Introducing: Ninjala Impressions?
When I booted up Ninjala, I was hit with a near-immediate realization. For all of the discourse surrounding the game pre-release, Ninjala is almost nothing like Splatoon. Comparisons between the two were rampant, but in actuality, beyond a similar aesthetic, the games are fundamentally different. Funnily enough though, it’s through those dichotomies that Ninjala can actually be compared to Splatoon, or any of Nintendo’s multiplayer IP. It’s a stark contrast if anything – one that runs along the lines of intrinsic game design. Ninjala isn’t a bad game by any means, but it’s complex to its own detriment. It lacks the elegant simplicity of Nintendo’s multiplayer titles, and in turn, lacks the stickiness that games like Splatoon have.
Nintendo’s Design Mastery
What I’ve always admired about Nintendo’s design philosophy is how deceptively simple it is. While the phrase, “easy to learn but hard to master” is so cliché it makes my head spin, that truly is the way Nintendo designs their multiplayer titles. Whether the series in question is Mario Kart, Splatoon, Super Smash Bros., or any other title, the games are built on a set of basic mechanics that make intuitive sense but have a very high skill ceiling. While we’ve already established the comparison to be reductive, Splatoon’s design philosophy does illustrate where Ninjala went wrong, so I’ll still be using it to drive home this design point.
Its fast-pace and unique mechanics can make Splatoon appear to be a rather unintuitive game from an outsider’s perspective. However, the brilliance in its design is the way Splatoon looks and plays like an elaborate tango while requiring little more than a basic two-step. It’s a fairly basic third-person shooter, all things considered. Outside of its innovative ink mechanic, every element of Splatoon’s design is standard. That ink mechanic though is the heart of the experience, and it lies at the nexus of every gameplay facet that sets Splatoon apart from its contemporaries.
Looking at the ink mechanic in particular, in its simplest form, shooting ink depletes it from your tank, and submerging yourself in ink refills the tank. That’s all there is to it. As soon as you understand this fundamental component of the experience, everything else builds upon it. You’ll soon learn that swimming through ink gives you an advantage, as it’ll hide you and allow you to move across the map quicker. This epiphany completely shifts the player’s relationship to the game’s map design and movement systems.
Then, you’ll recognize the ways that an opponent’s ink becomes a detriment to your movement and success on the battlefield. This realization informs the player’s tactical decision-making in a fundamental way. Now, shooting ink onto the map isn’t just a means to victory in Turf War, a way to reload ammunition, or even a way to enhance movement. Suddenly, shooting ink is a tactical decision at every step, while also serving as a means to victory in Turf War, a way to reload ammunition, and even a way to enhance movement. All of these gameplay mechanics and strategies are tied directly into the core concept of diving into the ink to replenish what you’ve used already.
The Bigger Picture
It’s stunningly simple and deeply intuitive. It takes only a moment to recognize how ink interfaces with firefights – the core gameplay loop of a third-person shooter. Then, after understanding this design staple, the player will begin to see how ink affects movement and strategy. This takes time – not only time to understand these consequences of the central mechanic, but time to implement them properly in the moment-to-moment experience. I’ve sunk over 200 hours into the Splatoon series across the Wii U original and the Switch sequel, and I’m still trying to learn the best ways to utilize this mechanic in ranked matches to succeed on the battlefield.
The excellence is the way in which I can find as much enjoyment in the nuances of the ink mechanic as a player who is experiencing their first round of Turf War. You only have to play Splatoon’s bite-sized tutorial and a single match of online play to understand why this game is special. From that point, it’s easy to scale your gameplay up with your skill-level due to the previously established ways that the ink mechanic intuitively reveals depth to the player. You can instantly recognize how the game’s mechanics can be stretched further and in different ways. That ability for open-ended approaches to player improvement and gameplay style makes Splatoon so digestible and so replayable that it’s no surprise the sequel has sold so many units. Of course, the game’s wealth of Nintendo polish and charm goes a long way, but its success begins with its most basic mechanic.
Now, let’s contrast this with Ninjala. It’s a game that looks as though it should be as accessible as Splatoon. Underneath its inviting aesthetic is a seemingly straightforward arena brawler. The name of the game is just to beat your opponents silly to earn points. The problem with Ninjala, though, is that there is no central mechanic that everything else builds on.
The game has a very decentralized design philosophy. Your ninja is equipped with offensive and defensive bubblegum attacks as well as a unique weapon with cooldowns that influence that inform what your gum can do. Your gum can also enhance your mobility, but only to where you can gain an extra mid-air dash. You can run on walls without using any of your bubblegum, making the gum’s impact on movement less important, especially when certain weapons already enhance your mobility on their own.
The bubblegum feels like it wants to be the core concept in Ninjala, but just because it has a hand in both movement and combat doesn’t make it essential. Not only does the gum serve purely as a small addition to movement systems, it fails to play an integral role in combat encounters. Often, brawls devolve into a spam-fest where you’ll mash ZR and hope to come out on top. The gum does open up tactical advantages as it can slow down the opponent, deal nominal damage, or act as a shield, but it doesn’t make itself essential to the gameplay loop in the way that Splatoon’s ink mechanic does.
Furthermore, the bubblegum mechanic is encumbered by a series of confusing surrounding mechanics that draw focus away from it. There is the parry and clash system that is initiated when two players input the same attack, causing a Dragon Ball Z-like mid-air beatdown. Unfortunately, these rely on a rock-paper-scissors input system that removes any and all skill from the encounter. Not only does it introduce random elements into the moment-to-moment gameplay of an online multiplayer title, it distracts from Ninjala’s gameplay loop. It draws focus away from the gum mechanic and introduces a frustrating degree of guesswork that makes an already muddled game less clear.
Beyond lacking a central mechanic that is integral to the gameplay loop, Ninjala tries to stitch its matches together with ideas that destroy any semblance of intuition. In addition to fighting rival players, you can destroy drones scattered around the map for points and more meter to burn with gum attacks. This feels like a strange choice that pulls focus away from the core gameplay loop. Similarly, strange are its IPPON knockouts, which are enhanced K.O.s that are achieved by finishing off an opponent that you’ve encased in gum. This would seem to lend more weight to the gum mechanic. But, considering you can score knockouts without using the gum, and considering that you can score IPPONs through the aforementioned parry clashes, again, this concept just serves to muddy the waters.
The Bigger Problem
These problems can be summarized on a macro level in two parts: Ninjala lacks a cohesive central mechanic and it lacks accessibility. Ninjala attempts to have a tight design philosophy that emphasizes its bubblegum mechanic. However, it doesn’t make the mechanic understandable enough, but more damning, it doesn’t make it central enough. Between its weapons, its movement, and its gameplay gimmicks, all of Ninjala’s ideas run in parallel and occasionally cross over in a manner that includes the bubblegum. But, none of these gameplay facets were designed to inherently use the gum.
By decentralizing the game’s ideas, Ninjala dilutes the potency of them all. None of these elements truly build off each other in the way that Splatoon’s mechanics do. As such, this leads to an experience that doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense. It isn’t clear what the game wants to emphasize, which makes it difficult from the player’s perspective to figure out not only how to improve, but how the game is supposed to flow.
Perhaps I’m too indoctrinated by Nintendo’s design philosophy. However, I subscribe to the way Nintendo designs their games because it works on every level. Their multiplayer experiences are laser-focused on a singular concept that makes intuitive sense but offers layers of depth for those who want to seek it out. I simply don’t see that in Ninjala. There’s an imprecision and lack of clear direction at the game’s core that I find offputting. I want to enjoy Ninjala because I enjoy its world, but more than that I want to enjoy an elegant gameplay experience and I’m not finding that here.