Some games just scream summer - maybe summer's on my mind as I'm writing this in my shed while the sun sears down - and Ninjala's surely one of them. Colourful, upbeat and brimming with energy, it feels like the perfect accompaniment to long June afternoons, so the timing of its release on Nintendo Switch this week - a few weeks later than originally planned due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, though now coming in the middle of a heatwave in the UK - couldn't be more perfect.
At Ninjala's developers GungHo Online, it's the next step in some three years of development since the project's genesis. "A very long time ago I wanted to make something themed around ninjas," GungHo Online CEO Kazuki Morishita tells me over Zoom from the Tokyo office the team has just returned to. "I saw some kids playing around with sticks - it's called chanbara in Japanese - and I asked myself why do people do this? When they pick up a stick, why do they start fighting like it's a sword - it's almost like a natural instinct!"
It's an instinct I'm sure is shared across the globe - even at my tender age I'm still likely to do the same when I pick up a stick, though I'm also likely to accompany it with some improvised lightsaber noises too. "In Japan every kid does that," Morishita continues. "When you're a little kid, we used to play as ninjas - so that, combined with chanbara, that's where it all comes from.
"When you think about ninjas in games, though, it's often a darker thing - it's violent, murderous. I wanted something more adaptable for kids, that's more pop and that's about how you felt as a kid. It's very innocent. I was thinking how could we do this from a user side? I had the ideas of ninja, and action game - what could be interesting? So one day I was chewing gum - I don't normally chew gum! - and that's when this idea came about. After that I started adding in stories, characters - but it all started from the design first."
Ninjala's a busy little game. It's a melee-based multiplayer-focussed affair - there's 4v4 team battles and a solo Battle Royale mode - your character using gum to trigger abilities and shooting down drones to power up their melee weapon, while you're able to deftly run along walls and disguise yourself as in-game props. It's a bit more besides, too, with a story mode coming as a paid expansion alongside the base free-to-play multiplayer side of the game, and a season pass being chosen as the business model for the online mode.
"When we were making it we were actually planning for it to be a package so people could buy it," explains Morishita, "but in order to play the game you need a mass of people so we decided to move from a retail package to free-to-play - so that more people could get their hands on it."
Indeed, the number of people who've wanted to get their hands on it has caused some problems with the early betas in the run-up to launch, with the first being beset with server issues. "We were prepared for the first one, but four times more people than we expected took part," says designer Motoki Kaneda. "The server wasn't able to fulfill that. For the second test we opened up the servers and there weren't any issues with crashes - which gave us more confidence for the actual launch. On the beta test we were looking at reactions across social media - there were some comments about refreshing the UI and making tweaks to certain parameters, and things will be adjusted for launch."
It's an exciting prospect, nevertheless - a little bit MOBA, a little bit Naruto and, of course, a lot of Splatoon, with that comparison dominating the conversation since Ninjala's announcement a couple of years ago. "When we started planning, the Switch had just come out so we thought we'd try it out," Morishita says of the decision to make Ninjala an exclusive for Nintendo's platform at launch. "It's designed to be played with other platforms - like PS4, PC - but I want the age range to be for younger kids, so I think it's the right target for it."
"I know the colouring and the style does look like a Splatoon but when people actually played a game we hear a lot of them say this isn't actually like Splatoon," Morishita says of the recurring comparisons. "Splatoon's a very good game, and personally I really like it - I'm really happy that people say it's like Splatoon - but I'd like people to play it and see it's very different from Splatoon, and for people to enjoy it on its own terms.
"Splatoon's more a shooting game, and this is more close combat - it is team battles with 4 players on each side, but there's also battle royale which is a free-for-all. If you play the game, you'll see it's totally different. They're both really good games - and Splatoon is a game I really admire. If you could write that, and maybe we can do a collaboration with them!"