I don’t think I can face going through this whole naming thing again here… It makes the not wholly unrelated Wonder Boy naming debacle look vaguely sane! Anyway, if you want to know what I’m talking about or are yourself a bit perplexed by the arrival of four Ninja JaJaMaru titles all at once at the end of February 2023 with slightly confusing (not to mention totally inconsistent) names and descriptions, then please check out my review of one of the others also now available for the first time in the West, Ninja JaJaMaru: Retro Collection on Nintendo Switch. Also known as Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle Bonus. Also known as Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle Deluxe Edition. And all three in the same region, on the same eShop and in the very same download!

Anyway, I said I wasn’t doing that again, so let’s focus on Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell, which, I’m sure we can all agree, is a perfectly reasonable name! However, all is not as simple as it seems with this one either… There is also a Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell Deluxe Edition, collecting this game plus the aforementioned Retro Collection (maybe!), launched in parallel at a cost of £24.99, but what we’re looking at here is £17.99’s worth of standalone game, based on 2020’s Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle, but with the addition of the unlockable Hell Mode from 2022. I guess the original release was either a Japanese or PC-only or both release, but I’m not being paid anywhere near enough to be this confused this early so I’m just going to stick with what’s in front of me! By the way, seriously, I should mention I was kindly provided with a code for the purpose of this review by the publisher.

With all that out of the way, we should briefly touch on Jaleco’s Ninja JaJaMaru series that this game is a part of, which began life as a NES run and jump platformer in 1985 and has seen loads of variants on loads of platforms since, although not so much outside of Japan until ININ Games came along with these mostly lovingly curated releases in early 2023. Again, check out that review of the Ninja JaJaMaru: Retro Collection for a bit more flavour. Here, though, this latest addition to the iconic (if deeply obscure) series is a real throwback to the good old times of the first couple of games, with you accompanying our ninja kid JaJaMaru to save Princess Sakura from the evil pirate Namazu Dayuu, which it would turn out was to become a regular occurrence in the mid-eighties! Anyway, it wouldn’t be a proper modern throwback without a ton of unlockable characters and bonus content (which we’ll cover in a sec) as well as that Hell Mode, all for a few collectible coins! There’s Two player local co-op to help battle the huge Yokai army too, if having a local player two is your bag. And if it’s not, maybe it should be…

Before we look at the game itself, I want to quickly come back to that unlockable content because it’s insane, and this time in a good way! And don’t worry too much about those collectible coins yet – it’s nothing egregious, just encouragement to keep playing, especially when the difficulty starts spiking, with some automatic rewards dropping in return. By my reckoning, when I was reviewing the Ninja JaJaMaru: Retro Collection, as well as about 20 playable characters, these include over 150 “pages” of boxes, manuals, cartridges, flyers, illustrations, notebooks, development sketches and all sorts more in a Museum, accessed by a tiny icon in the corner of the title screen, covering five core games and a bunch of other stuff grouped together. It’s fantastic once you find it! I guess my only bugbear is that the games use their Japanese names, making it a bit more difficult to relate to, especially in the context of the other collection, although it’s a minor complaint. Especially in comparison to the main one I had there with its lack of instructions for anything anywhere, when all the manuals are sitting over here, in full, as missable curios! Anyway, in the context of this review, it’s nothing but very impressive and very welcome all the same!

Also welcome are a few other bits and pieces we find in the main menu and thereabouts. There are a total of 140 in-game achievements, awarded for all sorts from throwing beans into a river to defeating a bunch of Yokais in a certain order, for example! They’re all described, it’s full of humour, and there’s a lovely alternate view to show your achievement unlock progress graphically. The same is also true of the other tiny icon in the bottom right corner here, which shows you what actual unlockables you’ve unlocked and tells you a bit about each one. You’ve also got online leaderboards for both solo and two player ranking challenges (which I’ll come back to) and a very cool feature for switching between authentic original background music and modern arrangements. We might as well cover those now, with the former being some of the best the NES ever had to offer, offering a variety of stereotypical oriental, vaguely supernatural martial arts movie chiptunes, while the latter is a more high-octane synth-based J-pop take on the same. They’re both great too, and definitely worth switching between for a change when you find yourself on the main menu. Whichever you choose though, you’ll always get a very modern cacophony of some very dense, very crunchy and overall impressive sound effects to accompany it. Really nice sound design altogether!

Time to jump into the game then, the bulk of which is split into three chapters, each containing a load of individual scenes with occasional in-level, mid-chapter and end of chapter bosses as you progress, plus the new +Hell levels, or there’s also a Ranking Mode, which is just an increasingly frantic survival mode that also happens to be crazy addictive even if it does eventually run its course. However you play, it’s very much a spin on the brilliant run and jump, multi-level, side-scrolling platforming of the NES original Ninja JaJaMaru-kun from 1985, and as my favourite in the series, as well as an all-time favourite of mine anywhere, that’s fine by me! And you can check out the aforementioned Retro Collection review for more on that, or get even more in the deep-dive I prepared earlier, or just hang around here and we’ll stick with what’s going on in the present instead! While the game is very good at providing old manuals for other games not included here, I’m not so impressed with the instructions for the one that is! It’s hardly rocket science, but as new mechanics are introduced throughout the game you’ll get little signs placed on the level that pictorially describe them. The problem is they’re tiny, even on a big screen, and handheld on the Switch you’ve got no chance! It’s a minor irritation once you’re involved though, and the first few scenes ease you in gently enough that you’ll work things out for yourself before any major challenge appears. And don’t worry because it will!

For the time being though, things feels great as you leap around the initially bite-size levels, bashing your way through regenerating brickwork sections of platform to access new areas above you, and navigating from one to a few screens’ width horizontally (and later vertically too) with a very fluid jumping motion, all the time seeking out the enemies you need to clear to proceed with your throwing stars or other power-ups you collect, generally by bashing those brickwork sections. There are jet-propelled skateboards, souped-up projectiles, bombs, freeze things, speed-ups, health boosts and potions to keep you going, but what you really want to do is navigate your way under a yellow set of bricks because these with have big impact fire or flood powers, and there’s even the series’ trademark madcap frog rides if you’re lucky with a special drop, as well as giant pogo stick baseball player things, the slightly rubbish City Connection car and all sorts of other such oversized lunacy! A few hidden things on each level to discover too, which will increase your mileage on top of some interesting but still mysterious to me scoring mechanics. While locomotion will be familiar to anyone who’s played the first game (or think Bubble Bobble if you haven’t), it’s very much more refined too, allowing for instant down motion through any platforms, which makes navigating the mostly simple mazes of platforms that make up each level far more dynamic than before, although I’m pretty neutral on which I prefer – possibly the more thoughtful cat and mouse of the original, where you had to create holes from below first to drop back down through later, but I would say that, wouldn’t I!

And that’s why the opening scenes here made me so happy! They’re all a play on the NES original, and it’s all pretty authentic to look at in a bold, modern, old-school pixel art way, unashamedly NES with wildly coloured geometries softened by crude trees and pagodas and gravestones, but then there’ll be some huge modern flourish over the top too, like the hi-res flame effect or mass of water particles from those power-ups I mentioned a minute ago. And all the old favourite enemies are intact too – the creepy Chinese ghost girls, the Kung-Fu suit penguins, the one-eyed, bug-eyed aliens… There’s a whole menagerie of enemies from the series to avoid, stun, shoot and collect spirits from, and every few levels they’ll ramp up in size for what starts out as some mildly puzzling boss fights, but even then, you can start the see this big “but” emerging out of your enjoyment… The thing is, you need to complete the preceding scene to then access the boss fight, and once you’re beyond the first one, that means getting through the scene with your health intact to have much chance of proceeding. Yes, they do occasionally drop health, but before long it’s one-hit kills if you’re anything below full health, and you try learning a boss on that basis – after you’ve spent five minutes on what’s now a less than bite-size level preceding it, and remember I said about major challenge apprearing?

Chapter 2, Scene 7, I’m talking about you! Yes, in its defence this sprawling monster of a protracted difficulty spike that gets frantic fast does kind of teach you the value of cover in preparation for the upcoming boss, but everything else about it hates you! Now, if it were a regular standalone level, I’d be gushing about the joyful chaos of the mass of enemies as you find yourself in an eye-boggling dead-end shootout, or the thrill of a big health bonus just as all hope is lost, or hitting that yellow-brick power-up right when the in-level big-bad appears, but it’s not standalone. And as said, it’s often about five minutes effort to get to the end, assuming you do, and if you haven’t recently got lucky with some health at that point you might as well have not bothered because the boss you’re then thrown into is full of single-hit lightning bolt game overs! It’s the most frustrating checkpointing I’ve seen in a game for a long time, and for most there’ll only be so many times they’ll wade through the whole of that level in the hope they’ll have enough health left to see another few seconds of boss pattern, in turn in the hope that eventually they’ll have seen enough to try and work out what’s being asked of them and actually having a go at fighting back! It’s not the last time this happens either, and the boss itself is by no means the hardest if you work it out, but it’s the worst!

What I can tell you is that even if you never make it, you can pretty much unlock everything the game has to offer just by earning the coins you get from trying over and over here, and you never know, you might eventually unlock a character with loads of health and a decent attack, such as a Chinese ghost girl… And a player two will also certainly help if you can get one, if only for this bit. And if you persevere and eventually make it through one way or another, you will actually get to experience a bit of that gushing I wanted to do just now as you go through Chapter 3 and beyond into those Hell Mode levels because honestly it’s superb once you’re past there! Still challenging but I didn’t find it anywhere near as frustrating; I’m just not totally convinced people will persevere.

I had really high expectations for this which is why I might have come across as harsh, but at its best it’s superb. Even so, at £17.99 I’m not sure there’s enough there to recommend this – there’s realistically two or three hours here for most at most. I can wholeheartedly recommend it at £24.99 when it’s combined with everything on that Retro Collection to form the Deluxe Edition though, and not just in terms of value, but with all that bonus content they complete each other too. Here though, that content has no context and is wasted, especially when it’s so bizarrely missing from the Retro Collection. But honestly the whole thing is bizarre – the four titles releasing all at once (plus a boxed-only one) with no clear messaging about what’s what, even down to individual titles being called one thing on the eShop, something else on your home screen, something else on the language select screen and something else again on the game select screen!

And then coming back to this one specifically, as much as I enjoyed it in the end, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t also tell you that something that’s bugging me… It just doesn’t smell right – the in-game monetisation, the bite-size levels, the unlocks… All screams meant for mobile to me! Actually, it’s like the ones you get on Apple Arcade where the free-to-play dirty tricks have been glossed over with something dressed-up as premium. Which might also indirectly explain the lack of balance further into the game. And I nearly forgot about that in this summary because that’s probably going to be the biggest stumbling block for most – you’ve got to be a real fan of the series to want to put yourself through the painful approach to beating 2-7! I am though, and apart from that, I’m just speculating on the rest, and until you get there it’s often a joy to play, and even when it isn’t it’s almost impossible to put down, and if you’re also a fan then you’re going to have the time of your life for a while! Bit like you would for a while with Candy Crush or Pac-Man 256 or Crossy Road, now I think about it, although they’re not £17.99. Hmmm.

For all the info on where to get what, get over here! https://www.iningames.com/games/ninja-jajamaru

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