Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve heard the hype about Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden. Not only was the company bringing back a classic NES franchise, but it was resurrecting it under the guidance of Team Ninja, the talented group behind such next-gen eye candy as Dead or Alive 3 and DOA Extreme Beach Volleyball. Promising top-notch graphics and depth comparable to the best action titles, Ninja Gaiden has had more than a few gamers counting the days until its launch.
Within a few months, that hype extended beyond hardcore gamers and made its way to general consumers. Normally that’s good. But not in this case. Ninja Gaiden is without a doubt one of the hardest games to release on Xbox, a fact that might be appreciated by hardcore gamers searching for a challenge, but one that casual gamers looking to play a much-hyped game will loathe. You think Enclave was hard? You have problems getting past three levels in Otogi? Wait until you play Ninja Gaiden. Combine tough gameplay scenarios, masochistic boss battles and infrequent save points, and you’ve got a serious challenge on your hands. Add to that equation one of the most frustrating cameras in any third-person game, and you unfortunately end up with some hype that few casual gamers should buy into – or buy.
While hardcore gamers and Team Ninja fanboys prepare their hate mail, let me explain to the rest of you why the elements above disembowel the incredible promise of this game. First, the tough scenarios. Ninja Gaiden is rife with challenge, as you’ll understand from the opening story. The game tells the tale of Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja whose village has been destroyed, whose clan’s iconic sword has been stolen and whose mission is to avenge the death of his family and recover their coveted blade. Ryu’s is a challenging situation, to be sure. But it’s nothing like the challenge players will face throughout the game’s 20-plus hours.
Enemies come in many forms in Ninja Gaiden, be they chaingun-wielding, pistol-whipping, katana-swinging or horseback-riding, and not a single one will show you an iota of mercy. The AI in Ninja Gaiden is impeccable, with opposing ninjas taking cover, blocking attacks, switching from guns to melee weapons when in close range, even moving in circles to expose your vulnerability when they attack in groups.
When the enemy AI is this good, it’s important to be comfortable with the controls, and after about 30 minutes you’ll find yourself in that zone. But while many gamers will see Ninja Gaiden as a simple hack-and-slash game, its combat is actually more complex, requiring generous use of the block button and counterattack options. This type of challenge is welcome, because it adds some depth to what would otherwise be little more than a good-looking button-masher. Yet the insane challenge of the game’s levels and scenarios will render these controls virtually useless for anyone other than the most hardcore gamer. Take this second level scenario as an example.
After fighting through multiple waves of gun-toting and magic-using enemies, players enter an arena where several ninjas jump in on horseback to eliminate Ryu. In order to move on, Ryu must avoid the horses’ devastating kicks, successfully dodge the ninjas’ spears and shuriken, knock the ninjas off their horses and do battle mano-a-mano on the ground. Oh, and all this happens while the next wave of horse-riders jumps into the arena. It’s brutal, it’s tough, it’s only the second level – and it’s not even the boss battle.
Before you start to think I’m just bitter at a difficult game, it’s worth noting that I loved every minute of Enclave and had a fantastic time with Otogi. In my opinion, games that can be passed using a single life provide far too little entertainment value. But I can generally hold my own in video games (hence my position here with DailyGame), and it still took me 45 minutes to beat this circle of death. And how are you rewarded at the conclusion of this battle? A date with the level’s boss. Oh happy day.
In every respect, the bosses in Ninja Gaiden are throwbacks to an era when each boss had its own attack pattern that, once learned, provided cues about when and how players should attack. That’s not to say the battles are simple; some of the bosses’ patterns only surface once you’re close enough to be within striking distance and, in turn, are close enough to be struck. And that’s precisely where the true challenge lies: being struck. The bosses in Ninja Gaiden are some of the most powerful, intelligent and brutal in any game to date, completely uninterested in taking just a few ticks of life. At least two bosses, in fact, have the brute strength to drain your energy with four moves.
Which brings us to the issue of save points. Ninja Gaiden is somewhat generous in that it positions save points immediately before boss battles, saving you the tedium of replaying an entire level just to get your rear handed to you in 45 seconds. Where boss battles aren’t concerned, though, the save points in Ninja Gaiden are few and far between. In a lesser game this wouldn’t be an issue, but the environments in Ninja Gaiden are so expansive, and the number and brutality of enemies so daunting, that even hardcore gamers will backtrack to save points, even if they won’t admit to doing it.
Yet in spite of the challenging AI, the insanely tough bosses and the lack of save points, the element that really derails the Ninja Gaiden hype train is its atrocious camera. I honestly can’t recall a recent game where the camera was so slow to react and led to so many losses of energy as it does in Ninja Gaiden. The camera in this game hinders a fluid experience more than it promotes it, and your experience will suffer because of it.
Players can use the right thumbstick to move the camera manually, but they can only do so from a non-moving first-person perspective, which leaves Ryu paralyzed and vulnerable to attack. The game also includes an auto-center feature allowing players to manually re-center the camera to get a better view of the obstacles ahead. Some reviews have said Ryu moves so quickly that the auto-center button is necessary to catch up the camera with the fast-paced action. There are two things wrong with that statement.
First, it’s really not a matter of Ryu moving too quickly but of the camera reacting too slowly. There are myriad instances where the camera hangs behind an obstacle or provides an awkward vantage that inspires Ryu to walk or jump in the wrong direction, sometimes strolling into an unforeseen ambush. Second, and perhaps more important, the camera is an essential graphical element that also has a distinct impact on the gameplay, and as such it should be fast enough to track the action it’s programmed to follow. Instead, it always seems to be three steps behind, forcing gamers to become very friendly with, and distracted by, the auto-center button.
It’s really too bad the camera has such a horrendous impact on the gameplay, because that single visual hindrance spoils an otherwise impeccable graphical experience. Really, there are no two ways to say it: the non-camera graphics in Ninja Gaiden are astonishing. Never before have I seen such gorgeous character models, such believable weapons and such detailed yet expansive environments. Add in particle effects and every other bell and whistle Microsoft’s green box can handle, and it’s clear that Team Ninja has the Xbox graphical architecture under complete control.
With the fast action, incredible character models and highly detailed environments, it’s astonishing that the framerate maintains its consistency, but maintain it it does. If the environments in DOA3 wowed you, wait until you see the same quality in Ninja Gaiden’s, but in levels that are 50 times their size and have six characters on screen at once. These levels are also consistently fresh, taking players from the Hayabusa village to an airborne zeppelin to what amounts to the fiery pits of Hell, all the while introducing new textures and architectural elements. The only snafu is that the game suffers from some occasional clipping, but it’s nothing that forces you to battle enemies through walls.
The soundtrack is solid as well, with dynamic music that changes both with the environment and the situation at hand. The sound effects are also quite strong, with Team Ninja making the wise decision to avoid the repetitive “hi-ya” sound with each of the hero’s blows. Instead, Ryu pulls a page from Otogi and portrays a hero who is as silent as he is deadly.
Ninja Gaiden borrows yet another page from Otogi when it comes to replayability, because the game ranks players’ performance on every level. This ranking takes into account the number of hits players string together consecutively, the time it takes to defeat the level and the number of kills in that time period. In theory, players might replay a level to achieve a higher ranking, but the levels are so difficult that it’s unlikely many gamers will voluntarily replay a level until well after they’ve beaten the game. Sure, there’s a sense of accomplishment in achieving Master Ninja status, but there’s even more of a sense of anger and frustration when trying to achieve it, and no video game is worth an ulcer.
In the months ahead, Ninja Gaiden will also include an online “Master Ninja Tournament” in which gamers can play new levels and then compare their performance. This will be a good addition for the truly dedicated, but I have a feeling that a lot of gamers will have too much trouble with the camera to give this a chance.
It remains to be seen how Ninja Gaiden will fare in the arena of public consumption. The game will undoubtedly have its worshippers, and they will proceed to hail the game as the Second Coming in forums and Internet chat rooms. It will also undoubtedly have amazing Week One sales figures, but I’m interested to see how many of those initial purchases find their way back to the store within two weeks’ time.
Ninja Gaiden is a good game, but it’s far too tough for anyone other than the most hardcore of gamers to truly enjoy. And even then, regardless of his or her skill, no gamer can ignore the horrendous camera, which ends up being the game’s own worst enemy. In the end, in fact, it’s the camera that could knock Ninja Gaiden from a blockbuster game to little more than a cult classic. Unless you play games more than 20 hours per week, do yourself a favor and rent this game first. I have a feeling that 80 percent of you will be glad you did.
- Gameplay: 7.5
- AI keeps you on your toes, but you’ll often just mash buttons.
- Graphics: 7.5
- Astounding to look at, but the camera (a graphical element) is absolutely unforgivable.
- Sound: 8.5
- Dynamic music and great sound effects hit the mark.
- Replay: 7
- Unless you’re sadistic, the camera will keep you from going back for seconds.
- Overall: 7.75
- A spastic camera kills this game faster than a ninja.
— Jonas Allen