaMaru games for the Famicom. It’s a creative decision I’m not exactly wild about, but I think it serves the game well. I think all the super-deformed sprites are cute, and still hold up after all these years. The rest of the game also holds itself to the aesthetic an 8-bit ninja game should have, though the backgrounds and certain other effects are somewhat more detailed than one would expect to see on the Famicom. I’ve seen a lot of retro reboots with hideous art direction, so I can hardly blame the team for going with this aesthetic.

Don't forget to feed the giant frog.

Don’t forget to feed the giant frog.

There are some baffling choices when it comes to conveying visual information though. There are two incredibly annoying enemies that begin to spawn later in the game. Their sole purpose is to spawn in the corners of the map and bombard you with projectiles from off-screen, and you’re given no information when they appear until they start shooting you. There are also a pair of stages that are so zoomed in that you can’t see anything. Stage 3-6 is the worst in the game, combining screen crunch with a monster that spawns off-screen and floods the arena with unbreakable projectiles that you struggle to avoid because you have no idea where the monster is.

The music is something of a mixed bag. You get two choices of soundtracks, a retro, and a modern OST, but neither was particularly memorable or catchy. I personally preferred the retro score, but they both fit the game’s theme well enough I suppose.

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle + Hell was reviewed for Nintendo Switch, using a key provided by PR Hound.

I knew nothing about Ninja JaJaMaru going in, but I came out pleasantly surprised. It's a simple and solidly built 8-bit throwback with a lot of content for retro fanatics to sink their teeth into. It might be a bit too simple for some people's tastes, but if you want dumb fun ninja action, than this is a strong recommendation. If JaJamaru ever makes another return, I will be interested to see it, whatever form that might take.
  • The sprites look cute and appealing
  • Lots of different playable characters
  • Hell Mode is chaotic and fun
  • There isn't even an attempt to tell a story
  • The characters aren't even remotely balanced
  • Unlocking Hell Mode is unnecessarily tedious

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