By: Matthew Striplen
From developer and publisher Aksys Games comes the latest in the Ninja Usagimaru series: The Mysterious Karakuri Castle. Our adorable, pint-sized hero must solve challenging puzzles to defeat the evil Oni monsters, and rescue the villagers!
Our Ninja has many abilities at his disposal, including a Kunai, a hookshot a la Legend of Zelda, and many others. Although these abilities are numerous, the controls are always displayed on the touchscreen, so it’s impossible to forget them.
Although one wouldn’t necessarily know from looking at the game screen, Ninja Usagimaru uses tiles to guide movement. That means that a single tap of the d-pad will move your character a full tile. This might feel a little stiff to some, but the tile system is critical to the gameplay. Just play for a while and you’ll get used to it.
Although the game’s sprite-based graphics are well designed, they don’t exactly push the envelope for graphic quality. It’s tough to stand out in today’s gaming landscape where high-quality pixel art is the norm. That being said, the sprites of the Ninja and the villagers he rescues are undeniably cute. The designers rely more on clever animation than graphical detail to give the characters personality.
Ninja Usagimaru features tons of traditional Japanese music and instruments. Every world features a different musical loop, each of which is fairly lengthy. The music’s quality and loop length prevent the tracks from getting stale too quickly.
This game is a puzzler, though and through. Gameplay is divided up into worlds comprised of 10 levels. Each level only takes up a single screen, but don’t let that fool you. Ninja Usagimaru has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.
The Ninja’s goal is to rescue the members of the rabbit village who have been kidnapped by various Oni. Oni are a diverse group of mythical Japanese creatures that are usually malevolent in nature. Some take the form of fearsome beasts, while others appear almost human.
Villagers are always tied up and suspended from a trap. To release the trap, players need to lift a block onto the appropriate lever. Once free, players must then untie the villager and lead the way to safety, which in this case means a stone rabbit.
However, getting the villagers from Point A to Point B is much easier said than done. Like with most escort missions in any game, the villagers are astoundingly useless. Sometimes they will make platforming errors for no apparent reason, and they often become paralyzed with fear at the sight of an Oni, forcing the player to backtrack and snap them out of it.
Puzzles get progressively harder, though players have access to all the levels in any given world, which prevents players from feeling too stuck. However, moving onto the next world requires the player to finish each level.
Level design is obviously well considered. Each Oni or landscape tile serves a specific function. Completing the first few levels feels very natural, as the flow of the environment guides the player to the finish with only minor obstacles.
This theme changes dramatically by the second world, where the flow of the environment purposefully misdirects the player. Unless your spatial awareness is exceedingly keen, you will fall victim to the developer’s traps more than once.
Solving the puzzles would never be possible without ninja tools. These items help the player navigate through the dangerous environment by destroying select environmental blocks, grabbing distant objects, or floating on a gust of wind. One tool is more powerful than all the others combined: the pinwheel.
It may not sound like much, but the pinwheel possesses the ability to create checkpoints. This saves the player tons of time by removing the need for forced restarts whenever the puzzle breaks or the Ninja dies. However, an ill-placed pinwheel causes many problems of its own.
Each level also contains a timer and counts the player’s attempts. Speed runners will definitely enjoy racing against their old times.
Ninja Usagimaru: The Mysterious Karakuri Castle is a deceptively difficult puzzler featuring traditional Japanese mythology. Mastering a wide array of ninja tools is vital to rescuing the kidnapped villagers and defeating the Oni. While the cute aesthetic masks the true challenge of the game, if you’re into tricky puzzles this is for you.