First Knights of the Old Republic, and now this?? What a time to be alive! For Xbox owners at least. Allow me to introduce the latest and greatest offering from Tecmo and Team Ninja. Can you say “the greatest action game ever made”?
After playing Ninja Gaiden, you might very well be able to. Yet it’s really more than an action game – it’s definitely an action-adventure, full of all the trimmings and trappings that the videogame arch-genre entails. With a sprawling inventory of weapons, armor, and magic, an ever-increasing move list, and plenty of (fairly simple) puzzles to solve, this title has much in common with Devil May Cry, and in fact could be fairly neatly described as a cross between Devil May Cry and Shinobi. But don’t let such an oversimplification fool you – Gaiden has a feel all its own, if for no other reason than that it combines so many gameplay elements so flawlessly – it is, in short, an absolute must-have.
From top to bottom, Ninja Gaiden’s production value is through the roof, and nowhere is this more obvious than in its graphics; I believe stunning is the word. From the first level, which takes place on a mountainside in the Japanese autumn, you will be blown away by environments that are always filled with extraordinary detail, vibrant colors, and flawless textures that redefine the term. That’s only the tip of the iceberg: There are a wide variety of enemy characters, from ninjas and samurai to gun-toting soldiers, spell casters, and demons, and they’re all colorful and gorgeous, too, punctuated with bosses that tend to knock your socks clean off. The centerpiece is main character Ryu himself; it’s quite likely that you’ve never had so much fun controlling any other character in any other game, ever. With startlingly fluid animation that is always jaw-droppingly cool, you’ll draw from a list of moves that rivals what is seen only in the best fighting games and, even though you may see each animation a thousand times, you’ll never get tired of them: The presentation is just too stylish. The only complaint I can muster here is that the environments are so detailed and inviting that you’ll want to explore more of them than you’re typically able to, since most of the maps are fairly straightforward and often employ somewhat contrived dead-ends, usually involving impassable debris or non-functional doors.
The sound experience in Gaiden is excellent as well, though it is perhaps the game’s weakest suit. Sound effects are outstanding; it’s just that they’re likely to get repetitive, as in most action games where you’ll be executing certain moves over and over again. There’s a lot of attention to detail here, though, and each of the many types of enemies, and weapons, is outfitted with appropriate sound effects so it’s mainly Ryu that will eventually start to sound a bit like a broken record; it’s nothing that detracts much from the experience. The music, on the other hand, is quite ambitious, blending elegant Oriental sensibilities with a variety of other musical styles, from rock to rhythm – a very personable soundtrack to be sure, just not quite on par with the epic scores of a Final Fantasy or a Zelda.
Ninja Gaiden features utterly top-notch gameplay. At its core is one of the best combat systems ever devised, wherein moves (and combinations thereof) are executed just as they would be in a fighting game like Soul Calibur but are more often directed against waves and waves of enemies, rather than just one opponent at a time. You won’t have to worry about locking on to your intended victim, though, as Ryu will automatically target enemies for you, usually the closest one, and as a result you’ll rarely feel less than in complete control, as long as you keep making sound combat decisions that is. You’ll have many options to consider in making those decisions, from blocking and countering to rolling dodges and back flips to triangle jumps and scurrying around on the walls like a man possessed; you can even walk on water. What’s more, there is a very flexible combo feature in place that will really encourage you to take your abilities to the next level, as you refine your skills to watch that Hit count rise, and at the end of each chapter you’ll be given a score and corresponding rank, based on how well you fought. I have noticed one problem: There is a certain move that, while not quite foolproof and completely ineffective against some enemies, can simply be used over and over to get you through 75% of the battles or so with hardly a scratch if your reflexes are sharp enough. It won’t yield any impressive combos though, and all in all, the action in Ninja Gaiden is very deep and extraordinarily entertaining at the same time. Complimenting the action are a robust inventory featuring multiple melee and projectile weapons, standard fare potions and power-ups, a magic system that even if it is somewhat superficial is still a welcome addition, and some simple puzzles, all of which make the game that much more engaging.
As if all that weren’t enough, this game offers a boatload of challenge and replay. You’ll have two difficulty levels to choose from at the start, Normal and Hard – I recommend Hard simply because this is a game you’ll want to savor for as long as possible, and working your way through the battles will be so much more rewarding and will foster a more comprehensive appreciation of Ryu’s many, many talents. Beyond these a Very Hard difficulty can be unlocked, the completion of which will in turn unlock a nice little goodie; expect to have put in forty hours at the very least by this point. There are also the Golden Scarabs to find, and discovering all of them – no easy task – will result in a very notable reward indeed. Don’t forget to earn Master Ninja ranking for each chapter, too. Oh yeah – did I mention that all three of the original Ninja Gaidens could be unlocked as well? Bravo, Tecmo?and thank you.