The year 1983 marked the founding of a video game developer known as Data Design Systems. Despite developing many games on popular platforms such as the ZX Spectrum, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), nothing from their of their output managed to capture the attention of critics even in the face of their scant successes.
This began to change in the 2000s wherein they had an idea to remake Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension, a well-received Amiga classic, for a new generation of console enthusiasts. Zoo Digital Publishing commissioned Data Design Systems, now called Data Design Interactive, to bring this project into reality. Unfortunately, the publisher was unimpressed with DDI’s efforts, and subsequently canceled the project. Not letting this setback deter them, DDI soldiered onwards with the assets they created, changing both the theme and the character. The project was completed in 2005, debuting on the PlayStation 2 under the name Ninjabread Man. It eventually saw a North American and Australian release in 2007 for the Nintendo Wii as part of a series bearing the company’s Popcorn Arcade branding. Was this a game worth a two-year wait?
Analyzing the Experience
It only takes a few seconds of playing Ninjabread Man to realize that the answer to the hypothetical question I just proposed is a resounding no. Ninjabread Man is a 3D platforming game that could be considered a collectathon similar to Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64. The first level of the game is a tutorial cleverly dubbed training Dough-Jo. It is here that you learn the basic controls of the game. By pressing a button on the left nunchaku or swiftly raising it, you can make the titular Ninjabread Man jump. He can jump an addition time in midair if you time it right. As you progress through the level, you are taught the Ninjabread Man’s two main methods of attacking. His first means of defense is a katana, which you can make him slash by swinging the remote. He also has an unlimited supply of shuriken, which can be thrown by pressing the “B” button and aiming with the remote’s IR sensor. Once you have found a valid target, the crosshairs will turn red, locking onto the enemy.
The Ninjabread Man’s health is measured in hearts, of which there are ten. He begins a level with five, but when an enemy is defeated, a flying heart is left behind. Intuitively, collecting it will bolster his health. If his health is maximized when he collects a heart, he will gain an additional life. By defeating an enemy with your infinite shuriken supply, you will increase the amount of damage they do.
The reason I made my stance of this game unambiguous from the beginning is simple. The average person playing this game is unlikely to appreciate whatever nuances are present in its control scheme as they inevitably find that the simple act of moving the character is rendered unnecessarily difficult. This is mainly because the Ninjabread Man goes from a standstill to sprinting almost immediately. The transition is highly jarring, as even the slightest taps on the control stick will send him running in that direction, making it especially annoying when trying to navigate narrow platforms.
As was the case with many shoddy 3D games, one persistent issue is the lack of control you have over the camera. Theoretically, you can use the shuriken aiming mode to move the camera by pointing to the edges of the screen. However, not only is this wildly unintuitive, it means that you’re at the camera’s mercy whenever you’re not using the shuriken.
Then again, if one were to play this game for a significant length of time, chances are great that they wouldn’t resort to using the katana if they could help it, as its hit detection is incredibly poor. To make matters worse, there is little feedback to let you know if your attacks are connecting. There’s not much of a difference in the enemies’ default animation and the one that signifies they’re taking damage.
This means the shuriken are far more effective when it comes to dispatching foes, for they don’t put the Ninjabread Man in harm’s way. The only downside is that he cannot move while throwing the shuriken, so if an enemy is launching their own ranged attacks at the time, he has no way of dodging them.
With all of the seemingly random elements ranging from the edible landscapes to the title character’s design, one might wonder if this game has a plot. Even arcade classics from the scene’s golden age had at least the remote semblances of a plot if for no other reason than to provide context for why you were blowing up alien spaceships. Indeed, the plot of Ninjabread Man is akin to the average third-generation console effort in that one could grasp its entirety by reading the synopsis on the back of the box.
Almost nothing of what you just read is reflected in the game proper. You would think that, if nothing else, there is a primary antagonist for the Ninjabread Man to fight. After all, the box clearly states that “Candy Land is under attack”, and it would be strange if it turned out the cupcake invasion was entirely leaderless. Evidently, nobody who shared my sentiment worked for DDI because there’s not a single boss fight to be found in the game. Granted, attempting to fight a boss while also grappling with the broken controls would have made the experience worse than it already is. Nonetheless, the fact that DDI didn’t even try gives the impression they didn’t put any care or attention into this game whatsoever.
Instead, the goal of each real level is to collect eight blue power rods. Once you have done so, a teleportation device opens up, and entering will allow you to move onto the next stage. They’re all out in the open and in case you have trouble finding them, an arrow on the bottom-right corner of the screen perpetually points to nearest one. The arrow then points toward the teleporter upon finding the eighth rod. To mitigate the immense frustration will you likely feel trying to control your character, there are purple orbs scattered throughout the levels. These are checkpoints, and in the event that you lose a life, you will be returned to the last one you touched. If you gathered any rods between checkpoints, they are forfeit if you lose life, requiring you to get them again. If you lose all of your lives, you will be forced to restart the level.
Even with the controls being as bad as they are, this task does not present a challenge. This is ultimately the game’s primary failing – at no point does it engage the player. There are only two parts I can recall finding somewhat difficult. One involved navigating platforms over a bottomless pit. Because falling out of the course is the only thing that can instantly kill your character, bottomless pits are the only legitimate threat you will face.
The second part, which followed immediately afterward interestingly enough, was when I had to navigate a multicolored floor. Jumping onto it will likely cause your character to fall through into a pool of lava. While you’re in the pit, you will see pattern of tiles just above the lava’s surface. How it runs parallel to the floor above is the solution to getting past it. In light of these annoying aspects, it’s probably for the best that DDI didn’t attempt to complicate their game in any way. In the span of one puzzle, they demonstrated that they didn’t know where challenge ends and annoyance begins. Going into the situation, players are unlikely to notice the hole just before the obstacle. Because nothing about the floor’s superficial elements suggests that it’s a hazard, it’s a blatant beginner’s trap guaranteed to take one life away if the character’s health is low enough. Even then, there’s nothing stopping the Ninjabread Man from jumping past large sections of the maze, rendering its implementation a moot effort.
After beginning a new game, a savvy person could take notice of the level select screen featuring four options and assume that more await with the exact number being an undisclosed secret. This is a fair conclusion to draw, but it would be entirely wrong. Almost as soon as you’ve adjusted to the awfulness playing the game entails, it’s over. Picking “continue” on the prompt that appears after clearing the third level unceremoniously knocks you back to the main menu. There’s no final boss, no indication that the invaders have been defeated once and for all, no acknowledgement of your success, no nothing. There’s not even a credit sequence; to view it, you have to manually select it from the main menu. This is pointless because said option is available as soon as you create a new profile. There are some challenge modes for those interested in playing more, but there’s one fatal flaw in that premise: such a person likely doesn’t exist.
Drawing a Conclusion
Partly due to the lack of any strong third-party support, the Nintendo Wii gained something of a reputation for being a magnet for shovelware, which is the act of pushing software in large quantities to make up for poor quality. I feel it’s a largely undeserved stigma, as some of the best games of the seventh console generation debuted on the Wii. Games like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3 will survive the test of time whereas the nameless failures are doomed to be forgotten in the grand scheme of things. Regardless, even if Ninjabread Man wasn’t originally a Wii title, its presence didn’t help the console’s case at the time, and it stands to this day as one of the worst games of the 2000s.
For that matter, Ninjabread Man had no business being on store shelves at any point. It would have been forgivable if it was a tech demo made before the release of Super Mario 64 when Nintendo helped pioneer 3D gaming. If that were the case, it would even have been slightly impressive. As it saw its first release nine years later on the PlayStation 2 before getting ported to the Wii in 2007, there was no excuse for it turning out so horribly, for there are pre-alpha builds that provide more fulfilling experiences. Naturally, I cannot recommend playing this game for any reason. Even if you’re looking for a horrible game to mock with your friends at a party, it’s so lacking in substance that any kind of enjoyment would be short-lived. On that basis, Ninjabread Man is arguably the absolute worst thing any work could be: a big slab of nothing.
Final Score: 1/10