‘Ninja Pizza Girl’ isn’t a title that immediately evokes the kind of image I would associate with a game that tackles serious issues. Well, unless you’re really serious about pizzas and their timely delivery (which, to be fair, we all are at heart). So when I heard that this was a game about ‘self-esteem, bullying and resilience’, I had to know how the hell that was possible – and the result was better than I expected.
The game came about when developers Disparity Games, captained by a husband and wife team, were informed by their thirteen year old daughter that the biggest problem facing teenagers was the importance of how they were treated by their peers. Now, teenagers can be mean – I remember being one, we probably all do. Maybe you still are one, in which case I’m sorry, friend. The scary truth is that sometimes things just become so interwoven into the norms of friendships and conversations that you don’t even know that there’s conflict and nastiness going on until it’s way too late. Getting teens, or even pre-teens to realise that, however, is no easy feat, and here’s where I think Ninja Pizza Girl has unique promise.
It’s not a groundbreaking game mechanically, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not about mechanics. It’s basically a speedrunner centered around Gemma – a 16 year old girl whose father’s pizza shop is struggling to hold up against corporate growth, and who runs deliveries for said pizza shop in order to set them apart from the competition. By delivering the pizza quickly and with a smile they can stay in business, but doing so becomes a whole lot harder when employees of the rival company start to intercept Gemma on her pizza runs, knocking her down to reduce her time and then laughing at her for her failures. When she’s attacked too often she becomes disheartened, and the player is forced to purchase ‘pick-me-ups’ for our teen heroine using items collected inside each level, along the lines of chocolates, films, or a new outfit so that she can feel confident in herself once again. Once she finally manages to reach her destination, she meets a cast of diverse characters that make her reflect on her own situation, and who do a great job of showing that everyone struggles with their own stuff, no matter how well they may appear to cope with day to day life.
It’s hard to talk about this game in terms of its value as a platformer/speedrunner, because if it didn’t have this story to go with it, I wouldn’t recommend putting any time into it. It’s fairly short, with completion of the main storyline only taking a couple of hours, but even then things started to get pretty repetitive pretty quickly. The soundtrack is appropriately upbeat, but it is a little same-y. The levels are nicely designed and filled with neon colours that really suit the atmosphere of the world, but although each one cleverly incorporates things like washing lines and cardboard boxes into the mix, there’s no real variation in what you’re doing. The good thing is that if you’re a completionist, the adjustable difficulty level is perfect for making you want to go back and try the levels just one more time so that you can unlock all the outfits, or collect all items a level has to offer. I take slight issue with the fact that a game about bullying instructs you to trip your enemies over when they laugh at you, but I can get past that. It’s making a point. But even with all of that, mechanically, it isn’t the best game of its genre, not by a long shot.
What really makes Ninja Pizza Girl special is its themes. I honestly believe that if you put this game into every school in Australia, pre-teens in particular would engage with it, because putting these messages into a video game is a way to actually make them listen. Older teens will roll their eyes at how in your face some of these life lessons are, but even then there are some great quotes stuck in between levels that I enjoyed and am considering making the background on my PC for motivational purposes. It’s clear that so much heart went into the making of this game, and for a certain audience (which judging by the way this game came to be, is the target audience) I think it’s a really important game to play. But if you can, play it with a controller, because telling people that your hands are cramping from spending a whole bunch of time sitting in an awkward position playing ‘Ninja Pizza Girl’ can elicit some strange looks.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of Ninja Pizza Girl by Disparity Games.