Allow me, dear reader, to briefly take you behind the curtain here at Retro Arcadia! Now, as I always do somewhere near the start of these occasions, I’ll mention that I was kindly provided with a review code by the publisher, ININ Games, for this Ninja JaJaMaru collection. The problem in this case is that as I write, on the day of its release on the 21st February 2023, I’m still trying to work out what this collection is and exactly where it fits! The original plan, you see, was to review Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell Deluxe Edition, which they advertise as including “six of the most important platformer evergreens in the iconic JaJaMaru series.” And that’s the first of three collections, together with Ninja JaJaMaru: The Lost RPGs and JaJaMaru: Legendary Ninja Collection, advertised for imminent release on Nintendo Switch and PS4, either boxed and / or digital. There were then some technical issues with the three review codes I received that kind of started to explain some of this unfolding confusion, but only up to a point… It took me ages to work out that the first one, for Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell, wasn’t for a collection at all but an unannounced single game, originally from 2020 and added to in 2022, and a really good one too for a while that I’m going to try and cover in parallel, assuming it turns out to still be available as a standalone game rather than sucked in to any Deluxe Edition that might still emerge… The second code was for a twin-pack of lost RPGs spun-out of the series that I’m not going to try and cover in detail but will report back on sometime in our regular Weekly Spotlight feature, so stay tuned there if you’re interested. Anyway, finally there was the third code, which gave me a collection six games that didn’t quite match what I was seeing as advertised in either of the other two “collections” but I initially put that down to a mix of Japanese and English titles in the various promotional materials I’d seen as I fired it up…

The first thing you get is a very pretty language select screen, and as I mentioned in my recent Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection review, I really don’t need to select my language every time I load the game as it doesn’t change that often, but anyway, the title at the top of this screen calls it Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle Bonus – same as the words above the game’s icon on the Switch home screen. I then wondered if two of my review codes somehow combined to become the aforementioned Deluxe Edition, with Great Yokai Battle as the main course and the rest here presented as some kind of “bonus” content? As I pondered this great mystery, which it since turns out pretty much is the case, I chose English and was presented by the game select screen; I’ll quickly mention here that it’s presented in a very similar way to that Wonder Boy compilation, also from ININ Games, and that’s all well and good. However, at the top of this screen the title now reads Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle Deluxe Edition, different again to the eShop entry and the home screen icon and the previous screen, and close but also still slightly different to my very original expectations, so the plot continued to thicken! I did eventually take a look at what was the Coming Soon bit of the Nintendo Switch eShop to see if that could shed any light on things, and I think it did, and it certainly confirmed that Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell was, at the time at least, a standalone game and not part of the Deluxe Edition collection it now also seems to be, but as well as that it also listed the aforementioned Lost RPGs collection plus “Ninja JaJaMaru: Retro Collection” and it turns out that’s what I’m actually looking at here even if it doesn’t call itself that anywhere beyond the eShop entry! Phew!

Priced at £12.99, this Retro Collection contains what the eShop listing describes as five of the most important entries from Jaleco’s prolific “Super Ninja-kid” series from the eighties and early nineties, although in reality there are six of them on the game select screen because ININ have added colour to the Game Boy entry here in an all-new DX version so you’ve got that on top. Actually, I think it’s probably the first time a lot of these have properly surfaced as Western versions too, so now I think we’ve established what we’re actually talking about, let’s have a look at what they’re all about and what else is here! One more complaint first though, and that’s about what’s not here – no instructions! Okay, none of it is rocket science, but maybe a few hints about controls and mechanics and the like would be nice… Especially when all this stuff and way more besides for these very games is included in that standalone latest entry in the series, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell, now also available! In fact, I just checked again and that includes over 150 pages of box art, cartridge labels, manuals, flyers, development drawings, illustrations and the like, and while this collection does come with a gallery of such stuff, it’s meagre to say the least, with a bit of box art and a couple of illustrations for each game if you’re lucky, and again, these are the games included in this collection where they have absolutely no context in the other game! Unless they’re all part of the same Deluxe Edition…

Okay, no more complaining because I hate complaining about this because despite their relative obscurity there’s an all-time favourite of mine in here, and these games deserve to shine, and that’s why I’ve gone to the lengths I just have to provide some context myself! Once you’re past the language selection, the presentation is as slick as you’d want, even when some of the content behind it is sometimes lacking! Every game is accompanied by a brief description of what it is and where it’s from, then a click takes you into a standard set of load and save states plus more or less options depending on the game… They’ve all got tons of display settings, including the most comprehensive set of shader settings you could ever wish for – to the point I’ve no idea what most of them are going on about – and there’s control bindings and rewind settings too, but then some games will also offer a cheat menu, assuming they had some cheats originally, and here you can just tick boxes for stuff like unlimited lives, health, ninja powers and so on. And while I did rag on the Gallery a second ago, what’s there is nice and of a very high quality, but before I start questioning why there’s not more on top again when it’s all to hand and far more suited here than in the other game, let’s jump into each of the games that are here!

We begin with Ninja JaJaMaru-kun from 1985 on the NES, which you’ll also find a deep-dive into I did a couple of years ago right here. The story goes that Princess Sakura has been kidnapped by the evil Pirate Namazu Dayuu and her rescue requires a talented ninja! This is platforming jump and run action that’s right up there with the likes of Bubble Bobble, as you break holes to travel up and down through multi-levelled scrolling sets of platforms, each two or three screens wide, defeat all the enemies on each and collect their spirits, as well as leaves and power-ups, and collect enough of those on each level and you’ll get a giant frog ride if you’re lucky too! It’s the most NES-looking game you can imagine, with lots of multicoloured geometry interspersed with representative pixel art, but it oozes atmosphere all the same, which is very ably assisted by some great character sprites (especially the supernatural Chinese ghost girls!) and an ear-worm of a tune that’s such an ear-worm it continues into the next game! Sticking with this one for a second longer though, it’s absolutely wonderful and while it is already on the Switch Online service, there’s no other place this collection could have started, with its timeless, easy to pick up but nightmare to master gameplay! I love this game and however you play it, do yourself a favour!

Ninja JaJaMaru’s Big Adventure is the NES sequel from 1986, and as well as the music, the plot is pretty much unchanged too! She’s been kidnapped by the same evil pirate all over again but this time, rescuing her is a proper side-scrolling affair and it’s all on a bigger scale than before. Sadly the fun doesn’t scale with it and it’s a bit mundane. You’re running and jumping left to right, shooting enemies and collecting power-ups as before, and there’s a counter for the spirits of the deceased but in the absence of any instructions it’s not clear why you’re collecting them or how many you’re supposed to collect to give you an indication; it’s a lot though! The level designs are as mundane as the gameplay, with some variety in enemies but not much variety in anything else apart from some bonus boss fight things between levels where you can now only shoot directly up at them, but not much to that either. Some nice trees though! It’s alright but within a few games I was making decent progress and wondering why.

Ninja JaJaMaru: Operation Milky Way from 1991 was the fifth and final NES (or Famicom, to be precise) game in the Ninja JaJaMaru universe, with JaJaMaru and Princess Sakura leaving ancient Japan to travel to space to defeat the evil ruler of the universe, Don Destroyda! You can play as either of them but even the option of the newly empowered former damsel in distress can’t disguise this being a total Super Mario Bros. rip-off! Okay, it looks great, with more stylised, cartoon-like and detailed space-themed levels than ever before, together with some awesome character design and animation, but it’s still a-me, Mario! Even the soundtrack sounds like it’s been lifted from there! Oh yeah, so does the level design. It does mix up the power-up system for your cosmo suit though, with some cool double-jumps and other such boosts, but how they work isn’t always intuitive… If only there were some instructions! Same for why you sometimes collect letters. No idea! And I spent ages trying to work out how to get through the portal thing at the end of the first level – turns out you need to jump into it while you’re doing the Sonic spin move that also isn’t explained anywhere! But for all of that, this is really fun and it’s currently the one I want to properly get to grips with the most! It just plays really well once you’ve got a feel for it, and it’s so full of charm. Ignore everything I just said. It’s really good!

Our next game is a SNES remake of a NES game called Ninja Kid that’s not included here, and it’s by the bloke who came up with my old favourite Wonder Boy, no less! Obviously, it’s called Super Ninja Kid now, and it’s from 1994, and if Ninja JaJaMaru-kun was the most NES-looking game ever then this is the most SNES one! This time out, our kid JaJaMaru is jumping up a very 16-bit Zelda mountain with his shurikens and bombs and stuff to free a castle occupied by the monsters you’re constantly surrounded by – some of them are great too, absolutely crammed with totally bonkers personality, full of shiny colours and meticulous detail. It’s all as cute as can be, including the background music that will soon be driving you as mad as some of the most annoying sound effects you’ll ever hear are doing from the outset! There’s a spirit gauge to fill up this time for the standard-by-now enemy spirits you collect, and also as usual I’m not entirely sure what it’s for, but the weapon swap you’ll also discover if you randomly press buttons trying to work it out in the absence of any instructions makes for some simple but cool environmental puzzles. Like the spirit gauge, I’m really not sure about this one overall either. It’s kind of fun, especially as you get a couple of stages in, but it’s also a bit all fur and no knickers, leaving it feeling slightly soulless too… Unlike my always-full spirit gauge!

You know I said the eShop called this a collection of five games when in reality it was six? Well, while it’s still a refreshing surprise to see this kind of underselling, it’s also probably right! My main complaint with that Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection from earlier was too much filler – sometimes four versions of exactly the same game but in English and Japanese and Master System and Game Gear, making three of them redundant. And that’s the case here, although it’s kind of nice to see Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure in its original monochrome Game Boy form from 1990 even if you’re unlikely to ever play it more than once….

Instead, you’re going to spend your time with one of the veritable highlights of this package, Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great World Adventure DX! Now we can accompany JaJaMaru in a brightly coloured mission to save Sakura from the yokai Satan, which might be my favourite boss name ever! We’re going to battle around the world through six levels and beat all kinds of other bosses too, each inspired by regional folklore, such as Dracula in Romania (following a strange, shark-infested scuba dive to get there), Nioh in Japan and Cerberus in Brazil. I might have had a go about being cheap with certain elements of this collection but this recolour has been done with passion! And as much as I do admire an original Game Boy screen, this version really pops now, to the point it’s truly hard to go back! The game itself is as madcap as it is carefree, reminding me a lot of Kid Dracula on the Game Boy although it’s far less challenging – just focuses on giving you a good time, and that extended jump is a joy! What you’ll encounter is full of familiarity as well as surprises, with tons of creativity, a lovely set of music and great variety of environments while still feeling like one of the series. DX or original, this one is a winner and the perfect way to conclude our journey here!

Inconsistency in user experience has always been a pet peeve of mine – I remember a not-so-old Darius rebooted remaster thing asking you to press X to progress through copious menus and then suddenly, just as you’re settling into auto-pilot to finally play something, it switched to press B, and it drove me nuts! Inconsistency in the most fundamental respect – the very name of the game itself – is a whole different ballgame though, and nothing short of bizarre, and I truly hope it gets fixed to give this thing the best chance of succeeding because most of these games might deserve that after all this time in obscurity but will still need all the help they can get! And of the five or six games here, for me at least, one is an all-timer, two (or one) are great (even if the actual “one” is possibly greater elsewhere!) and two are alright, albeit not the life and soul of the party, and I reckon that’s probably £12.99 well spent, even if the best of them is also on Switch Online. Just make sure you double check you’re buying the right thing before you splash any cash!

Temporary bit of housekeeping before we part ways – I’m aiming to get that review for Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell out on Friday 24th February, so be sure to check back in a couple of days for that because you’ll like it for a while if you’ve read this far! By the way, it looks like this collection we’ve just covered and that, which is priced at £17.99 on its own, are all also available as part of the mysterious Deluxe Edition referenced both here and in-game at a price of £24.99. I think!

For all the info on where to get what, get over here!