Review – Ninja Gaiden

I wanted to like Ninja Gaiden. I really did. Despite my disinterest in Namco’s Team Ninja and their “style over substance” approach to game design, I always hoped that this new Ninja Gaiden would live up to the high standards set by the 2d originals. It turns out that the final product is much like I expected. Team Ninja has a history of being able to do one thing incredibly well, be it the graphics of Dead or Alive or the … models in Extreme Beach Volleyball. Meanwhile pretty much everything else in the game ends up being mediocre at best.

The good news is that Ninja Gaiden’s combat happens to be the one thing that is done right. The bad news is that once again everything else is rather crummy. You’ll have to cut through both your enemies and several layers of bullshit in order to become a true ninja, and whether this is actually worth doing is a difficult question to answer.

First off, I have to say that I found Ninja Gaiden’s battles to be every bit as good as promised. This is because it manages to achieve a very rare sense of balance between all the elements of the combat engine. Often I find that the quality of a game’s combat correlates highly with how close it gets to achieving this balance, though it isn’t exactly easy to describe. Suffice to say that when I say a game has balance, it means that everything has a purpose, and no one move or tactic stands out above the rest.

Take for example Kingdom Hearts. It is an incredibly unbalanced game. Success can be achieved simply by mashing the attack button. Magic is mostly useless, special attacks are spontaneous and error prone, the leveling system feels trite and arbitrary. It even goes so far as to use the menu system of a turn based game in a real time combat engine. Very little about Kingdom Hearts’ battles makes sense, and this kind of chaos and poor design can create combat that is monotonous and frustrating, and it often gives the player little incentive to persist. If I begin asking “why?” something is the way it is, then the game has already lost me.

Soul Calibur is perhaps the best model of what a balanced game is like. Being in 3d, the game lets you move in, well, three dimensions. For every “cheap tactic” or surefire move there is a counter if you really look for it. The movelists are deep, almost intimidating at first, yet the nature of the engine combined with the incredible practice mode makes it perfectly possible to master any character. Or you could just spend all of your time button mashing and still have a good time. The only “why?”s of Soul Calibur are issues of blood and gore (or a lack thereof), and these are so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that they have little if any impact on the quality of the gameplay. Soul Calibur is the only game that I have consistently played for close to five years now, and it never feels trite, it never seems frustrating, and there is never one “best way” of doing things. That is what good balance can do.

Ninja Gaiden is not quite as balanced as Soul Calibur, but compared to most action titles it takes the cake. Yes it can be very tough at times, but it is also very fair. Enemies are strong, fast, and aggressive opponents who will punish mistakes and aren’t afraid to overwhelm you. To fight them, you are given a multitude of weapons, each with their own combos and uses. The window for button inputs is incredibly forgiving, allowing anyone to master combos, and you can block in situations that would be impossible in other games. Hell, you can kill an opponent in one shot if you get them on the ground!

Ninja Gaiden is a game that will try to kick your ass. Those who rush through the game and rely on the same stale moves will be punished frequently. Meanwhile those who take their time to explore their surroundings, and who take advantage of the many tools given to them will be able to kick back. Indeed, there are few things as satisfying as obliterating a group of fifty fiends with spinning, brutal nunchaku death after they gave you so much trouble a few hours ago. Surprisingly repayable, deep but accessible, Ninja Gaiden made me look forward to any chance for battle, and sits easily along with Devil May Cry at the top of the heap when it comes to 3d combat.

And now I’m afraid it is time to get nasty. I cannot for the life of me understand how a development team that concocted such satisfying fighting could screw up just about everything else. The greatest flaw is without a doubt the camera. The only, and mean only, control you have over it is the ability to reposition it behind Hayabusa’s back. You will be using this very often, as the camera simply does not move when you are not in combat. Be prepared to madly mash the R trigger as you try to get a good perspective of whatever room you are traversing. In fact, be prepared to mash it all the time, because during combat the camera will constantly try to zoom, pan and rotate in order to give you a good view of your enemies. Unfortunately it sometimes has the reverse effect by providing bad angles or simply by moving too much, creating confusion about your orientation or the location of enemies. Having a foe jump out from off screen to nail you with a strong blow is never fun, but be prepared for it to happen more often than you would like. Apparently the camera has received some fixes in both the two downloadable Hurricane Packs as well as in Ninja Gaiden Black. However, that doesn’t fix the fact that it was broken in the first place, and so no slack will be cut.

The camera also screws up the platforming sections of the game. Hyabusa’s jump is not very high, nor is it very long. You also cannot change direction midair, meaning you’ll need a perfectly straight approach to a ledge; otherwise you’ll veer off to either side and fall to your doom. Shouldn’t be a problem when you can center the camera behind you, right? Think again. If Ryu is at even the smallest angle with the target platform, then camera will not line up perfectly straight, thus any attempt at a jump will probably lead to failure. The solution is to face the opposite direction, reset the camera, turn around again, and move the camera again. Somehow this causes Ryu to straighten out, and damn if it isn’t far more complicated and counterintuitive than it should be.

The platforming is further deterred by the control scheme. Like seemingly every game released after Prince Of Persia: Sands of Time, Ninja Gaiden has its fair share of running along walls and swinging on branches. I’m not sure if Team Ninja actually played Prince of Persia however, because they seem to have forgotten how to do it right. In PoP, the prince only takes to the wall when you tell him to, and there are clear visual indications of when he’s about to fall. In NG, wall running is completely automatic; just jump towards the wall and the game does the rest. In addition, there’s no way to know when you are going to stop save for getting a general “feel” for the move after a lot of trial and error. Perform the wrong maneuver or time a jump incorrectly, Ryu will leap, flip and run around all the wrong walls and ledges as you helplessly watch him either fall to his doom or cause you to run a particular gauntlet of platforms all over again. Personally, I do not see the need for any sort of platforming in this kind of game, but so long as there is a virtual checklist of features that every 3d game must have, all we can do is hope the developers do it well. Or, in the case of NG, we can curse the platforming for wasting time that could instead be spent killing things.

Being a Team Ninja game, Ninja Gaiden of course has a powerful graphics engine under the hood, and it is absolutely wasted thanks to terrible level design. The actual layouts of the maps are sound enough. It’s the way things look that bugs me. The first two levels show promise of rich, exotic locales, a promise which is broken once you reach the main city in which the game takes place. From there on it is nothing but stone buildings, metal grating and caves. Lots of caves. It almost becomes painful to explore when everything looks the same and there is absolutely nothing interesting to compel you to move on. I’ve seen what they have done in Dead or Alive, so I know that Team Ninja can do better. How we got stuck with so many generic stone structures is beyond me, but it is yet another issue that impedes my ability to enjoy killing things.

Finally we have the story. When is the last time you actually paid attention to the story in an action game? I know I try to, but I have no qualms with tuning it out if it gets too cheesy. After all, I’m certainly not playing the game to hear a riveting narrative. That is, unless I’m playing Ninja Gaiden, in which case I’m forced to watch every cut scene the first time I see it. How bad can it be? The introduction to the game tells the tale of a Dark Dragon Blade, made from the Dark Dragon, and of the Dragon Sword, carved out of the fang of a Dragon, and of evil and ninjas and ancient gods and…dragons (just in case you didn’t get it the first time). It sounds like it was written by an eighth grader, yet is recited with the utmost seriousness. The rest of the tale involves revenge, a Holy Empire, a woman with breasts bigger than her head, and a demon wearing all black and a strange mask who talks in a deep, filtered voice (and totally isn’t a ripoff of Darth Vader. Oh who am I kidding?). It’s cheesy, ridiculous, and the player is forced to sit through it.

For a gamer like me who constantly professes that gameplay is more important than anything, Ninja Gaiden makes my job rather difficult. I do not believe I have seen a game with such excellent combat be marred by so many other problems. And problems they are; the camera, story and design issues are not just “minor quibbles” that are soon forgotten about. They are indeed real problems that can both annoy and hinder progress. The question then is if these issues are severe enough so as to make the game unworthy of play. Ultimately, I have to say no. Laying down heaps of powerful and deadly combos and flying around the room lopping heads off is consistently fun and challenging, and while other games may give a more accurate portrayal of ninjas, nothing beats Ninja Gaiden in making you feel like the badass, “killing machine on two legs” type of ninja that, deep down inside, we all really prefer. The game’s problems simply keep the experience in the realm of “good” rather than “must play.” This is easily the best Team Ninja game I have played, but alas, they still haven’t proven to me that they are truly worthy of their name. Perhaps with the inevitable sequel we will finally be able to play with Real Ultimate Power.

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18 years ago

I’ve been thinking about getting this for a long time. I should probably stop putting it off. And does any one else think the arcade version is the best in the series?