Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword represents the changing approach to game design stimulated by the popularity of the Wii and DS. It is a game whose control scheme is as wonderfully elegant as its level progression is tightly focused. Like most of Team Ninja's efforts, the polish and craftsmanship of the game's controls define it more than any other element and in that sense they are a perfect match for Nintendo - a company who rests their development laurels squarely on gameplay and its perfection. But as much as Dragon Sword is the progeny of Itagaki and company, it is also a firm break from the tradition and reputation so closely associated with Team Ninja.
Like the Xbox Ninja Gaiden, Dragon Sword is a study in game control. However, if Ninja Gaiden was about the monumental struggle a player faces in bridging the gap between the sensory input on a controller and the marionette on screen, then Dragon Sword is here to show how easily that gap could have been closed if we had only accepted a few caveats. The biggest of these is acknowledging that for a touch screen fighting game to work, there must be a one to one relationship between the movement of the stylus on the screen and action it produces. Thus, dragging the stylus over an enemy causes Ryu to slash an enemy, swiping upwards with the stylus causes Ryu to jump, and various combinations of these movements create special moves. To keep the game from reaching the rococo heights of Ninja Gaiden, there are only around four special moves, all of them very intuitive.
In simplifying the moves and fostering such a direct relationship between the stylus and the character's actions, the game begins to resemble an only slightly more advanced version of whack-a-mole. Ryu, as a third person vicarious experience, is all but extinguished, having been replaced by the stylus. Despite his wonderfully nimble character animation, he is overpowered by the presence of the player's stylus - the hammer that whacks away on moles popping their heads up on screen. Yet Team Ninja deserves credit for maintaining the feeling that the player is sword fighting, despite the de facto absence of an avatar. A lot of this can be credited to the sound design of the game. While not immediately striking, I started to realize it was the sound that tied me to the game world when Ryu could not. The midst of an intense action sequence is a satifsying cacophony of samurai movie sound effects, and blue sword flashes. Make no mistake, the gameplay is extremely satisfying on a primal level. Also crucial to the game's appeal is its limited scope, a scant 4-5 hours in a single play through - enough time to master the controls, but not so much that the player grows bored with the scheme's limitations.
Also like the rest of Team Ninja's games, the remaining elements of Dragon Sword are rather less compelling. In an apparent effort to appeal to a wider audience they have focused the game around a straightforward narrative presented with cut scenes reminiscent of a cartoon. However despite the goofy old men, innocent damsels, and gap tooth children, Team Ninja was unwilling to totally abandon their preoccupation with fetish culture and highly sexualized female bodies. Because of this, the game has a strange sexual undertone that I found more disturbing than the tongue in cheek nudity one might run across in a title like God of War.
Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword represents the very best of what I imagined the DS could be when it was first unveiled, and it is the type of game I hope might one day grace the Wii. But in conforming to Nintendo's vision for DS, Dragon Sword has compromised itself. The elements that defined the series, the obstinate difficulty and the labyrinthine controls, have been pushed to the wayside, leaving only a pleasant diversion. This is fine, as diversions are well suited for the DS, however I find myself underwhelmed by this gelding of a game, especially because I know that it comes from a line of stallions.
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