Tecmo, developers of the popular fighting game series “Dead or Alive”, has been slowly building up the hype for their latest next-gen reiteration of an old-age classic: Ninja Gaiden. Due to an extreme media blow out, Gaiden was supposed to have the next big step in graphics, the fastest and fiercest game play, fantastic sound - - you get the idea. Does Gaiden succeed in living up to the hype that has been set before it? Tough question. In some ways, sure, Ninja Gaiden is great. In others, however, it doesn’t quite hold up to the standard set by media and fanatic fans.
Ninja Gaiden starts off on the right foot with a small-length CGI intro explaining the basic concepts of the story. The Dark Dragon Blade, a very wicked sword from years long past, has been guarded by the Hayabusa ninja clan for many a year, and then it goes on to talk about the Dragon Sword (supposedly used for defeating dragons in the past), which is currently in the possession of a young Ryu Hayabusa. Not long after you begin the game, the Dark Dragon Blade is stolen, and you decide you should probably get it back. The end. No, really. There’s not much more to it than that. It’s an action game so, fair enough.
However, questionable is the first chapter. You begin in a rural area, climbing rocks and so forth until you reach the Ninja Fortress. After slaughtering countless Ninja, you fight the boss of the level. Turns out you know this guy - then who were all the saps you were slaughtering a minute ago? His pupils? It’s not like they’re just “resting” - they’re definitely decapitated. That’s okay - it’s an action game and it doesn’t really need to make sense, even within its own subset of rules.
That brings me to combat, which is probably what you wanted to know about anyway - it’s the shining core of Ninja Gaiden. Combat is fast, furious, but not always fun. After your initial experience with the combat system in the first chapter, chances are that you’ll be complaining that Ryu has too much recovery time, or that you can’t quite get him to move in the way you desire. This is because Ninja Gaiden has this huuuuuuuge bump in the difficulty curve when you begin the game. Once you get over this large bump in the road - the incline from that point on is fairly smooth and shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Once you settle in to the combat system, Ryu won’t be so slow anymore - you’ll be dodging, blocking, rolling, wall-running, countering, decapitating, and attacking with ease - as Ninja Gaiden’s controls are spot on.
The combat system is somewhat elementary when broken down. The X button is the primary attack button, while Y functions as what I’d call secondary, with B mapped to a ranged weapon. Combos can be performed with successive presses of X and Y at various intervals (example, X, X, Y, X). It doesn’t end that shallow, though. Some combos require air, some require you to be dashing, others require certain movements of the analog stick, and yet others insist on holding certain buttons down for a period of time. In addition to this, Ryu has a charge up attack of sorts. When enemies are killed, they drop essence (Onimusha), and Ryu can absorb this. Red replenishes Ninpo (Magic), blue replenishes health, and yellow scores points for purchasing items and upgrading weaponry. If the player holds down the Y button, Ryu will take a stance and absorb all essence around him. Upon release, he’ll do a super attack of sorts (the more essence, the more spectacular the attack - to a degree). The only drawback is that this attack takes time to execute, that is, the absorption of the spirits. Keep in mind, however, that spirits absorbed in this fashion (in comparison to the standard method of just walking near them) will not count toward restoring Ninpo/Health/etc.
From Chapter 2 and onward, Ryu encounters statues of a famous blacksmith which sell him items -- in exchange for essence, a la Devil May Cry. In addition to being able to buy restoration items, Ryu can upgrade each of his weapons - but that’s limited by the chapter in which you’re in. Regardless of the amount of essence you have, you can only upgrade to the current maximum level with that particular weapon.
There’s a fair amount of weapon variance, but I think Tecmo could have done a better job in this respect. The weapons range from the basic Dragon Sword, nun chaku, shuriken, bow, and more. The problem lies in the fact that there are plenty of primary weapons - but most of them are too similar to others.
Another area of the game that could have used more attention are the platforming elements. While they are somewhat enjoyable -- they’re far too infrequent. Ryu has wall runs and wall jumps - but there are hardly enough areas that contain puzzles which force you to be quick, agile, and calculating. It’s easy to be spoiled by last year’s Prince of Persia in this respect.
My main issue with this game is the “variety” of the enemies. Ninja Gaiden begins innocent enough - you’re fighting other Ninja. This is fun - they’re equipped with the same weapons and techniques that you are - so you’re fighting an equal and familiar enemy. This lasts a while, then you’ll begin to notice they have hand guns… and shurikens that explode.. Before you know it, you’re not fighting Ninja anymore - you’re fighting the National Guard! At one point I thought I took a wrong turn at the intersection and landed in Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 2 - these guys look like the special forces seen in Kojima’s flagship series. Wearing high tech gear, firing their automatic rifles and tossing grenades, where’d all the Ninja go? Clumped with these fellows, you’ll find some soldiers equipped with portable rocket launchers - sometimes you’ll even run in to rooms with only these guys, and several of them. Let me tell you - it’s not fun. Tanks, helicopters, gun-turrets.. Where are the Ninja? The Samurai? Not in Ninja Gaiden, that’s for sure. Granted, Ninja Gaiden has always featured Cyborgs and the like. That's not to say this game suffers in any real way from this - it's just a personal preference.
Ninja Gaiden’s graphics are fantastic - don’t get me wrong - but they lack that certain something to make them the next milestone in videogame graphics. Anyone familiar with Tecmo’s more recent titles can instantly recognize the plastic characteristics of the character models, but even so, Ryu looks incredibly lifelike in presentation. A good amount of the environments can be breathtaking if you stop to admire the scenery - but there are just as many bland environments as there are exciting.
I was also surprised to notice that the water effects in Ninja Gaiden are unusually poor in quality - the water doesn’t look realistic, and when Ryu steps in puddles, the wake is barely noticeable. Very strange for a company that puts so much focus on the graphical capabilities. Even stranger is the slowdown that occurs on occasion. While the game runs at a solid 60 frames per second the vast majority of the time, liquid-based effects can often bring the engine to a crawl for a few seconds at the right angle.
Level design featured in Ninja Gaiden is questionable. You’ve got nothing much out of the ordinary - Ninja Fortress, “Town”, “Cavern”, and so forth. Many of these are boring to an unbearable extent and don’t promote intrigue or wonder. However, they are all intricately inter-webbed, and props go to Team Ninja for this. After traveling through a particular chapter for what seems like an eternity, you’ll end up somewhere familiar - through a previously inaccessible exit or entrance. The amount of foreshadowing you can see in the game is pretty neat.
The sound quality in Ninja Gaiden is a mixed bag - the Japanese voice acting is standard, while the English voices suffer from low quality acting. The actual background music follows this same ideology, some good, some bad. A lot of the soundtrack is far too ambient to be noticed, though the few tracks that stand out are of high quality.
When all is said and done, chances are that you’ll enjoy Ninja Gaiden to a fair degree. That is, assuming you can get over that initial difficulty mountain and win your battles against the occasionally iffy camera angles. The game has beauty and some style, but not a whole lot of variance. Lasting just over 15 hours, fans of Devil May Cry, Onimusha, and the like should definitely give Ninja Gaiden a look.
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