I’m Watch Da Birdie and this is the first installment of Underappreciated Video Game Characters, a reoccurring segment on my blog where I take a look at a minor character from a popular video game series who never got the love they deserved…
Today’s U.V.G.C. is Ninji from the Super Mario Bros. series. Ninji was one of the many enemies who debuted in the NES title Super Mario Bros. 2, though by now I assume you know the full story concerning this game and its place in the Mario canon.
If not, and if you’re reading this blog I’m honestly surprised you don’t, the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we got here in the U.S., and basically everywhere else outside of Japan, was actually a modified version of a Japanese Famicom Disc System game known as Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic. I won’t go into too much detail here about this game, because plenty of other sites have covered it in-depth, but the important thing to know is that the game originally starred an Arabian nuclear family who were replaced by Mario and friends when it was transformed into a Mario title.
But while some people argue that this game isn’t a true Mario title because of its origins, that’s not necessarily true—from my understanding Shigeru Miyamoto was heavily involved with its development, more so than he was with the “true” Super Mario Bros. 2 Japan got, and Japan eventually saw the modified version of Doki Doki Panic released as Super Mario USA so it is, indeed, ultimately what I’d consider to be a canon entry in the Super Mario series. Though it isn’t referenced as often as the original Super Mario Bros. and 3 are, many elements from it have become iconic such as being the first game to give Mario and Luigi different attributes which is now a series mainstay in almost every title featuring the two as playable characters.
Anyway, what younger players may not know when they play this game—and it’s widely available through the Virtual Console, with both the original NES version and the GBA remake offered on the Wii U—was that Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach were the only Mario characters really added to the game. Sure, a decent amount of graphics from Doki Doki Panic were switched out for recognizable Mario elements like the classic mushroom, star, and shell (thankfully replacing a blackface sprite) but it’s not like they replaced every single enemy in the game with a Mario one.
In fact, quite a few enemies introduced in this game would go on to become Mario mainstays—four in particular standout:
First is of course Birdo, who might be one of Nintendo’s oddest yet simultaneously greatest characters of all time. There’s been plenty written about this character around the net, and I honestly think she deserves her own book examining her history and what that says about gaming’s use of gender, so I won’t go too in-depth about her here. Birdo began as a reoccurring Mini-Boss in Doki Doki Panic before disappearing for a while till being brought back into the spotlight during the N64-era as a counterpart to Yoshi, one could even say a “love interest”, in the various spin-off titles. Her appearance in recent years in other games, such as the Japanese-only Captain Rainbow and the various Mario RPG titles, have been a bit subversive in the fact they reference the mystery concerning Birdo’s “gender”, a topic which I think is quite tricky to talk about so I’ll save that for another time. Birdo’s an awesome character regardless and is surprisingly popular despite her odd origins and somewhat off-putting design—she doesn’t seem to have the same “hatedom” as Waluigi and Tingle do at the very least.
Then there’s Shy Guy, who acted as the central goon of Doki Doki Panic—the “Goomba”, if you will—which fit since “masks” were a big motif in the original version. The reason for this was to tie into a Fuji TV event that had a Rio De Janeiro Carnival theme going on (no clue why there’s also the whole Arabian motif too), but when it was turned into a Mario title most of the mask elements were exorcised in favor of the more fitting mushroom blocks with only Shy Guy and Phanto really remaining. Shy Guy disappeared for a bit like Birdo, being absent from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Bros. World, but returned in Yoshi’s Island once more as the central goon. Some people joke that its appearance in Super Mario Bros. 2, which takes place in a dream world, is due to childhood trauma experienced by Baby Mario. Shy Guy went on to become primarily associated with the Yoshi series but since then has gained more and more prominent roles in titles not featuring Yoshi, and has become a popular playable character in the spin-off titles such as Mario Kart. Mario Kart 7 marked his first fully playable appearance in the Mario Kart series and featured a stage heavily inspired by Doki Doki Panic. He’s pretty much the best Mario Kart character ever.
Next is Bob-omb, who technically has appeared far more than the other two combined—and may be one of the most prolific Mario enemies of all time—but never really gained the same following as they did. This is probably due to the fact that it’s more of a living item than a character in many instances and very rarely do playable ones appear outside of the Paper Mario series, so it’s harder to identify with it. Bob-omb’s role as an enemy or item is pretty obvious just by looking at it, it explodes of course, and so it’s become an iconic design that even those unfamiliar with Mario would probably recognize. While Birdo and Shy Guy took a break after Doki Doki Panic, Bob-omb was quickly brought back for Super Mario Bros. 3 and played a fairly major role in Mario’s first foray into 3D as both an ally and a foe in Super Mario 64. It has since basically appeared in every Mario title in some form. Despite this, it wasn’t till I watched Scott Pilgrim that I realized its name was “Bob-omb”, and not “Bomb-omb”. The latter is far more catchy and rolls off the tongue easier if you ask me.
Finally there’s Pokey, who is the odd-one-out since nobody really loves this character—most players probably forget about him unless they’re playing a game where he appears—yet he’s surprisingly prolific. In Doki Doki Panic he appeared as an enemy who could have his individual segments separated, either by throwing them at you or by picking them off one-by-one (isn’t it a bit odd you can stand on the cactus enemy?), and that’s remained his key attribute in future titles. He missed out on Super Mario Bros. 3 but was back for World in a small role and has appeared in basically every main game since, though he’s usually limited to the desert levels. Due to his body shape he’s never had a playable role in a spin-off though, and none of the RPGs really had a well-written Pokey character, so despite appearing frequently he’s yet to gain a following.
Beyond these four the rest of the enemies introduced in Doki Doki Panic have either entirely disappeared, or have very few appearances elsewhere. But there was one enemy who appeared in Doki Doki Panic who had a lot of promise, and seemed like he was destined for bigger things, but never quite became a Mario star…
And that’s of course the actual topic of this blog, Ninji. Known as “Hakkun” in Japan (presumably named for famous ninja Hattori Hanzo, or so most people seem to believe), he appeared in Doki Doki Panic as a minor enemy with two variants: one Ninji would simply jump in place, and thus could be used to reach higher ground, while the other would run at you before jumping suddenly to catch you off guard. Mechanically he wasn’t as interesting as Birdo, Bob-omb, or Pokey, who each used the “pick-up” mechanic of Doki Doki Panic in a unique way, but he was quite cute and seemed a nice fit for the Mario-verse.
While nowadays we identify Ninji as, well, a ninja, it seems originally there was some miscommunication going on with the creators of the game and the people responsible for marketing it as Ninji’s official art seen above which appeared in both the Doki Doki Panic manual and the Super Mario Bros. 2 manual makes him resemble some kind of strange bat, his buttons switched out for fangs. The manuals also refer to him as a “lesser demon” or “little devil” (oddly enough the U.S. one uses “devil” despite it being taboo at the time) who haunts the dreams of boys who play Nintendo games.
I can’t say for sure what the original intent was behind the design, but since then Ninji has been commonly depicted as a cute bunny-like creature wearing the traditional ninja garb, sometimes black, sometimes purple, which is interesting if you’re into both ninja and Mario lore. It’s said that the outfit ninjas are commonly depicted wearing in popular media is based on the outfit puppet handlers wore to blend into the background of bunraku theater, and Miyamoto has said before that each Mario title, Super Mario Bros. 3 in particular, are basically like a show the characters are putting on. Maybe Ninji is responsible for moving the stage elements around behind the scenes?
Following Doki Doki Panic Ninji made an appearance in Super Mario World, but an appearance that was quite odd—he only appears in two rooms, within the “Front Door” and “Back Door” of Bowser’s Castle, and all he does is jump around in the darkness. The game also re-uses his original Doki Doki Panic sprite without updating it, note Pokey also appeared infrequently in World yet got a whole new sprite, and he’s absent from the credits of the game showing off the majority of enemies. Was he a last minute addition? Super Mario All-Stars released a couple of years later updated his sprite for the SNES remake of Super Mario Bros. 2, turning him a bright purple that made many of us 90’s kids think he looked like Gengar, but beyond that Ninji disappeared from the main Mario series for good.
A decade later Ninji made his return to the Mario series after being absent from even the spin-offs (bar Hotel Mario, oddly enough) as NPCs in Paper Mario. It would’ve been amazing to have seen Ninji as a playable character, and it’s a shame the only new pre-existing Mario enemy the sequel used was a Squeek, but sadly Paper Mario didn’t even make them enemies you could fight. They’re just minor NPCs who appear as the Star Kids’ guardians—I guess this is because they’re somewhat star-shaped themselves, but using what is basically a demon-ninja for this role was an odd choice. After Paper Mario Ninji once more disappeared, apart from a minor role in Mario vs. Donkey Kong (and the localization forgot it was called Ninji outside of Japan!) and Mario Party Advance, the latter featuring quite a wide assortment of obscure Mario characters. Oh, and the GBA remake of Super Mario Bros. 2 but that doesn’t quite count—though it did introduce a “Giant Ninji”.
Things have started to look up for Ninji though as he recently appeared in Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, and Paper Mario: Color Splash as an enemy once again instead of simply an NPC. Regardless of how you feel about the quality of these titles I was quite excited when I encountered Ninji in Sticker Star and loved seeing that Nintendo was having more fun with its ninja motif, with it doing stuff like using camouflage, substitution jutsu, and turning itself into a throwing star. At the same time it was such a missed opportunity he wasn’t in Super Mario 3D World despite that game using the Super Mario Bros. 2 character system and featuring a Japanese-style temple level that he’d be absolutely perfect for and I’m still eagerly awaiting his transition into 3D. Hopefully “Super Mario Switch” finally grants my wish and Ninji becomes popular enough that he gets to appear in Mario Kart next.
By the way, you ever notice Nabbit kind of looks a bit like Ninji?
Oh, and when it comes to Doki Doki Panic I’d like to add that I would love to see the Arabian family from the original appear in a Mario title, like as secret characters or something along those lines, but that probably won’t happen. While basically everything else in Doki Doki Panic, Wart included, appear to be owned by Nintendo Imajin (the son character who became Mario) and his family I believe are owned by Fuji TV as they appeared in the following television spot aired to promote the Yume Koujou event the game was made for:
This video was discovered by Nintendo Era who has done a fair bit of research into the Fuji TV event that inspired Doki Doki Panic, a very interesting topic. Props to the Super Mario Wiki as well for the manual scans of Doki Doki Panic as well as other images and keeping track of the appearances of every Mario enemy, no matter how small. I applaud the individual who played Hotel Mario long enough to realize Ninji was included in the game.