Ninja Smasher! is a game I bought on a whim, tempted by the $5 price tag, its cute pixel art, and a screenshot showing a very Metroid-like map. I expected a fun little retro-styled Metroidvania, and I certainly got that, but what I didn’t see coming was an insightful deconstruction of the whole genre.
Like any Metroidvania, Ninja Smasher! has you start with relatively few abilities, and as a result, your options for navigating the environment are limited. Platforms that are too high to reach tease you with untold riches, and unmoving gates serve as a reminder to come back later. You have one vaguely useful ability: attacking an enemy while midair resets the jump physics, letting you chain attacks to stay airborne as long as there are enemies nearby—a bit like a less powerful Screw Attack. Aside from one or two simple platforming puzzles, though, it seems to be there mostly for flash.
Soon, you learn to double jump, granting you increased mobility and access to previously unreachable places. Then you get a Ninja Claw that lets you climb walls, increasing your options for exploration further still, and a special scarf gives you the ability to tunnel through certain patches of ground.
Through all this, through all these upgrades, your trusty little jump attack is your constant companion. Claws, scarves, and ninjutsu spells that can unlock doors all have their time and place, but the jump attack is always useful, whether for quickly clearing out a group of enemies or dashing through a section of the level that would be long and tedious on foot. Useful as they are on their own, it’s when used in tandem with the jump attack that other abilities really shine.
A double jump between attacks gives you even more agility in the air. A combination of wall-clinging and jump attacks can let you quickly scale cliff faces, reach heights you couldn’t with either ability alone. The digging claw turns pieces of soil into launching pads for jump attacks, giving you another potential catalyst for jump attack-based “flight”.
As you work your way through the game, the level design gets more challenging, as you’d expect. But it also puts a greater emphasis on making good use of the jump attack; what was previously a flashy but mostly optional tool becomes vital to success. Increasingly difficult boss fights test your ability to maneuver, and jump attacks are your single greatest asset in both dishing out damage and avoiding attacks. The humble jump attack that you have right from the start ends up being the most powerful “upgrade” in Ninja Smasher!
When you think about Metroidvanias genre, you think about upgrades—they’re one of the genre’s defining aspects, after all. But these upgrades aren’t just about exploring new areas and opening doors, they’re about augmenting the abilities you already have to improve your options for moving about. A double jump is nothing without a single jump before it; a single jump is nothing without the simple, oft-overlooked ability to run.
In a good Metroidvania, the abilities you acquire along the way are all pieces of a puzzle. No ability is ever rendered moot, and it’s the way that the abilities interact with one another that really makes the exploration and puzzle-solving exciting. You don’t start of weak and then get strong; you start off strong, and learn to use that strength in new ways.
This is something that Ninja Smasher! highlights wonderfully, perhaps better than any other game. You’ll learn new abilities and explore the world in new ways, but as it turns out, that little jump attack that you took for granted early on is the cornerstone of your arsenal. It’s a game design turned Wizard of Oz, telling you that you had the strength inside you all along.
Ninja Smasher! is also just a damn good game across the board. The pixel-art graphics are ridiculously cute, looking like a cross Kirby’s Adventure, Ninja-kun, and Ganbare Goemon. The chiptune soundtrack is catchy without ever getting annoying, and even the threadbare plot manages to put a cute spin on the age-old “save the kidnapped princess!” premise. Flawless controls mean the thrill of the platforming is never hampered, and flying around when you’ve mastered the jump attack is a rush. It is, all around, an excellent game, and one that I can’t recommend enough.
Ninja Smasher! is developed by Q-Cumber Factory and published by PUMO. It’s available now for 3DS and iOS.
This game was purchased by Shindig for the purposes of review.