Supper Mario Broth: Special Zone, Issue 10

Welcome, everyone, to the tenth issue of Supper Mario Broth: Special Zone!

In this issue, we are going to look at how the ambiguity of the Ninji design has resulted in different interpretations of the enemy over the years.

A blog post came flying from the darkness, striking the target with obscure Mario information. "This must be the work of the Supper Mario Broth clan."

What is a Ninji, Anyway?

The first Mario game that the Ninji species appeared in was Super Mario Bros. 2. However, that is not the true origin of the Ninjis. As is now very widely known - due to this particular fact being popularized by a variety of Internet sources - Super Mario Bros. 2 is a relatively minor Mario-themed edit of an earlier game called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, or, translated from Japanese, Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic.

The original game was designed for a media event organized by Fuji TV to showcase their upcoming products in 1987; with the story revolving around a family with four children. Two of them are kidnapped by the character that later became known as Wart, ruler of the dream world, and the parents and two other children venture into the dream world to rescue them - later being changed to the four playable characters we know from Super Mario Bros. 2.

Almost all enemies from Super Mario Bros. 2 are present in Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, the Ninjis being one of them. Their original name in Japanese is Hakkun; while this itself does not mean anything in particular, a theory exists that it is a portmanteau of the name of a famous historical ninja, Hattori Hanzō, and the suffix "-kun", used for young males. 

Let's take a look at the sprite of the Ninji used in that game, and by extension, in Super Mario Bros. 2:

With the majority of NES games, the process of creating official artwork for anything but the most major characters of a game was usually the opposite of what is expected today. Instead of starting with concept art and turning it into in-game graphics, graphics were created first (often by people who were not themselves artists, but primarily programmers) and then, near the end of development, artists were commissioned to create illustrations for manuals and promotional material given only in-game graphics as reference.

Here is what the artist for Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic created for the manual:

Of course, the same artwork was reused for the US manual for Super Mario Bros. The Ninjis are subdivided into Ninji-1 and Ninji-2, shown here as Hakkun A and Hakkun B. Ninji-1s chase Mario around while Ninji-2s (although the plural could also be Ninjis-1 and Ninjis-2; there are no official sources using plurals with these names) stay in place and jump.

Let's compare the artwork with the sprites. Despite the sprites having completely black feet, the artwork has light claws. The two red dots were interpreted as teeth, however, the artwork doesn't depict the teeth as red, either, but as white.

Since  Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic was the only piece of media for that franchise, that would have been the end of Ninjis if not for the reuse of the assets and the extreme popularity of Super Mario Bros. 2 internationally. This resulted in all of the characters from that game having large amounts of additional art created by Western artists.

Many of them used the manual art as reference, like this:

This artwork was featured in the Nintendo Power "Super Mario Bros. 2 Inside Out" guide. Note that the teeth have been colored in to be pink as likely the artist looked at the sprite as well and wondered why the dots were a different color than the teeth in the illustration.

Another source of Ninji artwork were officially licensed Super Mario Bros. 2 greeting cards:

This one just copied the manual artwork but simplified the mouth even further to have a single snaggletooth, which bears no resemblance to the sprite whatsoever.

Interestingly, it is exactly this design that made it into the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, where Ninjis appeared only in Episode 10, Karate Koopa. Note how when the mouth is open, the two red openings to the left and right of the tooth almost resemble the sprite; if the tooth was black instead, it would have looked remarkably like the game.

Ninjis returned a few years later, unexpectedly, as enemies in the very last section of the final level of Super Mario World, where they were likely chosen due to having almost entirely black bodies and thus fitting into the stage's dark background. Notably, their sprites are completely unchanged from the Super Mario Bros. 2 graphics - they are the only enemies in the game to be imported wholesale from a previous entry in the series in this manner.

However, for an unknown reason, despite the in-game appearance being identical to before, the official art started to change. The Super Mario World cartoon had a wildly different interpretation of Ninjis:

In the 11th episode, The Yoshi Shuffle, Ninjis can be seen in the audience. Now, in addition to losing the claws on their feet, they have red teeth that bring them slightly more in line with the sprite. Still, for unknown reasons, they are drawn brown instead of black.

Now, you may know that the current depiction of Ninjis shows them with red buttons instead of any of the other interpretations I have showcased in this article so far. You may wonder where this originated. The answer is surprising: it was a 1992 issue of Super Mario-kun, the only official Mario manga.

The Super Mario Adventures comic, also published in the same year, has Ninjis that highly resemble their modern depictions but are so small due to being only seen in the background of crowd scenes that it is unclear whether the spots were intended to be buttons or whether it is a coincidence:

So far, there has been a linear progression from a completely off-sprite interpretation to one that matches the sprite exactly. However, there was a major hiccup in this development with the remake of Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Advance. First up, it is suspicious that no official artwork of Ninjis exists in the manual:

Although nearly every other enemy type - and boss - is present, Ninjis are not. This is peculiar due to Ninjis being a very common enemy appearing very early on in the game. Let's take a look at the sprites, since no artwork is available:

Apparently, whoever was in charge of redesigning the enemies went either off the original manual artwork or off their own imagination, since this design takes previously unseen liberties. Note how the teeth are in the same spots as the buttons on the original sprites, but a mouth line is added, completely changing the context for the pixels. In addition, instead of interpreting the black part of their body as a ninja-like cloth covering, it is taken to mean fur, with a bright spot added to the ears in order to create some sort of mammalian animal creature.

This redesign lasted for one more appearance:

The toy Ninji from Mario vs. Donkey Kong also has a mouth with two teeth, however, the ears are no longer animal-like. 

Mario Party Advance was the first game to feature in-game graphics detailed enough to clearly get across that the spots are buttons, and the design has remained more or less the same save for color changes from then on.

The Paper Mario series contains both paper versions and normal versions of Ninjis (in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam). They have been shown to use techniques inspired by actual ninjas, such as hiding behind decoy bushes, and more fanciful attacks such as folding themselves into shurikens. Note that even as late as 2016, the buttons, though clearly conveyed to be buttons, are missing the holes due to the sprites not being in a high enough resolution.

Finally, in their latest appearance in 2017's Super Mario Run, Ninjis are finally given realistic buttons and thus have come the closest to their depiction in Super Mario-kun:

In conclusion, the story of Ninjis is one of misunderstandings and strange origins, with the current design being inspired by a manga and first used in a Mario Party game. Who knows what the future will hold for Ninjis?

This concludes today's ninjutsu. Until tomorrow!

Thank you very much for reading.

Become a patron to

Unlock 33 exclusive posts
Listen anywhere
Connect via private message