The one. The only. Ryu Haya-damn-busa. The ninjaest of all the ninjas. Well you know, except the part where he runs around in plain sight, not covered, with no attempt whatsoever at being stealthy and just flat murders everything, making loud noises in the process. And crushes things with fireballs and lightning storms.
The best difficult game, still, and easily still the best hack and slash game. It may have been Itagaki’s genius that made the original so good – after all, Ninja Gaiden 3 and Yaiba Z were a letdown if not outright terrible – but it was also the time period this game came out in, and the system it came out on.
Whether or not such a niche Japanese game (aimed at western audiences) made much difference in the Xbox’s total sales is debatable. Ultimately, it also doesn’t matter. Team Ninja / Koei Tecmo made the right choice. Releasing on the Xbox and developing exclusively for the Xbox allowed the game to take advantage of Xbox Live as well as the more powerful hardware in the system at the time. Even so, Ninja Gaiden and Black still had some pretty significant frame drop issues. Any time you got too many enemies on screen – which was commonplace towards the end of the game – or too many effects, the framerate would tank into the single digits and it was almost unplayable.
Ninja Gaiden, a reboot of the original ’80s NES series, began by telling the story of Ryu Hayabusa and the Dragon Blade, which a rival ninja clan ostenisbly steals from his family. His father, Joe Hayabusa – though never mentioned in the first game – is guardian of the Dark Dragon blade and his rival ninja clan from further up/down the mountains invades the village. However, the situation isn’t what it seems. While he is away, Ryu is tasked with defending the village, but goes out to the Spider Clan instead for…some reason….invading them and killing many of their dudes. Until his cousin Ayane interrupts his duel with Murai and tells them the Hayabusa village is burning.
Ryu returns to find the village in shambles, fighting through tons of samurai, wizards, ninjas, horse cavalry, only to be instantly murdered by the bad guy. Then he reincarnates as an undead ninja, something like that. Thus he embarks on a quest to recover the Dark Dragon Blade and kill literally everything standing in the way.
Ninja Gaiden was the litmus test of the day. It separated the noobs from the pros. The game was easy to pick up and play, but its brutality was unbridled and it was difficult to master. Even a master who picks it up after years will suffer from damaged self esteem after they die so many times trying to remember how to play. Really, it’s still the litmus test of today, too.
Whereas the gaming community attaches misconceptions to games like Dark Souls, claiming they are hard, Gaiden is actually difficult. It doesn’t matter if you master combat because literally one split seconds wrong move, and you’re dead. It doesn’t matter if you dodge or block divinely, because one split second of standing still, and an enemy will grab you and rip half your health bar off – or just instant kill you. As soon as you load a save or start a new game, it is visceral high speed brutality where you must master your reflexes, master animation timing to a fighting game level, and know how to keep mobile the entire time.
Released in 2004, this was arguably one of the best games graphically on the system, if not the best. It may look dated now – low resolution textures and primordial lighting – but at the time it was competing with games that didn’t look nearly as good, except maybe Devil May Cry. To its credit – Devil May Cry actually looked pretty good, but still not as good.
As a Japanese game, from Team Ninja especially, Gaiden also comes with a few helpings of eccentricity. Despite being catered to Western audiences, the game is still full of mainstays of Japanese gaming – characters wbo don’t make much sense and look extravagant, cool bosses and levels that really only serve to look cool rather than make any sense. For example the Vigoor Empire has modern tanks and electrical lines running through their territory, but they have dirigibles for travel. And guys with swords instead of guns. Last but not least, being a Team Ninja game it’s mandatory there be some sex appeal in the game.
Having said all of that, Ninja Gaiden / Black / Sigma may still be the pinnacle of the hack and slash genre, but it is definitely not without its faults. The game progression is nearly incomprehensible in some areas, the camera is the worst camera ever in the history of third person action games (worse than even Mario 64), and the difficulty is frequently arbitrary.
As people are happy to say about Dark Souls, there is no hand holding here. Gaiden will not tell you where to go or what your goal even is, ever, at any point in time. The closest thing you will get to a mission objective is at the beginning of the chapter during the story description. Beyond that, it’s basically a matter of running around and trying to figure out what to do while also making sure not to die. Some rooms will lock doors behind you and then force you to kill dozens of enemies, at which point the door will unlock. Other rooms require close examination because there’s a switch hidden in plain sight that needs to be stomped or flipped. Many passageways and the game in general closely follows a Resident Evil style of puzzle solving, forcing you to find keys or objects as you jumproll around, but not once will any chapter ever explicitly tell you what to do. Not even Ayane’s notes, which often contain slightly helpful tips in very version of the game.
When I say the camera is the worst third person camera ever, I’m not being hyperbolic. Frequently you will enter a room or walk through a door with the camera facing you, its back turned to the enemies who are about to kill you. The only way to know they exist is by listening for the subtle audio cues in the distance. The camera also doesn’t auto-center nor auto-focus on Ryu, so you will spend as much time rotating right stick as you will actually playing the game. Worst of all, right in the middle of combat the camera will get stuck behind a wall like its being carried by a floating Lakkitu, or will drift away to focus on something in the background, and just overall decide to fuck you over at the most opportune time.
Maybe the most frustrating thing about the game is that, at least in Sigma, enemies are totally arbitrary. You can pretty much guarantee that every time you go into a room or a new hallway or area, you’re going to fight at least 5 enemies. Minimum. You can also guarantee that those enemies will literally always respawn every time you come back into that area. What’s far less certain is when you enter an area and are attacked by an inappropriate amount of areas. It appears Sigma and Black tried to implement the scarab combat trials / tests of valor from Gaiden 2 in a different way – that way being suddenly spawning infinite enemies until you kill all of them and spawn a treasure chest. Okay, that’s great, if only I had any idea this was totally optional and it was going to be 40 enemies. The same thing happens elsewhere in the game, like multiple waves will spawn out of the back of an APC or out of thin air after you’ve killed an entire group of them already without leaving the area. It’s annoying as fuck because you have no idea why it’s happening to begin with.
You can see Ninja Gaiden Sigma – the PS3 re-release – in its entirety here, and feel my frustration seep through the microphone.