Nintendo Switch multiplayer action title Ninjala is referenced constantly for its similarities to Splatoon. In many ways, the game warrants these comparisons. With its cheery vibe, kid competitors and snappy gameplay, GungHo’s game invites them! It’s clear, though, from its Ninjala Exclusive Ninja Club beta period that the two games have some very important differences.
The aesthetic trappings of Ninjala are certainly Splatoon-inspired. The game builds an urban cool kid aesthetic that’s too similar to ignore. It doesn’t mean it isn’t bringing its own ideas to the concept, though. With named player characters and fashion brands with their own personalities, it helps to flesh out the world a bit better than Splatoon‘s initial “you are an Inkling and so is everyone else” approach. It’s more of an iteration upon where Splatoon 2 landed near the end of its life, with emphasis on stylish collections and more avatar personality. The drive to keep playing is about unlocking more and more options for your character, including songs you can equip as part of your loadout. It’s a nice touch.
The first difference, of course, is the gameplay. Ninjala isn’t about painting or shooting so much as speedy close-quarters melee combat. In these ways, it’s trying to appeal to the fans of its larger cousin without replacing it. Lots of buttons do lots of things all the time, and with constant cooldowns and more varied movement options, it’s certainly more complex. It brings in MOBA-like in-match progression, too. There are drones around the arena that players can defeat to gain energy to make their weapons larger. Larger weapons will be a huge advantage in the full game, presumably. In the beta, the speedier attacker often won a skirmish regardless of their reach.
Still, taking out these drones adds to your point total. Managing them well could serve a similar function that painting the map does in Splatoon: offering smart tasks for those who aren’t so hot at head-to-head fighting to try. How much can focusing on drones help? It can move a fifth-place performer in an eight-person fight up to second in the standings! If you bring experienced friends into a team battle in the full game, you could specialize in these roles to best suit each player’s strengths.
Complexity is tough to judge in a limited period at all, and certainly one with as small a window as this one. Still, the Ninjala open beta offers a window into the game’s accessibility. It knows it has a lot more work to do to get players into the thick of it, so it front-loads the experience with a two-minute YouTube video that quickly explains each button’s function. This… isn’t a tutorial, and presumably the full game will take more time to acclimate players. In this context, it’s not particularly effective at explaining the uses and advantages of each kind of attack.
The second way the Ninjala open beta shows that it’s different? Well that’s made clearer by its technical and communications hiccups. Even with all the (sometimes deserved) hate thrown at Nintendo for its online functions, it’s still apparent that Splatoon is a larger game with way more resources. Beta events with one-hour windows like this one are designed to be stress tests of the server infrastructure, but GungHo’s team wasn’t prepped for the response and it means there’s still significant work to do to build a stable environment for launch next month.
As a small game, Ninjala is trying to get big by crafting itself as a free-to-play offering. With many players stuck at home and looking for something to supplement Animal Crossing in their Switch game routines, this strategy could work! Time will tell if paid options like the Ninjala Pass will put free players at a competitive disadvantage. It will be important for the game to keep gameplay even while securing enough funding to really bolster those servers and keep new content appearing at a healthy pace. If the available offering of items is as generous in the full game as it is here, there should be enough to satisfy most without feeling like they have to spend to look nice.
The third: the Ninjala open beta leads with its weird foot forward. It chooses to skip the “default” weaponry look for some truly quirky options. Like boxing-padded poles! Like yo-yo basketballs! (The full game could, and perhaps should for the sake of learning, start with something simpler.) According to the lore of the world, players craft these weapons out of gum, so their shapes are much less sharp than what you’d expect from a combat game armory. The cosmetic and equipment options in the beta already show the breadth of creativity the development team has brought to this project. It could win over fans with its dedication to oddball and kitsch selections in a way Splatoon never did.