An entry in the long-running Ninja Jajamaru-kun series that feels like it’s going to fly to pieces at any moment.

It’s always a small thrill whenever Game Boy Works brings us to a release with an actual gaming legacy behind it, versus some random forgotten one-off like SunSoft Grand Prix or, I dunno, Card Game. But it’s more a thrill when that legacy adds up to a quality game—something that I’m afraid I can’t say is the case with Jaleco’s 1990 handheld creation, Maru’s Mission.

Maru’s Mission is a bizarre, sloppy mess of a game, one that seems to have been created with the hope that a single nifty graphical effect would make up for the fact that the rest of the game feels decidedly half-baked. But on the other hand, it does tie in with a long-running Jaleco legacy franchise… so that’s something. You may recall Jaleco’s Game Boy debut: A pinball title called Hero Shuugou! Pinball Party. While that game may have paled next to HAL’s spectacular Revenge of the Gator so far as handheld pinball sims go, Hero Shuugou did have one thing going for it: Cameos by a wide range of Jaleco mascot characters. That same mindset seems to have guided the creation of Maru’s Mission. It’s not particularly well-made, but hey: A beloved character!

Namely, Jajamaru-kun. Maru’s Mission shipped in Japan in September of 1990 under the name Oira Jajamaru! Sekai Daibouken, or roughly “Hey Jajamaru! A Big Adventure Around the World.” Maru’s Mission was essentially the Jaleco equivalent of Super Mario Land: A chance for the company’s biggest character to venture onto a new platform so players could enjoy his adventures on the go.

Between 1985 and 1991, Jaleco had released five different Jajamaru games on the Famicom. None of the Jajamaru series made its way to the U.S., though. The third game was supposed to come to America as Taro’s Quest, and fifth entry was apparently going to hit the States under the name Squashed; both efforts fizzled out, and we went sans-Jajamaru until the very first game showed up as a Virtual Console import selection for Wii. In other words, this is another case of a fairly well-known series in Japan that had almost no traction in the west during its peak era, similar to Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Jajamaru games struggled to lock down their identity from release to release as much as the Dragon Slayer series did.

The original Jajamaru-kun appears to have evolved from some early arcade-style platformers by UPL and Micro Cabin that had appeared in the early to mid ’80s under the name Ninja-kun. Jaleco distributed a couple of the Ninja-kun arcade games, and from that connection they appear to have adopted the protagonist for their own derivative-yet-original works, renaming him Jajamaru-kun but largely sticking to the original gameplay formula. This wasn’t particularly uncommon at the time; you can see famous examples of a distributor spinning a licensed title into its own new works in Midway’s questionable Pac-Man derivatives, or the divergence between Sega’s Wonder Boy and Hudson’s Adventure Island. A closer comparison to the Jajamaru situation might actually be found in Star Soldier, which started as Tehkan creation Star Force but somehow mutated into a Hudson mainstay.

Jaleco’s first Jajamaru-kun creation took the form of a simple platform game set in stages that were barely larger than a single screen. These very likely served as the inspiration for the “Guerrilla Warfare” levels of Bandai’s Ninja Kid. They definitely inspired the very first Robot Ninja Haggleman segment of Retro Game Challenge.

From there, the series basically chased every trend imaginable on Famicom: The second game became a scrolling platformer, like Super Mario Bros., while the third game jumped on the Dragon Quest role-playing bandwagon despite those RPG mechanics having zero precedent in its predecessors. The fourth game turned out to be a Legend of Zelda clone (and we’ll see a portable adaptation of that game in a future Game Boy Works volume with the game that actually did reach the U.S. as Ninja Taro), while the fifth and final game—the one almost localized as Squashed!—looks a heck of a lot like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Jaleco’s own Whomp ’Em (which, just to make this whole thing even more incestuous, was in fact the sequel to an adaptation of a Wonder Boy sequel).

To put it succinctly, there was not a lot of originality or constancy at work in the Jajamaru-kun games. And that flighty approach to design likely accounts for the mediocrity of the series’ portable debut.

Maru’s Mission draws most heavily on the second Jajamaru-kun game, taking the form of a side-scrolling platformer set in very similar environments. Where Maru’s Mission stands apart from the rest of the series is in its settings. As the game’s Japanese title suggests, Maru’s Mission sends young Jajamaru around the world on a quest rather than taking place strictly in Japan. As usual for the franchise, he’s on a quest to save a girl—Cori, also known as Sakura in Japan. You don’t get to ride a giant frog around as you did in the second Famicom Jajamaru-kun game, but you’re still trying to rescue the same young woman from the same villain, and it’s still kinda janky… so, for the most part, it’s business as usual.

The abducted Cori keeps getting shuttled back and forth across the globe under the supervision of various monsters. It seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a simple kidnapping, but it does at least mean Maru (and players) get to see lots of different scenery.

Each of the game’s six stages contains both a mid-boss and a primary boss, and the mid-boss usually gives you a weapon required to defeat his sempai once you beat them. (So much for loyalty among bad guys.) Maru—who despite appearing like a typical dippy ’90s kid on the U.S. box art is very definitely a shuriken-chucking ninja in-game—defeats foes with throwing stars and collects his dead enemies’ souls for health boosts.

It’s more or less standard platforming design, and each stage has characters and occasionally mechanics that tie to its mythology. For example, in Romania your primary battle will be against Dracula, who can only be destroyed with the garlic weapon provided by Romanian mid-boss Wolfman. There are some amusing little details within the game’s bestiary, too; when you defeat a chimaera, for example, it breaks into its component creatures, which you have to destroy individually.

And… that’s about all the good there is to the game. Everything else about Maru’s Mission is kinda bad.

Let’s start with the most obvious thing, which is the game’s massive, constant, pervasive slowdown. We’ve seen some sluggish games on Game Boy before, but Maru’s Mission literally feels like it’s running at half-speed at all times. This game makes Gradius III look like a turbo-charged twitch exercise. At least that game had the one high-speed obstacle zone.

The sensation of slow-motion is only exacerbated by Maru’s floaty controls, which include a jump skill that appears to have no practical ceiling. The longer you hold down the jump button, the higher you jump… eventually going off the screen, if you want. There are certain zones where you can stick to the ceilings and play upside-down… but inconsistently, even within the same area. Maru’s Mission is spectacularly easy most of the way through thanks to the ease with which you can farm health items from defeated foes. But then it all changes when you reach bosses who erratically remain in their invincible attack modes almost indefinitely. So protected, they’ll whittle you down to zero health while offering you zero chance for retaliation. Since the game doesn’t include a continue feature of any sort, this means a playthrough can come to a sudden end if you have a run of bad luck against a late-game boss… because, whoops, you only get one life.

The whole game feels weirdly random, too, like the way you can be whisked to the very first boss within seconds of starting the game for no apparent reason. Sometimes you have to shoot spear guns at sharks in an underwater mode that comes out of nowhere. 

You can collect temporary weapons to use against regular enemies—some useful, others not—but you have spotty control over them. The mandatory anti-boss weapons don’t become available until you face the boss in question. Despite not being accessible until those sequences, you still have to press Select to activate these secondary weapons.

From start to finish, Maru’s Mission feels rushed and sloppy. There are the bones of a decent platformer lurking here, but it’s so badly realized that there’s no joy in playing it—especially when you constantly run the risk of getting stuck in a cheap, unfair, invincible boss pattern and being forced to start over from the beginning when you lose your single life.

Several online sources peg Maru’s Mission as having been programmed by TOSE. While TOSE has a pretty poor reputation, we’ve seen quite a few Game Boy productions by the studio, and all of them were far more competent than this. Given how much Maru’s Mission feels like a relative of TOSE’s actually quite good Ninja Kid for NES, this release stands as a weird blip of lousiness from a studio that could at least be counted on to demonstrate some degree of technical skill under even the most dire of circumstances.

On the plus side, the English-localized dialogue can be amusing on occasion, and the shimmering raster effect at the beginning of levels is kind of neat. On the whole, though, there’s not an awful lot to recommend Maru’s Mission unless you’re simply determined to build a collection of Jajamaru-kun games… no matter how underwhelming they may be.