"The purpose of the ninja is to flip out and kill people."
Ninjas used to be hardcore. They were the top criminals of ancient Japan, expertly trained killers who studied a dangerous, mysterious art. They were feared by lord and samurai alike, acrobatic assassins with little regard for honor or fair play. They'd run around on rooftops under the cover of darkness, often carrying all kinds of nasty poisons and flash bombs in their pockets. One slip up and it was goodbye Iron Monkey, hello Iron Lung.
But nowadays, ninjitsu is all fun and games, from the infamous Real Ultimate Power dude to a ninja delivery service to whatever this is. The deadly art of assassination is now a popular Halloween costume. Ninjas have become chic. Where oh where have all the real ninjas gone?
Tecmo, that's where. The video game giant clearly hired a gang of real ninjas to act as consultants on their Xbox version of the classic Ninja Gaiden, because this game is oozing with more ninja attitude than a Dudikoff marathon. Swordplay, shurikens, hopping around on walls - it's all here and it's deadly serious (and difficult) business. But it's also deadly fun, and despite a couple glitches along the way, serves as a perfect reminder of why we love ninjas in the first place.
Many will remember the original coin-op or the three NES Ninja Gaiden games, all beloved 2D action romps that featured some impressive moves and abilities. This new Xbox version shares some of the elements that made the original games successful, but takes the series - and action gaming in general - to new heights.
You play as Ryu Hayabusa (last seen as a fighter in DOA 3), a member of the Hayabusa ninja clan. Left to guard the sacred Dragon Sword, you soon find yourself roaming across the Vigoor Empire in an effort to track down Doku, an evil Fiend who is behind the torching of your hometown. It's a typically obtuse Japanese plot, but works well enough to push the game forward and advance Ryu's skill set.
And when things get moving, Ninja Gaiden's gameplay will make you all but forget about the slipshod story. It's reminiscent of Devil May Cry, featuring frantic action sequences rife with enormous combos and fluid, almost cinematic choreography.
It begins and ends with the combat. You start out with access to only the Dragon Sword and basic shurikens, but over the course of the game you'll collect several other melee weapons, including nunchackus, a hefty war hammer and a massive two-handed blade along with nifty projectiles like a bow with several kinds of arrows. Each of the main weapons comes with its own unique move list; by the time you're nearing the end of the game, you literally have hundreds of moves at your disposal.
Accessing more moves is done by powering up weapons at Muramasa's, a one-stop ninja shopping spot found sooner or later on most levels. You can also buy healing potions and more ammo, giving the game something of an RPG feel. Further, Ryu can use Ninpo, or ninja magic, which sort of acts like your classic smart bomb.
The fighting itself is the star of Ninja Gaiden. Using just two attack buttons, a jump, a projectile button and one block button, the system works wonderfully and intuitively. You'll start off just mashing attacks, but eventually you'll need to learn some combos and figure out which moves work best in which situations.
Like any real ninja, Ryu can jump, flip and twist all over the place. He can throw shurikens in the middle of a leap, then pounce down upon an enemy with a driving sword to the head (which, incidentally, tends to pop right off the body). Much like in Prince of Persia, Ryu can walk on walls for short bursts, only to leap off onto another wall, then another, and another, in a balletic display of ninja grace. It's really quite cool, and when coupled with the sheer array of moves, leads to an organic, fluid fighting system overflowing with style.
You won't notice this from the outset, though. Ninja Gaiden starts off rather slowly and some gamers might be put off by the first few levels. Then, suddenly, the game takes a turn for the better as you find your first shop and power up your sword or switch to the nunchakus and toss together some monstrous 50-hit combo. Patience is a ninja virtue.
In fact, the level design gets better and better as the game progresses. Ninja Gaiden is linear, but some of the levels are enormous and allow you to backtrack pretty far, which comes in handy if you need to go back to buy some extra potions. The levels tend to weave in and out of one another; you'll often revisit earlier areas as you unlock previously locked doors. In a sense, you're constantly looking into your own future as you pass by doors that won't be unlocked for another 5 hours, at which time it all makes perfect sense.
While the action dominates the gameplay, unlocking some of those doors requires a healthy dose of puzzle-solving. Most are straightforward and a plethora of useful maps restate the obvious, but they help mix up the gameplay.
However, this brings us to the throwing star stuck in this ninja's shoe: the camera. Third-person games often have camera problems, and sadly Ninja Gaiden is no exception. The developers at Team Ninja couldn't really have locked the camera behind Ryu like in most third-person games since so many enemies come at you from so many directions at once, so they instead opted to let the camera sort of do its own thing.
This poses major problems. You'll occasionally cut a swathe through some enemies and wind up off-screen entirely as the camera stays centered. Sometimes you'll smack one guy, turn around and hit another and start comboing him directly towards the screen, which can be disorienting and awkward. The camera routinely has problems with corners; get surrounded by some baddies and you're a goner.
To solve all this, the game lets you use a first-person view to get a better look at your surroundings and employs the right trigger as a manual re-centering button, but it snaps behind Ryu so quickly it often jars you out of whatever you were just doing. You'll eventually learn to live with it, but it makes the game unnecessarily harder and can be monumentally frustrating.
Not that Ninja Gaiden really needs to be any harder than it already is. This is just about the hardest game out for the Xbox. The various enemy types are tough as nails, numerous and nasty and the awesome bosses are even harder, often requiring several attempts to learn the patterns and timing. While you constantly upgrade your weapons, you never really get any new armor, so eventually you'll have to learn how to block and evade like a pro or you'll be dead in seconds.
This leads to another of the game's problems: the save system. It works much like Tomb Raider, where save game checkpoints are found in certain areas that can only be reached after making it through a series of fights or puzzles. The spacing isn't great during the later stages of the game, at times forcing you into repeating hard fought sequences over and over again because you keep dying at the same spot. There are few things as infuriating as kicking all kinds of enemy ass, leaping up some walls to grab a key, coming back down, somehow kicking more enemy ass only to get stuck on a sub-boss, die, and have to do it all over again. And again. And again. Newbies beware: this is not a game for the weak of thumb.
But it is certainly a game for anyone who enjoys pretty pictures. Ninja Gaiden looks great, from its rock solid framerate and good character models to its lack of loading times. The environments are varied and interesting even though you don't really interact with them (aside from the ubiquitous crate smashing here and there) and groovy water and flame effects add some visual punch. The FMV in particular is simply outstanding, rivaling the best the Xbox has to offer.
The sound is decent; there's nothing especially wrong or right with the music and effects. I'm pleased that they added the ability to toggle between English and Japanese voice-acting and subtitles. The original Japanese is much better than the cheesy English translations.
Beyond the 20+ hour single-player story, the only extra mode is Master Ninja Tournament, which currently does nothing. Eventually, it will be some sort of online tournament for Xbox Live users, though details are vague at the moment.
Don't let that stop you from checking this beauty out, though. Yes, the camera can be very annoying and the game is unquestionably difficult and at times frustrating, but the whole is much better than the sum of its parts. It's rare for an action game to get better the longer you play it; give Ninja Gaiden a little of your time and you'll get much more in return. And that's real ultimate power.