Ninja Gaiden Review

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Publisher: Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja

Platform: Xbox
Reviewed on Xbox

There are different kinds of ninjas. Polar opposites like Ninja Gaiden and Tenchu: Return from Darkness really illustrate the diversity of game ninjas. There are ultimate power ninjas and Shinobi-style ninjas – but Ryu Hayabusa, the main character of the Ninja Gaiden series, is the very best kind.

Ninja Gaiden is a stellar game and an even better fantasy. In it, you play as the kind of ninja that runs along walls, fleet of foot; lops off a dozen heads in a row; performs fifty-hit combinations with an assortment of weapons; wields fire and shurikens as if they were an extension of the body; all with the toughness of a warrior and the grace of a feline. It's even beautiful.

Carrie Gouskos

Ryu Hayabusa is the same character featured in the original three games on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This time around, Ryu boasts quite a few more polygons, and probably the most beautiful ones ever to grace a console. The cut-scenes are jaw dropping, the gameplay is exquisite and the fighting system is one of the most satisfying the action/adventure genre has seen in a long time.

That said, on to the explanation and nit-picking.

At the outset, Ryu's repertoire of moves is limited, his health bar tiny, he holds just a few basic weapons and no magic whatsoever – all in a ninja outfit that could pass for a Halloween costume. Absolutely everything picks up from there. Throughout the game, you unlock a variety of weapons, magical attacks and upgrades by finding secret areas, defeating bosses, and spending your hard earned dough at the local shop.

Try It On Hard ... Or On Harder

The first time through the game, there are two difficulty options, normal and hard. Normal is not the equivalent of easy, and unless you're as much of a ninja with a controller as Ryu Hayabusa is with the sword, you're going to have your hands full with the normal mode. After beating the game the first time, another mode is unlocked. Carpal tunnel mode (a.k.a. very hard mode) is slightly different from the other modes, but not much. In fact, after logging nearly thirty hours the first time (that is not indicative of the game's length, but of how much a person can be sidetracked by merely running around fighting), you probably won't want to play it through again soon.

Ninja Gaiden is a difficult game, but if you're patient and willing to use any tactics necessary to win (you should, as the AI will) it is a fun sort of difficulty. You're going to have to love the fighting system in order to enjoy the challenge – and if you like action games, you will. Whether you dominate the enemies or barely scrape by, each encounter is exciting to choreograph, and as long as you learn the moves (especially how to block) it's more gratifying than frustrating. Blocking is essential and will get you through some of the most difficult scenarios, even when you would least expect it, such as when facing projectiles or riders on horseback. The key is learning how to approach each enemy. On almost every level a new style of foe is added. Even when you return to familiar environments, the combatants have changed. Because of this, you explore levels in new ways every time pass through.

Ninja Gaiden manages to repeat levels without seeming repetitive. Often, Ryu will be sent back to an area by another entrance that was previously locked, gaining access to a slew of previously hidden places. Sometimes the entire structure of the level has changed, creating building a new area from a familiar environment. Thankfully, knowing where to go is surprisingly easy, either because everything leads to the same place, or because playing the game grants you ninja-like intuition.

It's a good thing the levels are as great as they are, because you're likely to do a lot of backtracking. The gameplay doesn't require it, but the absurd placement of save points does. Save points feel as though they were arbitrarily placed by a small child, with the fortunate exception that there is always one at the beginning of a level. But often there is no save point where it is most needed, and a meticulous player will be forced to backtrack to avoid repeating massive sections of the game. This is worst before bosses, where there is frequently gulf between the last save and the boss. The bosses aren't so difficult that this frustration is an absolute impediment, but until you figure out the weakness of any given boss, you'll wish the developers had included a few more save points.

Depend on Your Dragon Sword

The enemies are impressive, but many of the run-of-the-mill enemies are more difficult than the bosses. Each boss in the game has at least one sure-fire weakness to exploit. Trying anything else leads to endless hours of frustration, so if you're not taking off sizable chunks of his health, you need to change your method. The level enemies get harder as you progress. At first they're just regular ninjas, and run-of-the-mill ninjas are no match for Ryu Hyabusa. Later, ninjas are on horseback, toting machine guns, casting magic and tossing incendiary shurikens. The fiends are a class of demons that offer significant challenges when you're forced to fight them, which is not too often. You shouldn't feel bad about running past the fiends if you can. If you prefer to fight, the weapons in the game afford some very different ways to do so. In the end, only a few of them will be useful, but how you choose to upgrade will affect your weapon choice. The Dragon Sword is the weapon you will end up using most, but the Vigoorian flairs and the Dabilahro are also pretty useful. Some of the weapons are good for extracting money from enemies or breaking down certain types of barriers, so almost all of them will be in your hands at some point during the game. There is also an array of different types of shurikens and arrows that Ryu can use. The bow and arrow doesn't seem very game ninja-esque, but Ryu pulls it off and the weapon is so useful you'll withhold judgment.

One drawback to the game is that you have very little control over the camera. In order to look around, you have to stop moving. So in order to maintain the flow of gameplay, get used to not being able to see where you're going. I guess because you're a ninja you don't need to see.

The enemies drop either health, ninpo, or yellow orbs that serve as the game's monetary system. The size of the orb determines how much it's worth and bigger orbs drop when you execute better hit combinations. So while you can use cheap tactics to take down enemies carefully, the game is made so that you are forced to try difficult maneuvers if you want to make enough money to really upgrade your character. Money isn't easy to get, and since bosses don't often drop significant rewards, you will probably have to spend time in a few areas with respawning enemies just to save up for a health potion. It's just like getting allowance money, but with swords and stuff.

The money is used to buy weapons, potions, and armlets that improve Ryu's statistics. The quirky shop man also accepts golden scarabs. (Fortunately, you'll find the talismans lying around – usually in hard to find places.) He will exchange them for gifts, none of which are worth much. But the golden scarabs have a bigger purpose: if you find all fifty by the end of the game, you can unlock the original Ninja Gaiden for the NES. With that unlocked, you can unlock the two sequels as well. Ninja Gaiden is also supported by Xbox Live. Starting at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year, on May 11th 2004, there will be a tournament mode available for people who want to test their Ryu Hayabusa against other Ryu Hayabusas.

Ninja Gaiden has a few problems, but not enough to prevent anyone from playing the best ninja game that has ever come out, and one of the best action games in a long time. Throw in its visual magnificence, and Ninja Gaiden should make the top of your to-do list. Let out your inner ninja, baby.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 30, 2004 8:39 PM.

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