Review: Ninja Gaiden (XB)

Ninja Gaiden
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Release Date: 03/02/04
Genre: Action Adventure

It’s hard to believe it has been nine years since a new Ninja Gaiden game. And even then, the last game in the series before this one was merely a compilation on the Super Nintendo. In truth, it has been 12 years since the last game bearing this name was made (1992 for the Genesis). Considering in the later 1980’s/early 1990’s, this was one of the most popular video games series around, it’s amazing it’s taken this long for a next gen sequel to be produced.

Ninja Gaiden started off as an Arcade game that played like Streets of Rage or any other side scrolling beat-em up. There was nothing that made the game stand out in people’s minds save for the fact the continue screen involved Ryu getting cut up by a saw like a lady tied to a log back in old silent movies. Even now the original game is largely forgotten thanks to the three NES games.

The NG trilogy from the NES was insanely popular. Even now while I write this, I’m looking at a Nintendo Power that has a game in a really bad ninja costume on the cover proclaiming a walkthrough about this game. The game was an instant success and with good reason. Ninja Gaiden basically introduced the cut scenes to gaming, as well as pushed the 8 bit envelope in terms of graphics. It had an incredible story that was matched only by a difficulty rating that was through the roof. If you could beat Ninja Gaiden, you were considered quite a skilled gamer in the days of 8 bit goodness. Especially if you could beat NG3, which was far harder than either of the first two games.

Gamers have been clamoring for a new Ninja Gaiden for a long, long time. And unlike Sega who refuses to give a new Shining Force (Soul doesn’t count), or Rare, who won’t give us a new Battletoads, Tecmo listened to the screams and death threats put out by loyal Ninja Gaiden fans and finally blessed us with a new, updated version of the game.

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical of the new game. I was afraid it was going to be a total bastardization of the original series, just using the name to get old retrogamers like myself to by a pretty but ultimately unplayable piece of junk. So let’s take a look at my impressions of Ninja Gaiden.

Let’s Review

1. Story

Although Ryu Hayabusa returns after a decade of quiet, he appears to have become younger than in previous games. As well, the story is stand alone from the other NG games that preceded it, which is a bit of a shame, but completely understandable considering the length of time there has been since a new NG game came out. But Ryu’s the only character we cared about (Save the evil Jaquio, but he died twice already…), so it’s all good, right?

As I’ve alluded to earlier, this new Ninja Gaiden seems to be a prequel to the NES trilogy. Ryu looks and feels a lot younger than he did ten years ago. Plus the old Ryu never needed a sensei like Murai. All he needed was his blade, some shadow doubles and occasionally a boomerang throwing star. And of course, Ryu’s father is still alive in this game when he dies in the original Ninja Gaiden. That’s a big hint right there. (Note: Ryu’s father has had his name changed from Ken to Joe. To prevent Street Fighter comparisons?)

In this rendition of Ninja Gaiden, Ryu’s home village is massacred and razed to the ground by the evil Vigoor Empire, which is located somewhere in Asia. The Vigoor Emprie has also stolen the Dark Dragon Blade which contains the souls of dead black dragons and if used correctly, can turn the wielder of the blade into the devil incarnate. Pretty heavy stuff, so you have to wonder why the village protected the key to the apocalypse would have such lax security around it.

Now it is Ryu’s job to reclaim the sword and wreck vengeance upon an entire nation (and he does!) that happens to work in conjunction with hellspawns. Of course, Ryu being a ninja doesn’t need any real motivation to fill himself with REAL ULTIMATE POWER and totally flip out and kill everything that moves just because that’s what wicked awesome ninjas do followed by wail out sessions on their guitars.

Oops. Sorry.

What follows is probably the best plot I’ve seen for a 3-D action game this generation. Sure it’s nowhere as deep or rich as an RPG story, but that’s the whole point of RPGS. Ninja Gaiden packs in tales of betrayal, revenge, family, and love into the 20 odd hours it takes to beat this game. You see Ryu grow from a young inexperienced Ninja into something closer to the Ryu from the old NES carts. You learn the past of Alma, whose fatal flaw propels her into darkness. Every character is given a decent amount of back story, and even though certain events are cliched as hell in the game, Ninja Gaiden still does them with a lot of style and passion.

I will admit the last boss is something you do see coming a mile away and almost, almost ruined it for me with the cheesiness of it all, but at the same time, it felt like a great old school tribute to the original series.

Finally, I love that there are three different bosses you fight throughout the game. It’s not just a ‘one time fight and they’re dead’ sort of thing. It creates a great feeling of rivalry between yourself and the bosses, and also helps pull you deeper into the game, wondering if it is truly the last time you will encounter said villains.

All in all, great stuff. Nothing mind blowing, but incredible for the genre.

Story Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

Incredible. Simply incredible. Everything about Ninja Gaiden in terms of graphics officially blows my mind. I actually said, ‘Holy Shit’ out loud at points in the game because of how real everything looked. Close up of Ryu’s face make you do a double take, wondering if it is a photograph or not. Same with all the human characters in this game. Like Richard Upton Pickman’s paintings, it’s as if Ninja Gaiden’s creators made an unholy pact in order to achieve what they have on the screen here.

And it’s not just pretty. The engine allows massive amounts of action and characters on the screen without any slowdown. Very impressive, especially when you play the game and see how faced paced a lot of battles can be.

Every little detail is appreciated. You can actually see Ryu’s blade go snicker-snack through the heads of his enemies and watch them hit the floor. Ryu’s eyes and head visibly shift to where enemies are. You can see the horses in the game breathe. Water ripple, bird in the sky above move as if they really exist. It’s amazing to see how far graphics have come, especially when you look at the original 1989 game.

Ninja Gaiden is one of the most visually impressive games of all time. If you’re a gamer who plays mainly for eye candy, then this is going to be a game you need to pick up.

Graphics Rating: 10/10

3. Sound

Much like the graphics, I was very impressed with the sound effects and music of the game. Things cry out when you stab them. You cry out when hurt. You can hear footsteps when Ryu runs across walls. Each weapon makes their own distinct sound. The Nunchaku , the flair, the hammer, the swords; all are unique when you listen to them. The realism of this game, along with the detail put into it impresses me. Team Ninja did an extraordinary job with this game.

The voice acting is tremendous too. I was happy to see that you could play in both Japanese and English. Both have their own merits and you will enjoy either one. The Japanese acting matches up with the appearance of each character, and my only complaint about the English cast is Ryu sounds far too young for my liking, but also higher pitched than I would have imagined him to be. But it’s a minor quibble.

Ninja Gaiden is as vocally pleasing as it is visually, which is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control

And this is one of the few areas I have some issues with. But first, let’s cover the good.

Ryu responds instantaneously to your joystick, as if he was merely an extension of yourself. And with over two dozen distinct attacks he can do, it’s amazing how precise and tight the controls are. Considering there are about a dozen weapons and each have their own set of techniques, special attacks and tactics, it’s hard to truly appreciate all the work that went into Ninja Gaiden. It’s something you almost take for granted.

Ryu has been given just about every ability every ninja in modern media possesses. He can fight underwater. He has little teleporting jumps in a certain attack. He can kill hundreds of people all by himself. The only thing missing is invisibility and some of the cooler abilities from the old Ninja Gaiden game, like Shadow doubles and wall climbing. But barring those, it is as if Team Ninja watched every low budget film on the subject ever made, along with a lot of anime, and used those to create the first 3D Ryu Hayabusa.

The only problem I have with the game…is the camera. Yes I know, saying that a 3D game has bad camera angles is like laughing at an elderly woman with a walker slipping on ice. It’s far too easy. However, Ninja Gaiden’s is barely better than abominable. Often times your character will be almost off screen. There are even times when that does occur, and woe to you if this happens during a boss fight.

There will almost always be an enemy of screen that can hit you that you cannot see, a ledge or location you can’t detect because of the camera or some other annoyance that will make you very angry towards this one oversight in the game.

It would be SO much easier if you could control the camera. However there are only two things you can do. The first is by hitting the R trigger, which puts the camera directly behind Ryu. However, often this does more harm than good and causes the aforementioned ‘Where is Ryu? I can’t see him!’ syndrome. This ability is great when there are no enemies around, but in the thick of battle, it’s bad, bad news.

The other way to ‘fix’ the camera by going into first person mode and then back out. Although this takes only a second or two, it’s amazing how long that can feel while in the midst of battle or how easily you can get hurt while you do this.

Finally, my only other complaint is using the bow in first person mode. I find the controls to be far too loose, with the slightest touch of the button sending the cursor flying. Maybe I just like my controls a little slower and more precise, but I had a problem using the bow, especially with multiple enemies. Then again, I may just be exceptionally anal and want the perfect shot.

This is really the only area where Ninja Gaiden is a disappointment. The actual controls are wonderful, but the camera is profanity inducing and a massive headache at times. It really does detract from the fun at times.

Control Rating: 7/10

5. Replayability

A mixed bag here. You get really nothing out of playing the main story more than once save an extra difficulty level and an extra costume or weapon. There is a catch in the fact that the hidden Ninja Gaiden Trilogy is almost impossible to unlock (more on my anger about this later in the review) and thus you will be playing the game again and again if you really want to get those games. However, aside from that, I can’t think of a reason to do so.

But that is where the master ninja tournament comes in. The fact this game has Xbox live capability and plans on letting you download materials is a great little bonus. And the chance of playing Ninja Gaiden online against other skilled players to see who is the best, is something I loved about the cube version of Ikaruga.

And of course, NG 1-3 is a great bonus as well. And including those (if you can unlock them) really bring up the replayability of this game.

Although the main game of Ninja Gaiden is lacking any real need to play through it again, Team Ninja has filled the game with all sort of attempts to get you to keep playing it over. How well it works is solely up to you. If you don’t care about the original games or you don’t have Xbox live, this is probably better suited as a rental for you.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

This game is hard. Make no mistakes about it. This is a decided throwback to the games of yesteryear or shooters in terms of toughness. I love it. This is a game you can’t just walk through. You will die against each boss at least once, and even the rank and file minions can be a challenge if you aren’t as quick with your mind as you are with the joystick. People playing this game will find it far harder than the average game, and may just put it down because they are not up to the challenge.

Until of course, you learn how to cheese the hell out of the game.

Yes folks, I have seen people say over and over again how hard this game is. And in fact, it is true. The learning curve for all the moves and the enemy AI is steep indeed. But once you get over that hump, the game is quite easy. As long as you play to win and rack up points instead of finesse.

Okay, maybe that’s not fair. Maybe it is because I spent so much of my formative years getting good at video games. Playing Street Fighter till I learned re-dizzy combos and the like. I learned how to do ultimate Bison and Sagat cheese. How to beat expert geese players. And my countless hours playing shooters where you’re supposed to figure out how to beat the unbeatable. And that’s given me some insights on how to buck the system with Ninja Gaiden.

There are two ultra cheap moves in the game that do a lot of damage and the computer seems to have problems blocking. The first is the divine cicada attack. You can do this from the get go and should master it quickly. With this move, you should be able to beat the entire first level with only using one single health potion. Repeat repeat repeat. As long as there is a wall nearby, your enemies are dead very quickly.

The second is the flying swallow, deadly orbit combo. In order to do this, you need your Dragon sword at level 2 (Do it. Do it as soon as you can!) and then you will find this combo and the cicada are pretty much the only moves you need to do in the entire game.

Once you master these two moves, the game is a cinch. Okay, that may be pushing it and me being just a tad cocky. But you will find it a LOT easier than you did before. So much easier, you’ll wonder if you unlocked a lower difficulty level.

Now this isn’t to say the game is unbalanced. What I’ve just described is cheap and easy. It’s about as satisfying as playing Sagat and just doing high tiger low tiger until your opponent is dead and hating you more than Hitler. But it works, and in truth, just because it is cheesy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It’s just a game after all. ;-)

The other thing that makes the game easier are places where unlimited enemies occur. Kill them, get the essence, go buy a ton of health and magic potions and talismans of rebirth. Doing this until you have so many of each you can just run into battle totally reckless and psychotic because you really can’t die. Against, this is cheap, but it’s just like doing the 100 lives in the first Super Mario Bros.

Remember, these tricks will make the game easier, but it won’t make you a better player and in the Master Ninja Tourney, if you compete, you will probably get your butt kicked by people who are totally anal about this game. But at least you’ll have beaten it. And unlocked Ninja Gaiden 2 to boot. Possibly even NG3 if you’re good enough at doing what I described.

So the game is exceptionally tough unless you learn a few tricks, but dammit, that’s how I like my games. That’s what made the 8 bit and 16 bit games so wonderful. When you figured out a bit of cheese, it was exuberating. You felt like you had really accomplished something. And so you will with this when you finally beat it. And if you get NG2 or 3 in the process, it’s three times the greatness. All in all, I’m happy with the challenge, even though the game can be very frustrating at times, especially when you first get it.

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

As I’ve said before, there’s some heavy clichés in the game. And in fact, aside from the massive amounts of moves and weapons in the game, there’s nothing truly unique or original about Ninja Gaiden, something completely different for what can be said about the 8 bit originals. It’s a ninja game amongst other ninja games. It’s an 3D adventure game with bad camera angles. That sums about every game in the genre. If I honestly described this game to you without giving a name, you’d assume it was just another generic game that would be lost in the shuffle.

This isn’t saying Ninja Gaiden is bad. I’ve been praising it throughout this whole review. It manages to take everything that other games have done, and do it a bit better than the rest of the pack. It just really isn’t groundbreaking. In fact, this is the weakest aspect of the game. But in the end, it proves a good game doesn’t need to break the mold. It can be as simple as a very hard hack N slash.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

Ninja Gaiden is not a game I can see people playing for long periods of time. While you are playing it, it is intense and fun and difficult, but the only time I’m compelled to really keep playing is if I lose to a boss. I just want to beat them and save it so I don’t have to deal with them again.

The real drawback is the lack of save points in the game. They are few and far between and backtracking can be a real problem and time waster. If there were more save points, I’m sure I’d enjoy the game a lot more, as I wouldn’t be worried where the next one is coming. I know I said I love the difficulty, but I don’t view a lack of save points as a legit way to make a game harder. I find it annoying and downright stupid. But that’s just me. However I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing that the game could have used a few more of these.

I never played Ninja Gaiden for longer than an hour-hour and a half before I took a break and went on to do something else, like read a book, or go work out, or just simply put in a different game like Dead Man’s Hand or Pokemon Coliseum.

It’s a good game, it just didn’t grip me enough to lose myself completely in it only to find a few hours had passed since last I looked.

Addictiveness Rating: 6/10

9. Appeal Factor

Massive hype from every VG magazine and web site on the planet. A game people have been waiting over ten years for. It’s pretty, it plays well and it may be hard, but I can’t imagine too many gamers not at least renting it or playing it at a friends house. I think Ninja Gaiden is a prime example of how to market a good game to just above everyone across the board, regardless of tastes.

First time I think since I’ve been working for 411 I can honestly give a ten in this category.

Appeal Factor: 10/10

10. Miscellaneous
Okay. Rant time. I am quite pissed at Team Ninja for how hard they made it to get the Ninja Gaiden trilogy. The whole reason I bought this game was to enjoy those. Even now I’d rather play NG 1 & 2 over the Xbox version because they are incredible beyond words.

So let’s talk about how you get said NES games

Ninja Gaiden 1: Collect all 50 Scarabs.
Ninja Gaiden 2: Get a rating of Master Ninja on every level
Ninja Gaiden 3: Get a rating of HEAD NINJA on every level

Now, I unlocked NG 1 and 2 after learning the cheese tricks. But NG3 is still a hard puppy to get. I usually can get Head Ninja on every level save 1-2 where I get master ninja. It’s to the point where I’ve just started reloading if I don’t get the Head Ninja rating because I just want the final game so I can be done with the bloody thing!

The problem is that you have to basically do everything there is in the game to get the classics. And even then you have to get to Han’s bar to play them. You can’t just access them from the main opening screen, which is again an annoyance.

To include 3 great games only to have them reachable by maybe 10% of those that will play this game is inexcusable in my opinion. These should be a lot easier to achieve for the average game so they can enjoy the history and incredible games that made this series so popular. But then, maybe Team Ninja was afraid their game would be overshadowed by 8 bit ones. And if that’s the case, this is the worst case of insecurity I’ve ever seen in a video game. At least the first one is achievable if you play successive mode.

If you are getting Ninja Gaiden for the old NES games, I say don’t bother. Just rent this and go grab the old NES carts for cheap off Ebay or a Funcoland, or else get the Super Nintendo cart for the same cost as this Xbox one. At least then you can play the games right out.

But besides this super annoyance to everyone’s favorite Retrogamer, Team Ninja did a great job of include other extras, from hidden weapons, to nifty extras you get if you play the game after you beat it. Heck, I accidentally unlocked Ryu far cooler original blue costume totally by accident the first time I played the game. I didn’t even realize I had done so, until I looked at the manual and saw him in the black outfit! Nice touch that made me giddy.

In the end, there are some great extras in Ninja Gaiden, but the ones that matter most are all but unachievable to the average gamer, which is just plain wrong, considering it was one of the much hyped bits about the game by Tecmo and the Media in general.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

Short Attention Span Summary
Ninja Gaiden is a great game, by far one of the best 3D action games on the market today. Although it has some flaws such as camera angles and a difficulty that may turn off a lot of gamers, Team Ninja and Tecmo have given us an excellent game that lives up to a lot of the hype we have heard about it for the past year. Is this one of the best games ever made? No, but it if you are good enough at this game, it rewards you with such an opportunity. Remember, unlike other websites, our rating system makes it exceptionally hard to get an eight or higher rating, We’ve had only half a dozen games achieve that rating since the beginning of the year here at 411, and quite honestly it SHOULD be that hard to achieve that high a ranking. Because when a game finally gets that, it means they’ve actually earned it and are worthy of such an accolade. However, much like a gamer that will try but ultimately fall short of obtaining Ninja Gaiden 3 in this game, the Xbox Ninja Gaiden is an incredible game that just falls short of making it amongst the best of the best.