Version tested: Xbox 360
When kids learn to ride a bike, they usually have a parent trotting alongside with a guiding hand on their back. After a while, they notice the hand has gone, turn around and see that they've been riding solo without realising it. That's also how a good kids' game should work. Early handholding should slowly drop away, leaving the young player capable of feats they wouldn't have dreamt possible at the start.
Mini Ninjas, a kid-friendly offering from Hitman studio Io Interactive, has the tools to pull off this balancing act, but rather bizarrely it seldom puts them to use. There's a nifty and varied little adventure game here, but only occasionally does it peek out from under its button-mashing disguise to let you know it exists.
The story is pure kung-fu cheese. A six-strong troupe of miniature martial artists have been dispatched to bring down an enemy rather conveniently known as Evil Samurai Warlord. All but one have been captured along the way, so it falls to Hiro, the smallest of the gang, to free his pals and lead the way to victory.
Each rescued companion becomes a playable character with a unique skill, and you can switch among the expanding roster at any time to use an archer, a big guy with a hammer, the agile melee fighter and so on - all timeworn genre tropes, but all perfectly fine for a game aimed at an audience too young to be jaded. Hiro is the most flexible, however, thanks to his use of Kuji magic, which gives him a wide variety of offensive options, from electrical storms and tornados to stealthy shrubbery disguises and the ability to possess any wildlife wandering around. This enables you to sneak past groups of enemies or, if you possess a boar or bear, to attack them.
There are also ingredients growing in the gameworld that can be plucked and used to mix potions, which are based on recipes you buy from wandering merchants using coins you get from smashing scenery objects. You also find shuriken and caltrops this way, while Hiro's hat doubles as both an arrow-proof shield and a boat. Use your fishing rod and you can catch fish, which are stored in your inventory as health-restoring sushi. Kuji shrines grant you new spells, if you can find the appropriate flower to offer, while bushes and trees can be shaken to dislodge fruit.
Levels are linear and self-contained, but do a good job of offering plentiful open areas where you can nose around. It's here that the Hitman lineage makes the most sense, since the solid bedrock of gameplay concepts means there are lots of ways you can approach enemy encounters. You may want to sneak past enemies by crawling through long grass, or disguising yourself as a rabbit. You could clamber up to the rooftops and take them down from afar with ace archer, Shun. You could jump off a cliff, use Hiro's hat to navigate treacherous rapids and emerge behind your foes, free to take them by surprise or simply slink into the shadows.
Or you could simply dash over and beat them up. Chances are, you'll end up choosing this path of least resistance. For a game with a bubbling belly full of potentially cool ideas, Mini Ninjas never really requires you to use any of them. In theory this is good - making the game accessible to kids who just want to mash stuff up. In practice it means things never escalate in the way you'd hope. Daddy never steps back and lets you pedal on your own, so there's little incentive to do anything more than the bare minimum to get by.
Admittedly, ignoring the botany fetch quests and failing to hoover up enough experience orbs to advance through the game's simple level-up system does mean that fights become trickier later on. This is purely because you'll have less health and few potions to restore it when it gets depleted, and the disappointingly sparse checkpoints make progress something of a chore if you keep getting beaten.
But even if you play on the hardest difficulty setting, this is a phenomenally easy game. It feels like Io wasn't confident in its ability to handle a younger audience, and so erred on the side of caution. The result suggests interesting directions and hidden depths, even flirts with RPG concepts, but then darts away from exploring them fully, back to the comfort zone of melee combat, presumably for fear of scaring off the kids. It's a shame, since kids are capable of handling surprisingly complex game design provided its introduced in the right way. Just look at Pokémon.
All this is compounded by a dearth of additional content. There's no co-op play, even though the foundations of the game seem ideal for it and it usually works brilliantly in kids game - you just get a single-player story. Admittedly, it's of a decent size and will last for as long as most grown-up games if you're looking for all the collectables, but there's not much reason to return to the game after completion.
With its charming presentation and appealing mixture of whimsy and irreverence, Mini Ninjas comes tantalisingly close to being something very special. Had it trusted its young audience, and made its fun ideas more than just optional diversions, we could be looking at the next great original pre-teen gaming franchise. What we've ended up with is a game loaded with promise that sells itself short in the execution. There's no doubt it'll entertain the kids, but it won't challenge them.
6 / 10