Game: Ninja Gaiden II
Platforms: Xbox 360
In 2004, Tecmo released Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox, a slick, lightning-fast action game that kept intact the soul of the NES original while successfully updating the visuals, gameplay and presentation. It also presented one of gaming’s most challenging and satisfying titles, frustrating and bewildering even the most hardcore of gamers. After two semi-remakes in Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Tecmo has finally created a proper sequel. While it offers just as much high-speed action and style as it predecessor, its failure to innovate keeps it from being anything more than a solid action title.
Ninja Gaiden is all about action. Despite the fact that ninjas are traditionally thought of as stealthy assassins who operate unseen in the dark, the game’s protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, fights right out in the open, never giving much thought to secrecy. In fact, the entirety of the game consists of a very linear series of frenzied melee battles against hordes of insane ninja assailants and nightmarish level bosses. And there’s nothing subtle about the combat. With each swing of your blade, arms, legs and even heads fly off of your opponents in an orgiastic bloodbath fit for the Kill Bill movies. Your enemies will give as good as they get, however, as even a small group of assailants can take you down quickly if you don’t properly defend yourself. There’s a skeleton of a plot that runs through the game, but even with gorgeous, in-engine cut scenes, you’ll barely notice it. Prince of Persia-style wall-running and wall-jumping are present here as well, though they rarely provide any real challenge. For the most part, this game is about dispatching enemies efficiently and quickly while trying not to get killed.
Combat controls are simple; X does normal attacks and Y performs strong attacks. These two can be used in conjunction with the left analog stick in almost any imaginable order to create different combos. While there are only two attack buttons, there are a ton of ways to rid yourself of those pesky Spider-Clan ninjas, determined by button combos along with your position and your enemy’s position. The B button allows you to perform range attacks, fist with shuriken, and later with other weapons like exploding darts and longbow. Adding these into the mix gives the game a Devil May Cry feeling that allows you to be creative and flashy with your many executions. Just as you can get new projectile weapons, you’ll also find new deadly handheld weapons as you progress through the game. From swords to staffs to scythes and flails, each has its own distinct set of attacks, and each is upgradeable. You’ll also have access to magic powers known as Ninpo magic. These spells are powerful elemental attacks that require Ninpo energy to be used.
Of course, everything I’ve said so far could be said about the previous Gaiden game. So what’s different this time around? Well, first off, the difficulty has been tuned down a notch, allowing for a more inclusive game (read: you can play it and probably even beat it and still sleep occasionally). This has been accomplished by toning down enemy endurance (especially on bosses) and providing a health meter that refills between battles. There have also been some improvements to the control scheme that help you along your bloody way, such as a new d-pad-controlled weapon selection screen, a newly mapped button for opening doors and treasure chests (Left Bumper), and a modified “Ultimate Attack” mechanic that no longer requires you to use nearby health and Ninpo orbs. In addition, the defensive roll has been replaced with a dash move that can be used to reposition yourself behind unsuspecting enemies.
While these minor improvements are welcome, they don’t really change the game in any significant way. In fact, many of the Xbox title’s problems are still on display in this next-gen version. Serious camera issues abound, especially when Ryu crosses bridges or goes into the game’s smaller rooms. Invisible walls are ubiquitous as well, and while the constant splatter of enemy blood is usually beautifully disgusting, when it splatters on non-objects like open doorways, it can be jarring. In addition, the game is set by default to autosave every time you find a save totem. While it’s easy enough to change this option, the game never tells you that the option exists. Leaving autosave on can seriously screw you late in the game, where you could find yourself severely underpowered , facing insurmountable odds with no way to go back to a previous save. It’s a minor flaw, but one that should have been addressed.
Graphically, Ninja Gaiden II represents a massive step forward for the series. While there are a few low-res texture and clipping issues, overall, the game is simply gorgeous. Ryu looks fantastic, and animates extremely well. Enemy combatants are impressive as well, though it can be tough to distinguish them from Ryu at times. Enemy character designs are unique and intimidating, continuing the tradition of the series. Al of these excellent characters exist in a world that’s rendered so beautifully that you’ll curse the problematic camera for not giving you a better view of your surroundings. Another hallmark of the series is the epic soundtrack, and NGII doesn’t disappoint in this respect, either.
Ninja Gaiden II is essentially a much prettier version of Ninja Gaiden with a few tweaks and a slightly less punishing challenge level (at least on the normal difficulty levels – there are two unlockable difficulties that give me nightmares). For fans of the original, there’s nothing here to prevent you from loving this one as well. For fans of other actions series like Devil May Cry or Heavenly Sword, you owe it to yourself to jump on board with what is likely the tightest, most polished game in the genre. It’s fast, bloody fun that’s easy to pick up and play, but nearly impossible to master.