When you think about it, there’s not a whole lot that’s cooler than ninjas. Sure it’s nice to be a Neo-esque character, hopping around with his guns and using no-brain melee attacks, but ninjas are just so much more. Ninja Gaiden is like the unification of all the stuff that makes ninjas great. It doesn’t have an awesome story, but it plays extremely well, and both looks and sounds great as well.
In Ninja Gaiden you play as a fairly young, but highly skilled ninja by the name of Ryu, who happens to live in a rather special village. You see, this village protects an evil sword that grants tremendous powers to its wielder. Several people have wanted this sword, but locking it up seemed like the best choice in the long run. However, a “good” sword has been passed down for generations in this village, and going from one main village protector to the next – this is where you come into the picture.
As chance would have it, one day this otherwise peaceful village was raided by nearly unstoppable forces, led by a mysterious black figure. Obviously this guy wanted the powerful sword, and unfortunately he got his wish – leaving many houses burning, and a lot of people dead on the streets. You try your best to stop this super-villain, but it was no use. Battered and bruised you wake up in a forest, and promise to somehow find and kill this monster. Unfortunately you don’t know much about him, or “it”, if you will, so you start your quest by following the breadcrumbs. On your way you’ll find a host of both good and bad characters... You’ll solve various puzzles, at least try to find some of the game’s many secrets, and hopefully turn into an even more badass ninja.
The best way to describe Ninja Gaiden’s gameplay is probably to mention some similar games. Ninja Gaiden has similar gameplay mechanics to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in that you can make death-defying leaps, run up walls, run along walls, and kick butt in some stylish, and very satisfying ways. The combat on the other hand is more similar to games like Devil May Cry and Onimusha, in that it’s faster, there are more weapons, and they can be improved in various ways.
Our hero starts with his fairly legendary “dragon sword”, but it doesn’t take long until you find new things to play with. All the game’s weapons fit into two categories; melee and ranged. In melee you have for instance swords, nunchucks, hammers, and a lot more. In ranged you obviously have the shurikens, just as in the old NES game, but later you’ll find a bow, a large boomerang-like shuriken, and more. Finally you have armlets, which boost your defensive or offensive powers. Many of the game’s weapons can also be upgraded, but they only have three levels of upgrades, so it’s easy to assume that the developers wanted you to spend less time managing items, and more time kicking butt. Throughout the game you’ll find a number of shops, and it’s here that you upgrade your weapons, and also where you buy health potions, armlets, maps, and other things that make your life easier.
Ninja Gaiden isn’t an easy game, but not just because of the hard-hitting villains, but also because you’re often low on health, and because you’ll often find yourself desperately looking for save-points. I think it’s commendable for a developer to make a third-person action game that’s actually challenging, sometimes even as much so as certain old NES/SNES games. In terms of difficulty the game climaxes with recurring boss fights. You can’t just employ your pattern recognition skills either, because the bosses tend to act like normal villains, only they have a lot more health, and use much more powerful attacks. The key is often to figure out the boss’ weakness, like if he/she/it is slow, then some quick well-aimed nunchucks hits can be better than slower sword whacks. Ranged attacks can be used to not just kill, but sometimes to distract, and sometimes to cancel an attack.
Since you often fight multiple enemies, it’s critical that you learn to use as many attacks and abilities as possible. In a way our hero Ryu is like a Swiss army-knife – it’s truly effective when you know all the functions. Let’s say you’re in a somewhat tight alley. Three villains run towards you, one armed with a grenade launcher, the rest armed with swords. You could start by throwing shurikens at the ranged villain. Next you could run along one of the walls, and by pressing attack at just the right time you can take the head off both enemies in one very fulfilling move. Each time you kill an enemy various kinds of essence come out of their bodies. This replenishes your life, or can boost attacks. When you've landed after the wall attack you could hold down the special attack button, and using the essence of the two corpses nearby you launch one devastating attack on the more heavily defended ranged villain – effectively annihilating him in every sense of the word. Did I tell you this game rocks? It’s also quite bloody, and might remind you of a certain movie by the name of Kill Bill.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of the game’s normal enemies reappear if you go too far away. This can be good, because it keeps the game challenging, but it can also be exploited. For instance, if you’re low on cash and health you can kill a group of enemies, buy some more potions, go back and kill the group again, buy some new potions, and just keep this going until you’re bored.
Of course, a lot has happened in the thirteen years it’s been since the original Ninja Gaiden. Going from a 2D platformer to full 3D action can be a great design challenge. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did it very well, and Ninja Gaiden is no worse. The game takes you through a lot of very different environments, ranging from forests, to villages, to more futuristic settings. It’s interesting to see how the game looks contemporary, yet not. In a way you can say Ninja Gaiden borrows some of the things that make Asian history interesting and cool, such as the huge Dojos, and mixes it with things like gun-totting terrorists, black leather suits, and much, much more.
The game looks very good in terms of texturing, modelling, architecture, animation, and special effects. There are a few animations that could’ve been improved, but for the most part it’s just excellent. Pre-rendered videos have become rare these past few years, so it’s fun to see the highly impressive ones you’re treated with in Ninja Gaiden. These actually do add to the story and sheer impressiveness of the game, which hasn’t always been the case in other games. The only real problem is the camera. Even though you can use the right trigger to have the camera move behind you, it can get troublesome when you’re close to walls, or in tight spots. The camera sometimes tends to go above you, or just stop in not very optimal locations, and that can sometimes make you not see attacks.
Sound-wise the game is also very solid. The soundtrack is pretty engaging, and usually not overly repetitive. There isn’t a huge load of voice-acting, as ninjas tend to stay quiet, but what’s there is good, and that’s what matters. The sound effects are also spot-on, so all the weapons, explosions and whatnot sound just right. Plenty of bass is used, which is always a plus if you’ve got decent speakers. And of course, if you’ve got several speakers then the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixed sound will immerse you even more so than in stereo.
This game could’ve been really bad. It could’ve been mediocre, as most third-person action games are. Fortunately for us action fans, mediocre is far from the truth. It doesn’t have a great story, but honestly a better one than many martial arts movies (although that may not be a great achievement). Ninja Gaiden has a surprisingly deep combat system, highly responsive controls, graphics to die for, and audio to both dot the i and cross the t.
If you’re going to buy one action game for the Xbox then you better have this one high on the list.