Reviewed: May 3, 2004
Released: March 2, 2004
Normally when somebody says a particular title is a “system seller” you tend to take it with a grain of salt, but the day this game arrived in stores I watched as four people purchased Ninja Gaiden and an Xbox to play it on in the course of 20-30 minutes. When something like this occurs you either have some really good hype or a really good game. In this case, it’s a bit of both.
Nobody can deny the heritage of the Ninja Gaiden series and now that it has arrived on the most powerful game console available a whole new generation of gamers will get a taste of this classic, retooled and reborn. Old-school veterans will smile knowingly as thousands of unsuspecting gamers dive into 16 of the most challenging levels ever seen on the Xbox.
Not only does this Xbox-exclusive offer blazing action, mind-numbing visuals, and some of the most fluid combat you’re likely to see this year, Team Ninja has buried the original three Ninja Gaiden NES games, taunting you to play and replay this game on increasingly difficult skills levels. What could have been a 20-30 game now becomes a substantial quest for dominance and bragging rights that will take you months to complete.
Ninja Gaiden has come so very far from its 2D origins that you might have a hard time recognizing it. Ninja veterans will certainly find a few familiar weapons and possibly some familiar faces, as a few enemies make the move to this next-gen 3D title.
After the opening movie montage you are unceremoniously dumped into a riverbed canyon, left to learn the highly responsive and intuitive control scheme. The tutorial is conducted through a series of notes attached to darts that shoot past you as you progress through the level. You’ll quickly learn that Ryu Hayabusa (that’s you) is incredibly agile, can jump, and run up or along walls (ala Prince of Persia, shimmy, climb, flip, and wield a sword like nobody’s business.
Control is fluid and once you get over the fact that you have no control over the camera everything falls into place. The left stick moves Ryu and the right stick changes the viewpoint from a first-person perspective where Ryu is unable to move. The very nature of the game will have you wanting to pan the camera while moving, so expect a 20-30 minute learning curve to overcome this habit.
Ryu interacts with his environment seamlessly. Running at a wall will have Ryu run up and grab if possible or you can execute a back flip at the peak of your run. You can run along walls, grab onto poles or branches and flip around like a trapeze artist, and even swim. You can even use some of these extreme movements to launch specific combo attacks like the powerful downward thrust.
Even though you start out with only your Dragon Sword and an unlimited supply of shurikens, you will eventually acquire new weapons of varying power; each with their own moves and combos, and it will take plenty of practice to master them all. You can even upgrade many of your weapons using the skills of the Blacksmith, thus unlocking more combos and giving them an even more deadly look.
You’ll need to master the art of blocking with the left trigger and combine this with movements to tumble and circle-strafe your opponents. Ranged weapons have a dedicated button so you can launch a flurry of shurikens then seamlessly follow-up with some sweeping blade attacks. There is a sophisticated combo system that you can actually stumble upon if you play long enough, but checking out the moves list will certainly speed up the learning process.
The enemy is extremely difficult, partly because of their great numbers (infinitely respawning in some areas) and partly because they are just so good, especially the bosses. Many of the enemies have such large libraries of moves and combos to draw from that you might not see the same move twice if you have to fight them a second time. Some encounters require a bit of strategy but most can be fought and won through sheer speed, reflexes, and a good mix of attacks and blocks.
Also surprising was the variety of unique opponents. You’ll meet somebody new in each level starting with standard ninja fodder then advancing to mercenaries, demons, and some of the most innovative boss battles in any arcade fighter to date. Much to my satisfaction, the level of difficulty seemed to keep pace with my rising skills, both Ryu, and my personal abilities as the gamer controlling him. The combat was always fresh and if I got stuck it usually required a simple change of tactics on my part.
I must voice a complaint about a few of the sequences near the end of the game that feature multiple boss battles or boss battles followed by troublesome areas with no save totems. You are free to save your game as often as you like at these totems and for the first two-thirds of the game they are placed just right, but near the end they become suspiciously spaced apart making me think the designers were trying to stretch out the playtime by having me make lengthy trips back to the shopkeeper for health products.
Ryu will also acquire Ninpo magic, but the spells are few and your ability to cast them is limited as such that these are more of a specialty attack rather than something in your routine arsenal. More akin to a vaporizing “smart bomb”, you’ll learn when and where to use these powerful spells.
Ninja Gaiden isn’t all finger-numbing combat. The designers managed to sneak a respectable adventure game in there between all the battles. The story might be a bit hard to follow, especially when you go from a burning village to a giant zeppelin with no explanation. The first few chapters are fairly linear but eventually the levels open up and require careful exploration and even some backtracking to previous levels. The further you go the more the game opens up to reveal serious adventure elements, quests, and even some platform challenges.
There is a lot of circular level design in Ninja Gaiden where you will uncover plot elements early in the game that aren’t fully realized until much later. Your first visit to the village will reveal a cracked stone slab and several mysterious stone patterns on the ground. You “know” they are there for a reason but that reason won’t reveal itself until much later in the game. This is one of the very few games where I actually looked forward to revisiting previously explored levels.
The levels themselves are massive and cleverly constructed. No two levels look alike, each with their own very distinct atmosphere, cast of enemies, and even its own theme music. Some levels are totally detached while others are intricately interlocked to create a game world of epic scale.
Ninja Gaiden is a fast-paced game. Even when you aren’t engaged in graphically blurring combat, Ryu runs and jumps along like a hyperactive jackrabbit, but he also sticks to surfaces and interacts with the levels perfectly. Of course, with this speed comes a slight problem with camera lag. The camera tends to stick close to our hero, which means that it has to move fast to keep up. It’s easy to outrun the camera or jump off the screen then have to wait while the camera catches up. You can auto-center the camera anytime but it would have been nice to have some control over the zoom.
That LIVE logo is on the cover for a reason and Ninja Gaiden offers the ultimate ninja challenge with the Master Ninja Tournament. You can download new enemies and even harder difficulty settings and compete for prizes base on various skill levels. The three-round tournament begins May 12, 2004 and only lasts a few months ending with regional playoffs and the crowning of the True Master Ninja. Don’t be deceived though; there is no actual online play; merely an organized tournament based on the built-in scoreboard feature of Xbox Live.
“Mmmmm…water”; that was my first thought as I followed the trickling stream to the roaring waterfall that cascaded off into the abyss. Jumping and climbing through the opening canyon presented plenty of nice stone and wood textures and even a meticulously modeled tree. Once inside the dojo the true artistic talents of the designers start to show with wonderful lighting, reflections, detailed textures, and some interesting fixed camera choices that reminded me of some Capcom adventure games.
Variety is the spice of gameplay and each of the 16 chapters is like a game unto itself. The design, selection of textures, architecture, and certainly the unique encounters in each chapter all help make each new chapter a new adventure. Just when you think you have seen the best this game has to offer you are treated to something even more breathtaking.
Special effects test the very limits of the Xbox with loads of particle effects, blinding spell effects, blurring streaks that trail your blade or other weapons, blue trails that follow your shurikens, and more blood splatter and geyser-spurting severed stumps than Kill Bill Vol. 1. All of these spectacular visuals are delivered at a rock-solid 60fps, which is required for a game that plays this fast. Home theater owners will enjoy the HDTV progressive scan support as well.
The crowning achievement in the graphics department has to be the CG movies that rival anything you might see on the big screen. Until now, Robot (of Onimusha fame has held the number one spot for CG cutscenes but the movies in Ninja Gaiden just left me speechless. The movies are spaced throughout the game to serve as rewards for particularly challenging areas and they are truly rewards worthy of the effort.
The Ninja Gaiden soundtrack is a score of epic proportions that dynamically adjusts to the action, often changing as you enter new areas, and each new chapter introduces a new theme song that sets the tone for the adventure at hand. You’ll be treated to energetic techno beats for the futuristic levels and more traditional woodwind orchestra music for levels like the dojo, village, and city.
The music complements the levels and the gameplay while remaining subdued enough so you can enjoy the ambient noises like the crackle of a fire, the trickling of a brook, or the splatter of blood as it sprays the walls. Sound effects are subtle yet totally accurate so your footsteps sound different on various surfaces and weapons makes noises unique to the object they are striking.
There is minimal speech during the gameplay, but the movies feature plenty of spoken dialogue despite an awkward English dub. You can tweak the options and switch to the original subtitled Japanese if you want the pure Ninja Gaiden experience.
The sound package is enhanced with a stellar Dolby Digital mix that offers excellent spatial separation to the point where you can identify the location of off-screen targets by their noise.
Expect at least 20-30 hours to finish this game the first time. Each chapter scores you based on your performance so perfectionists will certainly keep playing until they get that perfect rank. Completing the game on the various skill levels will unlock weapons and hidden games from the NES, so you have even more reasons to replay.
Those of you with a competitive streak will certainly want to check out the tournament that will run throughout the summer. In addition to global bragging rights, Tecmo has promised some pretty cool prizes for the Master Ninjas out there.
In the first 15-minutes of playing Ninja Gaiden I had flashbacks to games like Prince of Persia, Devil May Cry, Onimusha, and even some traditional fighters like Tecmo’s Dead or Alive games. While Ninja Gaiden borrows raw elements from these titles it manages to blend them together in a totally unique, challenging, and very rewarding gameplay experience that overshadows the few flaws that managed to creep into the design.
Ninja Gaiden is a worthy contender for Xbox game of the year and possibly overall game of the year. It’s not very often I can recommend a game with virtually no reservation, but Ninja Gaiden is one of those few titles that everyone with an Xbox should at least play and probably own. And if you don’t own an Xbox and need a reason to get one, I know at least four people who now have one just for this game alone and I doubt they have any regrets.