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Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SouthPeak Games
Developer: Venan Entertainment


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NDS Review - 'Ninjatown'

by Richard Poskozim on Dec. 11, 2008 @ 5:00 a.m. PST

SouthPeak Games' new NDS exclusive title, Ninjatown, based on the ShawnimalsÂ’ designer toy line, where you have to defend your peaceful town from Mr. Demon, using each of the NinjasÂ’ unique skills and powers.

Genre: Action Strategy
Publisher: SouthPeak Games
Developer: Venan Entertainment/Cashmere Productions
Release Date: October 28, 2008

You would think it would be hard to make ninjas cute. They're bloodthirsty, trained in dozens of ways to kill a man, skulk around in shadows and wield sharp, deadly weapons. Just look at Ninja Gaiden. They're about the least friendly bunch of folk you could imagine, and it's got to be tough to make a town full of them completely kid-friendly, hilarious and adorable.

Ninjatown is a strategy title based on the Shawnimals toy line, or so it tells me on the back of the packaging. I can't really say how effective an advertisement this game is, and I never feel like I'm being sold a product at any point, but it's still a licensed game, which usually puts up my guard. However, Ninjatown, with its simple "defend your castle" gameplay, super-cute visuals and smooth DS interface, managed to dash my fears within minutes of picking it up. The world of the Wee Ninjas is a fun one to dive into, where the next punch line is never more than a 10- to 15-minute battle away.

In Ninjatown, you're forced into the shoes of hapless coot Ol' Master Ninja, who's tasked by the extremely incompetent Ninja Mayor to protect the secret of the Wee Ninjas' secret ninja-star cookie recipe from an invading Mr. Demon. If it sounds almost too cute to bear already, it gets even worse (read: cuter) as the game goes on. You're forced to fight back wave after wave of various little devils, each one dedicated solely to making it past the ninja defenses.

Those ninja defenses are your primary concern in Ninjatown. There are 35 increasingly difficult maps for Ol' Master and his pupils to defend. Each map has a certain number of plots laid out for the building of ninja huts. These huts can be for melee units, projectile units or modifier buildings. Although you start the game with access to only regular, well-balanced ninjas and the strong-handed but slow anti-ninjas, you eventually unlock eight different kinds of units, each with its own specializations. There are sniper ninjas to take out flying enemies, ice ninjas to slow down enemies who try to speed by, business ninjas who are so hopped up on triple-espresso no-whip lattes that they can catch up to equally overworked and highly dosed business devils, and many more. The modifier buildings further spice up the fortification options, with effects like increased attack power, extended range, and quicker recovery time for all ninja huts in the immediate vicinity.

Of course, getting the funds to produce these increasingly expensive huts is another issue entirely. You start almost every level with enough cookies to get a few huts put in place, but from then on, your ninjas have to start bringing in the dough — pun intended. For every enemy they defeat, you get a few cookies added to your stash, which you can use to prop up more huts or upgrade one of your current huts up to four times. Upgrading becomes necessary as the waves of enemies get tougher and tougher. All the info about the upgrades is handled very neatly by the DS' top screen, as are a number of other factors that are just as well laid out. Not only is any ninja hut info displayed, but there is also a mini-map with some abbreviated details of the current battle, and progress bar showing the next wave of enemies and how far away they are. It's really one of the best uses for a top screen I've seen on the DS, and it's as user-friendly as the stylus-tapping controls. It's also completely necessary, as the game is almost entirely about resource management, and there's no other way to judge your resources except by keeping your eyes split between the two screens.

User-friendliness does not necessarily equate to ease, though. Later levels get brutally punishing, launching wave after wave of enemies at you in quick succession or forcing you to multitask and use cannons to destroy enemies that your ninjas can't reach. When the game starts hurling balls of dark gloop and destroying one of your precious ninja huts, it can feel a bit overwhelming, and taking down boss creatures will take a whole lot of careful planning and placement.

Fortunately, Ol' Master Ninja may have lost a few of his marbles, but he's still got some neat tricks up his sleeve. Not only is he fully capable of coordinating the placement of ninja shacks and modifier buildings, but he also gradually re-learns a slew of powers, which let players blow away enemies with the microphone, heal every ninja on-screen, burn down enemies from above with the "magnifryer glass," or even stop time. Those aren't the limits of his powers, but just the beginning, and by the end of the game, you'll probably have used each of his powers at least once. Of course, it takes a certain amount of "happiness," measured by the oak staff floating in the upper left corner of the screen, to use, but happiness usually isn't too hard to come by when the hordes are filling up your bottom screen. The powers really let the player get involved in what would otherwise be a very "hands off" game, and they once again make great use of the DS' hardware.

Even more amazing, the graphics are so simple and clean that even when there are a few dozen enemies duking it out with just as many ninjas, there's only ever a hint of slowdown. The aesthetic is perfect for the tone of the game, so it doesn't feel like things have been "dumbed down." That's a rarity for DS software.

Unfortunately, the multiplayer segment is a bit of a mess. Rather than directly pitting players against each other in any format, they work against each other in a Tetris-like way. Each player is put into a separate but identical map, and tasked with beating the incoming waves faster than his opponent. Each wave has a winner and a loser, and they are rewarded and punished, respectively. It feels pretty dry and useless compared to the richness of the single-player rounds, but it only requires one game cartridge, so the designers did something right by making it accessible.

The audio in Ninjatown could use a little work, consisting of mostly the same exact song and some pretty repetitive enemy and punching sound effects, but most players will likely keep the sound turned off if they're on the go. The missions all come in bite-sized chunks, and the game conveniently auto-pauses if you put the DS into sleep mode, so it's easy to recommend as a pick-up-and-go experience for a busy gamer. The touch-screen recognition can be a little sloppy and finicky, especially when the DS is being jostled around, but the gameplay is usually slow enough that a player can easily fix any slip-ups.

Ultimately, Ninjatown is a surprisingly fun, if not terribly deep, defend-your-castle experience, all done perfectly for the DS. While it's not going to satisfy RTS fans, it's an adequate game of its own, with plenty of variety. Some could argue that there are plenty of similar free games online, but none offer the charm and friendliness of Ninjatown, which is a game that's worthy of the ninja moniker.

Score: 8.0/10

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