For this review, I am going to be taking a look at the best reboot of a classic video game series ever, Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox! This game was released in March 2004 to great acclaim. I was pretty sold on the game before its release, given the reputation of Team Ninja (even DOA Extreme Beach Volleyball is more playable and fun that you might think...) The fact that the classic NES Ninja Gaiden trilogy would be included made me want to get an Xbox just to play it. Which I did.
My mother had a peculiar aversion to Microsoft for many years and thusly, Xbox was verboten. Her basic belief was that Microsoft was the worst company in the world and their products would be avoided. I am not sure what changed her mind, but I did press her once and awhile with instances of the much deeper corporate sins of General Motors and others. Though I imagine most reading this review will not be interested in that. Back to Ninja Gaiden.
I actually got an Xbox about 2 weeks before this game came out. I kind of cheated the rule as she was in California at the time, but we all know the master of the house rules. I bought an Xbox and had just enough time to play Jet Set Radio Future before March 2004 (that game, another of the Xbox's best exclusives, will be reviewed soon!) I bought Ninja Gaiden first day and proceeded to play it pretty much when I wasn't sleeping. Which was a lot. So did it end up being the ultimate action game, as promised? Read on!
The story in Ninja Gaiden is the standard revenge-fest, but its unique elements about the swords and suchlike feel so similar to the 2002 reboot of Shinobi on the PS2, that it feels like the developers just cut and pasted the story. Maybe this was done because the story is pretty silly and full of typical genre moments. Because the storyline very much plays second fiddle to the gameplay, this is easily ignored.
When it comes to graphics, Ninja Gaiden is top of the line for the Xbox. 2004 was a great year for the console, with games like this and Chronicles of Riddick really shows off its superior graphical capability. Ryu is a great looking character. The preparation sequence at the beginning of Stage 3 is a great bit to see. Enemies are also well realized and have lots of variety, from lesser ninjas to dragon beasts to giant bug things (?), Ninja Gaiden's enemies have great graphics.
Other than the standard, Ryu's weapons all look good and functional, but it is in the more advanced techniques that the visuals really shine. Take the time to learn ultimate techniques and you will be treated to some stunning visuals. Speaking of stunning, wait till you meet Rachel, a wonderful visual creation in the vein of other Team Ninja women.
Ninja Gaiden's music is mostly oriental in flavor, but can't match the energy or sound of a similar score like Onimusha II. It is simply too quiet and ambient at most times. Highlights include the theme of Tairon, the Labyrinth, and Return to Hayabusa Village. A solid enough score, but only for ingame listening. I had thought to purchase this score once, but its lack of variety prevented me (that and an unreasonable $50 price tag, come on, this isn't Devil May Cry...)
Gameplay in Ninja Gaiden is a furthering of the traditional 3rd person action game, with similarities to the Dead or Alive fighting engine thrown in for good measure. This was expected and welcomed by this reviewer, as Ryu Hayabusa was reintroduced as a badass Super Ninja in that game. His Izuna Drop, Guillotine Throw, and other moves made a welcome transition to his latest action opus. Just waiting to see how they would be executed ingame was a source of anticipation for me. And they certainly didn't disappoint.
Besides the DOA references, Ninja Gaiden follows the multiple weapon, multiple attack formula, with each weapon having unique attributes ideal for certain enemies or situations. Then you have the Dragon Sword, which is the balanced weapon, excelling at both offense and defensive maneuvers.
The game's biggest innovation to the action genre are the intelligent enemies that practically force the player to use Ryu's evasive maneuvers: that is, unless you want the game to be even harder than it already is! As you become more comfortable using this, you definitely start to feel like a ninja! The truth is, the first time I played this game, I did not really understand how the roll dodge worked, so I did not enjoy the nuances of the combat until I mastered evasion in future playthroughs. To be sure, you can get through Ninja Gaiden without great evasive skills, but it will sure cost you a lot of healing items!
This game's challenge is pretty notorious as being extreme and having no mercy for the unskilled. This is the absolute truth. If you don't take the time to learn how the enemies attack, the only way to get through the game is my first method, and that was not nearly as fun as subsequent playthroughs. This game is tailored toward its play style and those who learn will discover the best action in a video game ever. For once, the commercial was not exaggerating!
Enemies, especially those who can block, require pattern recognition to defeat without great damage incurred. Bosses are a little more typical with the standard hit the weak spot gameplay, in most cases. Oh well, Ninja Gaiden can't be expected to totally reinvent the wheel of gaming!
When it comes to replay value, Ninja Gaiden is a mixed bag. It also depends slightly on which version you are playing. The original had some due to the collection of gold scarabs which could carry over a few advantages to new game plus, but not as much as one would think, as the secret weapon remains inaccessible until where you found it on your first playthrough. Quite odd.
Ninja Gaiden is also an usual game for me to replay on higher difficulties because you don't exactly get a lot, just new costumes, and they aren't that great in the original. Very Hard was the typical difficulty increase, enemies hit harder, you take more damage, and deal out less, I believe. Enemies have some new attacks but it is hard to remember as I only played through it once on the original 2004 release. I think I played Very Hard mostly to prove my ability as a gamer, at least the ability that I like to think I possess.
Now, on to the exclusive aspects of Ninja Gaiden and its various other releases. First we have the Hurricane Pack, released on Xbox Live in 2004. This added a whole bunch of improvements and changes that were also added to Black. The only exclusive aspect of the Hurricane Packs is the Intercept Move, which works a lot like the Parry move in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. If you block at the exact moment of the attack hitting, you see a flash and can immediately counter attack, even doing an ultimate technique while gaining karma points. I messed around with it a bit, and it is meant for advanced players, as trying to use it too often will get you killed. I think it was a good decision to remove it from Black as it could make the quest very easy if you were practiced it enough.
Ninja Gaiden received another remake around June 2007 in the form of Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3. Itagaki had no role in this "flawed" game but acknowledged it as an opportunity for Playstation owners to experience Gaiden. The graphics have been improved quite a bit, with new and more detailed textures for many enemies. There are also bloodstains from combat splattered through the environs as you defeat enemies. Neat I guess.
Rachel is now playable and serves as a neat diversion from Ryu in her 5 or so side missions which are added to the game. She wields her Warhammer, but has several exclusive moves. I still wish they had chosen Ayane instead. There are more save points and shops as well as a new weapon, the Dual Katanas. Ryu can also shoot arrows in mid-air, thus making some boss encounters in Chapter 9 a heck of a lot easier. New enemies include MSAT Bikers, fish-men and a new boss, Gamov, the Dark Disciple's right hand man. Lastly in what was clearly an afterthought, the Sixaxis can be motion moved (?) to increase the power of your ninpo. Boy, that design choice sure seems like a bad idea in retrospect, huh?
Sigma was marketed as a complete game, but it is missing two costumes from Black and some of the cinematics. Who knows why... but I guess having it on as many systems as possible is a great thing. In summation, Ninja Gaiden is the best action game ever made and probably one of the best games ever made. Its presentation is amazing, but it is the gameplay that oozes style and greatness. I believe that all action games should be forced to copy at least some of Ninja Gaiden's gameplay before they are released. Devil May Cry's latest games didn't do this and suffered by comparison. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
- Ugly Bob