What we liked:

+ Quirky and fun
+ Well-paced for portable gameplay
+ Plenty of maps

What we didn't like:

- Underachieving graphics and sound
- Anti-lefty controls

DEVELOPER: Venan Entertainment   |   PUBLISHER: Southpeak   |   RELEASE: 10/28/2008

Ninjas are truly awesome, and cute now!

With cute, stuffed origins in Shawnimals, Venan Entertainment’s Ninjatown avoids the pitfalls of many a licensed game and delivers a portable tower defense game á la PixelJunk Monsters – and that is high praise. Definitely a gateway RTS drug, the addictive title may well lead to harder things than plushy ninjas.

In Ninjatown, where the residents engage in that quirky, self-aware style of humor, something is amiss. Namely, demons are attacking to seize control of a most precious resource: ninja star cookies. Resident grumpy old man Ol ‘ Master Ninja is forced out of retirement into the role of ninja strategist, which at least earns him a hot air balloon ride with a great view of the ensuing battles. There are also plenty of silly residents like the woefully ignorant Mayor Ninja and the heavily caffeinated Business Ninja to keep things light in the time of war.

Demons, sent in varying waves, must be defeated by constructing a variety of ninja huts. There is a gentle learning curve, with each level introducing you to a new and uniquely battle-ready member of Ninjatown . Wee Ninja are spry but not as strong as the less stealthy Anti Ninja, while the anti-air specializing Sniper Ninja are weak against ground-based enemies. Huts and upgrades can be purchased with cookies, earned by defeating demons. Each hut houses two ninja according to the hut type, and can be upgraded as well as offer respite for ninja in need of a healing snooze. Ninja stars on the doorstep of a hut indicate how upgraded it is, which may have you occasionally prodding the little buggers out of the way so you can see whether it is at two or three stars.

The demons pack variety to match that of the ninja, and range from Wee Devils to the more heavily padded Chubby Devils to the nasty Speedy Devils that will breeze past your defenses without some snowballs to lob their way. Letting any demons through will cost you a heart, but more often than not the real challenge lies in clearing each stage perfectly.

Ol’ Master Ninja packs a cranky punch with his own powers. His sparkling cane meter indicates when you can use techniques for a defensive boost, like Get Off My Lawn! which employs everyone’s favorite DS gaming technique: blowing into the mic (so if you haven’t already, it’s really time to come to terms with your fate as the nutter blowing into your handheld device). There are also special structures available like a Training Dojo, which increases the attack power of nearby huts, or a Green Tea Bistro which gives adjacent ninja a speedy boost. Special attack items, like Ninja Droppings, can be won so that you can unleash an incredible, health-draining stink on your enemies. Pretty healthy options, and should you get confused hop into the pause screen where you can sift through the Ninja Consultant’s Files to review your enemies and your arsenal, as well as all of those Ol’ Master Ninja Powers.

The graphics are a bit underachieving and the music isn’t bringing anything to the party, which is really too bad. When the gameplay comes in such a neat little package a bit more effort in these areas would have taken the game to a whole new level. As it is, the top screen shows a map of the stage, Ol’ Master Ninja cruising in his balloon and a peek at the next wave of demons. The view of Ol’ Master Ninja isn’t particularly handy, and the space would have been better spent on a proper map, which punctuates my primary gripe with the game: On the lower screen there is a more detailed view of the locale for hut construction and other defensive maneuvers, which are done with the stylus.

Scrolling through this close view can be done a tad slowly with the stylus or more quickly with the D-pad – which I imagine works great, provided you’re right handed. Stuck juggling a stylus and the D-pad in one hand, I couldn’t help but take things a bit personally. I realize I may only represent 7-12% of the populous, but amidst the blowing into the mic and trying to pan through a map while building ninja huts I started to think maybe Pirates were a worthier recipient of my support.

With 35 single-player maps there is plenty of longevity here, though older maps cannot be replayed with units you unlock later. In the multi-player mode each player must defend the same stage with the aim of defeating a wave fastest. Every wave you lose to an opponent costs you a heart until the supply is depleted. If each of the players have their copy of the game a total of nine maps are available in multi-player, with only three for those with one cartridge.

Taking Tower Defense to a playful and portable level, Ninjatown is more fun than a plateful of ninja cookies. The succinct levels make for great bite-sized portable portions of gameplay, and the ninja antics will have you gobbling it up.

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