It's tough not to compare Ninjala to Splatoon: the Nintendo exclusivity, the family-friendly twist on online multiplayer, and the candy-colored urban fashion. That's what drew me to Ninjala in the first place, and I was curious to see if it held up once I got to play the Ninjala beta.
The test sessions are over now, and though it took a few tries to get past rampant server difficulties, I think I have a good grip on the fundamentals. Some still elude me – I have no idea why I sometimes won a dramatic sword-on-sword clash and why sometimes I didn't, for instance. That's the only big hurdle I had with the Ninjala test beyond the servers: it's confusing to start. You could say that of many online games, sure, but Ninjala's entire vibe invites comparisons to the 800 pound squid in the room. In this case, Ninjala suffers for it.
In Splatoon, you have a squirt gun that covers the stage in ink of your team's color. Everything you need to play is encapsulated in that sentence, which makes it extremely approachable as competitive games go. In Ninjala, you have a weapon and abilities powered by gum. To get more powerful gum, you should hit drones. Once your gum is powerful enough, you should use it to make a bigger weapon. Then you should focus on taking out other players, being careful to use a combination of your weapon and special abilities to make sure you get an "Ippon" for extra points instead of just a K.O.
I've followed Ninjala since it was first revealed at E3 2018 (since I'm a total mark for anything that looks like Splatoon), and it still took me three or four rounds to get a grip on all of that. A little while longer to get over the fact that I wasn't leaving colorful wads of gum everywhere, which seems like a missed opportunity, though maybe that would be a splat too far. Anyway, once I got over all that, I started having a good time.
Sticking with it
The gum-powered ninjas can jump, double jump, and even run on walls like it's no big deal. By blowing a bubble with ZL, you can power them up even more: hit B to burst into an air dash that's great for clearing distances, hit ZR to fire a bubble at your enemies to damage or stun them, or tap A to disguise yourself as a piece of the environment, Prop Hunt style (listen, it's really good gum). Your usage of gum is restricted by a meter, but it slowly replenishes on its own or with powerups scattered around the battlefield. The meter encourages you to keep moving instead of spending all your time mired in ninja mosh pits like a crowd of kids fighting over the ball at a soccer game (although plenty of players did still do that).
Every hit you land on an opponent puts points on the board. You get more points if you knock out an enemy with a special gum-powered move, splashing a triumphant "Ippon" sticker on your screen. Once I found a weapon I liked – the heavy SK8 hammer – I found a rhythm of abilities and attacks that let me aim for Ippons more reliably.
Figuring out how to string attacks together for maximum points and minimum chance of reprisal reminded me of learning to play fighting games (opens in new tab). It wasn't as technically demanding, but I could really see some strategies starting to develop. Then a third player would come up from behind and smack me so hard that I stuck to a wall. All part of the ninja life.
Coming back to what drew me to Ninjala in the first place – the looks – I was also pleasantly surprised. A beta really didn't need to have all those slick outfits and avatar customization options, but there it was. I made a private detective child with bright green hair and a bandage on her nose; she probably got into fisticuffs with some rough characters before being summoned to the all-important ninja battles that we have in this gum-centric society for, um, reasons? I haven't really paid attention to the lore.
Ninjala's proper release date is set for May 27, and after the time I spent in the beta, I'm officially excited. Ninjala may be harder to chew than Splatoon at first, but it's no less flavorful.
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