The 1990’s and early 2000’s were good for games. Releases like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, genre defining games like Resident Evil and certainly the mirror shine polish of games like Castlevania Symphony of the Night signified a renaissance in gaming such as we’d never seen before. For all the good games of the late millennia, certainly, there were omissions; Metroid didn’t get a proper release after Super Metroid until the GameCube Metroid Prime at the end of 2002. Franchise like R-Type, Ghost N’ Goblins, Double Dragon, etc. – all but disappeared, and at the top of my “notably absent games of the era,” list was Ninja Gaiden. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…we got a crappy port of the NES Ninja Gaiden games in the form of (horrible, wretched abortion that was) the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy, but outside of the mobile game market of the time period…Ninja Gaiden had been all but abandoned.
Rebooting a merciless franchise into something more…cruel
In fact, it would take 13 years to produce another proper Ninja Gaiden game, following-up to the Ancient Ship of Doom (NG3 on the NES), debuting on the original Xbox console as “Ninja Gaiden.” There would be a couple of different versions of this game, all offering the same basic package with a little nuance here or there, these include:
- Ninja Gaiden (Xbox original release)
- Ninja Gaiden Black (Xbox original re-release with fixed camera and Hurricane Pack add-ons on disc)
- Ninja Gaiden Sigma (The PlayStation 3 variant of Ninja Gaiden Black, was slightly higher resolution, offered some upgraded textures and a “playable character,” other than Ryu, more on this later)
While there were subtle differences from the 3 versions, all offered the same basic premise: A fully realized 3D Ninja Game offering many throwbacks (weapons, moves, wall jump ability) to the original Ninja Gaiden games while rebooting the story completely. This is important, Ninja Gaiden had a well-established cannon, but the development team, Team Ninja led by Tomonobu Itagaki, felt like it was time to re-establish what had been outlined before (and to be fair, what had been completely covered up by the sands of time). Ninja Gaiden promised fluid, 60fps gameplay (before counting frames was really a thing) in a fully realized 3d world and an absurd difficulty promising to put even the most skilled video gamer to the test. By and large, Team Ninja delivered exactly that – a tough as nails, smooth and silky murder fest that offered bragging rights to those who were successful.
It’s important to talk about challenge when you talk about games of the early millennium, as games like Half Life 2, Doom 3, Far Cry, Painkiller and Unreal 2 were seminal games released that same year, most of them could be viewed as games meant to attract new gamers and the difficulty bar was set very low. Games like Ratchet and Clank: Up your Arsenal were setup to be as least punishing as possible. Hell, 5 of the 10 top selling games that year were sports games, another two were Halo and Half Life 2. None of these were bad games, but none of them were particularly challenging outside the frame of “your greatest competition can be found playing against other people.” Ninja Gaiden was different.
A 3d platformer? Yes, like Mario? Heavens no…
At its heart, it’s a “platformer” with an absurdly good combat system. The platforming part is represented by the requisite jumps and wall climb challenges, accented here or there with an absurd key fetch quest…which is as close as I’ll come to confirming that there are “puzzle elements,” It’s the combat that’s the star here, and man oh man…does it shine. Ninja Gaiden was designed, from the ground up…much like it’s forebears, to be as challenging as possible in the frame of “it’s well designed and executed, if you die, it’s your fault.” Pointing out your faults is just what Ninja Gaiden is good at, not only pointing out, but capitalizing on your faults and then slaughtering your face. I’ll list core features and game play mechanics then ask if any of this sounds familiar:
- Diverse moves set
- Offers a range of weapons which drastically changes the move-set and thus playstyle
- Large rather open levels with objective based “Secret” pass throughs to other/earlier parts of the level
- Deadly enemies which work well both one and one and as a group, each enemy is deadly and capable of reducing your full health bar to 0
I’m telling you, throw in some mildly Lovecraftian imagery and story elements and you’ve got yourself a very early (albeit much faster) Dark Souls game. Yes, I just compared Ninja Gaiden to Dark Souls…if this gets your panties in a wad, it’s probably best you stop reading now. The fact of the matter is, Ninja Gaiden plays very much like a fast paced, light weight Souls game. Sure, the art style is different, the weapon selection is extremely limited by comparison, but the only way to talk about the play-style, the gooey guts of the game….is to compare it to something that most everyone has died playing at least once.
Okay, so the “fast-paced,” part it kind of an understatement. Ryu, the Ninja Gaiden, is after all…a Ninja – and his move set and pacing is lithe, agile and deadly like his name sake. Ryu can run on walls, hang from ledges, complete the Ninja-Gaiden-copyrighted “wall-jump,” there’s flips and kicks and sword slicing, hell…there’s even an Izuana-drop if you want to devastate a screen full of baddies while playing Ninja Gaiden like a fighting game! Our hero gets an assortment of weapons; from the melee range you get a katana, war hammer, giant 2h bastard sword (or two if you play the game twice), a staff, some nun chucks or the ever-deadly razor-lined nun chuck, “The Vigoorian Flail.” For Distance, you get a bow and a limited number of diverse arrow types, some throwing stars, the Windmill star from the original trilogy makes a return (which is amazing by the way since it’s ostensibly a boomerang, has unlimited ammo). In addition, there’s also Ninja magic…because who doesn’t love saying Ninja Magic? Every melee weapon and magic can be upgraded, which changes the look and move set of those weapons, with souls, blood, err….” Ninja Essence,” which can be farmed off the dead body of slain enemies and bosses. Your health bar starts small, but can be lengthened by collective “Life of the Gods,” orbs or “Lives of a thousand gods,” – similarly, the number of magic spells you can cast by collecting similar “orbs” to improve those stats. In effect, you have a rudimentary system of leveling health, abilities and weapons…and man…will you have to do all three to beat this game. So, what’s it all about?
A story for the ages…
Story-wise, the Ninja Gaiden reboot is just as bat shit crazy as the original NES Games. You start by showing up at your dad’s best friend’s house, as your father (Joe) is off training to become more Ninja-y. Dad’s bud, the nun chuck wielding Murai, tells you that some shit is going to hit the fan because your clan (the Dragon-Ninja) protects something called the Dark Dragon – which is a sword but may also be the fang of a dragon. For some reason, Ayane (from Dead or Alive) is there and tells you that your village is being attacked…you run off, or rather, down a well and somehow into another valley below Murai’s house…and yep, some Ninja’s and Samurai are there just absolutely slaughtering your people. You show up just in time to see a big black-armored Samurai, Doku, with a bic-lighter for a face, steal the dark dragon, murder your childhood best friend (who is in no way established by as a character prior to this moment), and then Doku turns arounds and just murders you…dead. This is level 2, and the bat shit portion of crazy is yet to begin. After you die, you turn into an eagle, and then you’re putting on pants and you’re normal again. Murai tells you that the Doku Guy works for the Holy Vigoorian Emperor in the kingdom of Vigoor (because creativity is not a talent of the writing staff over at Team Ninja), and then you must catch a blimp (a zeppelin, not just a fat guy), to the Kingdom of Vigoor and get back the sword.
I must take pause here and give a little public service announcement and show you what it looks like to stick your head up your own ass write loving about what you see, and then force everyone else to read it too. At points during the game, there’s text crawl that explains the Vigoorian Empire, the Deity’s and the events that produced the Dark Dragon Sword as well as the Ryu’s own Dragon Sword…and man oh man…is it ever up its own ass. By way of demonstration, an excerpt from this shitty smelling text crawl:
So, we move on, Ryu kills the fat man driving the blimp (there’s something very Freudian about that), then lands in Vigoor where he runs into a town which resembles every story I’ve ever heard about North Korea. There’s a town, shops, houses, apartments, fountains…but no people – just a bunch of soldiers trying to take the piss out of Ryu as he wall jumps, dashes, serpentines, slashes and bashes every one of them. At some point, he meets Muramasa, who makes swords and tries to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head so hard he can see the brick wall behind him. Ninja Gaiden meets Rachel, who is scantily clad in black latex wielding a giant phallus and can’t stop grunting (seriously, if ever there was going to be a call placed to HR while playing a video game…it’d be caused by Rachel) …. Rachel is looking for her twin (/roll eye) sister and can’t seem to stop getting into situations where Ryu must rescue her, pull her out of a tentacle monsters reach (I’ll also add the tentacle monster has Vaseline for blood). The journey is just getting started, and you wind up in the requisite environments you’d expect from a 90’s platformer, all rendered in loving 3d: A Church, Sewage System, Ice World, Fire World (no reason for either of these by the way…one’s just hot while the other is cold despite being feet away from the Vigoorian capital which looks to be somewhere in the San Fernando valley), there’s an army base, an evil tower…all the hallmarks of good old fashion 80’s and 90’s game play served up with a healthy dose of sexism and violence….god how I missed simpler times. You meet a couple of other characters along the way, all are pretty stock…. there’s even a little betrayal drama you’ll see coming from 10,000 miles away. All in all, serviceable if not completely original.
The main draw to the game is challenge. Challenge of walking into a situation, assessing and addressing and if you pass…great, if not…. doing it again, but faster, with more attention to where to hit or jump next, maybe you hit the wrong bad guy first or not hard enough…. but it all boils down to you and your level of skill. The regular enemies are absolutely no joke, as you progress…they get “upgraded.” Soldiers turn to heavier grade, better equipped soldiers, then to fiends (monsters), then sometimes, you get giant fiends that can take 20 or 30 hits to take down. Sometimes it’s singles, sometimes it’s packs of humanoid/monsters or the larger fiends…but the best times are when it’s a mixture of all those things! The challenge is what keeps you coming back…and the baddies in Ninja Gaiden offer competent challenge and fodder to that equation. Now let’s talk about the bosses….
Holy shit the bosses in Ninja Gaiden are hard. I say that having platinumed multiple Souls/Borne games. I say it having beaten Ninja Gaiden, Black and Sigma MULTIPLE times each…. the bosses in Ninja Gaiden are hard…some even unfairly so, but they’re so much fun you’ll want to come back and chip away at the progress, that is until you come to Alma.
Remember Rachel’s twin sister?…that’s Alma, and she’s a cast iron bitch made to break your skull (and controllers) in two pieces. You fight the various incarnation of Alma throughout the game, she’s quicker than you, she gets moves that just outright exploit the weaknesses of the movement and camera system – Alma is hardcore no matter which time you’re talking about having to face her. She’s not alone, most of the bosses in Ninja Gaiden offer a significant level of challenge. Yes, there are exploits…Yes, the worm boss can get predictable after your 1000thturn…. but you’ll scream, cry and “hit start to continue,” just the same.
A visual powerhouse for it’s day that still holds up on modern hardware
Graphically, Ninja Gaiden is a startling game. As I mentioned before, the frame rate has always been a silky smooth 60fps, but there have been improvements to the texture quality, shadows…but the core package is largely the same. I say it’s startling because of how well it holds up after 14 years. Originally setup for an original Xbox with a native output (with component cables) of 480p, 720p widescreen modes despite shipping in an era where HD TV’s were a thing of the future (even the 16:9 420p looked fantastic compared to the standard, at time, 320×240 3:4 norm of the day). What that means is that the game has scaled well over the years with very little work. Xbox original and Black were both setup this way, the Ps3 version (Sigma) then upped the ante by offering a native 720p image (again, over component or HDMI) …but the mack-daddy version of Ninja Gaiden wouldn’t be released until 2017 with the release of the Xbox One X, where original Xbox games were ported over to work with newer hardware. I’m here to tell you that the version brought over, Ninja Gaiden Black, is amazing in native 2160p (4k) at the full 60fps limit. Does it look like an Xbox One game? Oh god no…but that the original art work, design and texture work look as good as they do at 4k (which is what…nearly 10 times the resolution that the game was intended to offer) is impressive. If not, the PS3 “Sigma” version is very good as well, and offers the chance for you to play Rachel – just don’t play it in front of your kids or wife…it’s embarrassing!
And then there’s the stretch goal…the Golden Scarabs collection end-game. Okay, it’s a 90’s game so it’s forgivable…but yes, there is a “collect 50 of something arbitrary and win a prize” in Ninja Gaiden, for this game…it was tiny golden beetles hidden throughout the game, collect 50 and you unlock a classic Ninja Gaiden game. In the original (non-black) release, netting:
- 30 would unlock Ninja Gaiden 1
- 40 would unlock Ninja Gaiden 2
- 50 would unlock 3 (Ancient Ship of Doom).
The catch was, these weren’t the NES games, they were ports of the SNES Ninja Gaiden Trilogy – and man were those games shit. Don’t get me wrong, the graphics were somewhat improved, but the control was awful, the music was even worse…and collecting scarabs wasn’t enough, there was some arbitrary “shoot the clock tower at a certain time,” bullshit that made you set the time on your Xbox to unlock all 3.
The Ninja Gaiden Black collectible is much simpler…. collect 50 scarabs, and collect the original Arcade Ninja Gaiden game (which is FAR superior to the SNES Trilogy ports and is 100% faithful to the arcade release). Hell, if you wanted to buy both an unlock 4 total Ninja Gaiden Games, it’d probably be worth your time, just don’t call me when you get to Alma on the original Xbox Ninja Gaiden, I’ve made my peace with that game…and you will not drag me back in, I went black…not going back.
Run towards or Away, erstwhile screaming?
Is it worth your time? Yes, absolutely, especially now that it’s available as an Xbox backwards compatibility game and most copies can be had for around $4, it’s absolutely worth your time (also, if you own an Xbox One S/X…it’s available as a Game Pass game for $10 a month, that service is worth every penny). I’ll recommend Ninja Gaiden Black over the original Ninja Gaiden for a few reasons (if you’re going to play on Xbox). First, the camera in the original version was just wonky, it didn’t correct easily and wasn’t great – in Black, it’s completely controllable with the right stick and that makes a huge difference. Second, the Black version includes the “Hurricane Packs” which were extra challenge levels meant for an online competition in the games original release, you obviously can’t complete 15 years later…but the levels themselves are fun and offer challenge (trust me, the competition was absolute garbage anyway – and was just a gimmick, even the winners hated it). Ninja Gaiden Black represents the pinnacle of achievement for challenging action games in the early-mid 2000’s, it’s got an early blue print for the Souls games and despite being ultra-challenging, it’s a ton of fun, and even on a modern console – a real looker – totally worth your time!