Ninja Gaiden has a long history.  Originally released as “Ninja Ryukenden” in Japan (rough translation: Ninja Dragon Sword Legend) and later released in America as Ninja Gaiden, the series began its life in the arcade in 1988.  Based on the amazing success of the arcade version, the Nintendo Entertaiment System was graced with the beginning of the series on consoles.  Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos followed a year later on the NES.  From 1990 to 1992 Ninja Gaiden was seen on the Atari Lynx, MS-DOS, again on the NES (Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom), the Game Gear, Sega Master System, TurboGrafx 16, and on the Genesis.  The Super Nintendo picked up the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy in 1995 and that was the last time we saw the adventures of Ryu Hayabusa. 


The Dead or Alive series featured Ryu Hayabusa through the end of the 90’s, but it has been a long dry season since we last took up the sword against the likes of The Jaquio, Ashtar, or anyone other than a Hulk Hogan or Dennis Rodman look alike.

This game is by far the most beautiful game on the Xbox.  I’d go so far as to say it is the best looking title on any system. It supports widescreen, progressive scan, and features some of the best cutscenes this side of Square’s ill-fated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.  The framerate is constant with only some very minor hiccups on some extremely rare occasions, if you see them at all.


The areas in the game are quite varied.  The first level begins just outside the Ninja Stronghold with you standing in some ankle deep water.  There is not a whole lot of build up until you get to the story, you’ll get into it as soon as you defeat the first boss.  As you make your way through the stream and cliffs you come to enter to the stronghold.  The stronghold is detailed and very Japanese, that is to say there is no furniture.  Each area within is detailed with tapestries, wooden flooring with rice padding, traditional Samurai armor, and the occasional stack of ornate boxes for you to kick open and loot. The second area is a village where you will square off against foot soliders and horse-mounted Samurai in your pursuit of your enemies. I won’t spoil the story for you, but as you progress you’ll also fly in a Zeppelin, run through a military-occupied city, and more.


Ryu’s animations are motion captured and fluid.  Each technique is modeled and appear completely natural…except that they are damned fast.  Ryu is a ninja, and he certainly moves like one.  Ryu has several different primary weapons to chose from; the Dragon Sword, Nunchaku, and a giant sword called The Demon Sword.  Each features a completely different set of animations and an amazing attention to detail.  Having used the nunchaku and katana myself, I can say that whomever they emplolyed for the motion capture is a true master of the weapon.  An excellent example of how motion capture should be done.


The enemies are equally detailed with fluid animations and an even wider variety of Ninja-crushing weapons.  You’ll fight ninjas, soldiers, martial arts masters, and demons in your quest for revenge.  The enemies will sport swords, arrows, shuriken, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades, and more to stop you.  It’ll be hard to beat this game in the visuals department…Ryu Hayabusa has joined the likes of the Master Chief and Sam Fisher as the leading men on the Xbox.

As evidenced by the fact that there are sites devoted entirely to ripping the music from Ninja Gaiden games, the series music has always been very cool.  This title is no different. The music is very cool and certainly keeps pace with Ryu’s Ninja reflexes.  You can turn on English or Japanese voiceovers, the English is tolerable, if a little over the top. The voice tracks are certainly nothing that is going to bother you, but you might find yourself laughing at some of the lines. 


The effects are well done with steel-on-steel clangs as you cross blades with the enemy, the satisfying (if not a just a bit too loud) whooshing of the nunchaku, and the ferocious roar of Ryu’s battle keai.  The shurikens thud and splinter wood on impact, ceramic pots shatter with a sound effect I swear I’ve heard many times..in fact, every sound is rendered to perfection in Dolby Digital 5.1 and hard to find fault with.  The inclusion of the Japanese voiceovers was a nice touch, and there is as much detail in the music and sound as there is in the graphics.  The game simply sounds as good as it looks…


 

The controls for a game this fast have to be spot on for the game to succeed.  Ninja Gaiden succeeds in this category by using a simple but vast control system that blends aspects from a fighting game with those of an adventure title.  For example, you can pull off a move called Blade of Nirrti by hitting x,y,x,x,x,x after upgrading your Dragon Sword to level two, just as you would if it was included in Dead or Alive.  It works in that you will only be fighting three or four enemies at any one time or maybe just one boss.  If you are good at fighting games, you’ll be good at this for the most part.  There are some differences in that you add in ranged weapons such as shuriken and arrows, but put plainly the controls are fairly second nature for most console gamers.


Since the advent of 3D we have been cursed with the 3D camera.  From cameras that are static and set at the worst angles, to cameras that simply won’t move into position enough to allow you to fight, the 3D camera has ruined more than one title.  While Ninja Gaiden isn’t ruined by its camera, it certainly takes a few bruises from it.  The default angle is directly behind Ryu and can be reset to this position with a quick tap of the right trigger.  Since the game is third person, this works pretty well, but there is a fly in the ointment.


For no reason that I can readily explain, Team Ninja decided that you should not be able to move the camera in the 3rd person.  When you tap a direction on the right thumbstick you move into a first-person perspective.  It allows you to take a look at your surroundings for hidden items or hidden passageways.  When you get a bow it’ll also allow you to fire arrows in first person perspective.   Firing in the first person perspective takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to pick Samurai off of horses with ease.


The camera occasionally does cause issues as you run into enemies who are off screen throwing stars or shooting grenades at you.  By the time you see them they are already kicking you into next Tuesday.  A quick tap of the right trigger slaps the camera back into behaving and you are back on track again.  As the areas get more tight, such as in the underground cavern levels or in the smaller hallways, you might find that the camera requires quite a bit more slapping to keep it in line.  It isn’t a gameplay ruining experience, but it does add frustration to an already difficult title.

Ninja Gaiden is a very challenging game, but it is also very fair.  Your very first tangle with the enemy will pit you against two ninjas on the edge of a cliff.  From there it only gets harder as you face off against three or four enemies at a time.  Occasionally you will fight wave after wave of enemies without reprieve and the potions are certainly not plentiful or cheap.  The bosses are no different, the first boss may take you several tries to defeat.  Quite simply, should you attempt a special move against him he will simply grab you by the head and smash your face into the wooden planks.  He isn’t a pushover, in fact he may be a ‘controller thrower’.  Let me assure you that things improve (and balance) greatly after this point. All of the enemies think on their feet and don’t settle into a pattern for the most part.  Some of the enemies will attack a certain way, but when three of them attack simultaneously and cram you into a corner you might think twice about exploiting any sort of ‘pattern’ that they might have settled into.


Each level seems to have a ‘lesson’ associated with it.  You will need to master blocking and agility for the first level, you will need to master covering the distance and using the bow for the second level.  As you add more weapons and moves to your arsenal you will have to assimilate their new moves quickly to survive.  Each wave of enemies is progressively more difficult than the last and none will offer you any mercy. 


To aid in your quest, Muramasa, the legendary blacksmith, will offer you weapon upgrades, potions, ammunition and more at his store.  You earn cash by destroying enemies and collecting their essence.  Some areas will respawn its enemies if you go back, so you might think about going back to collect a few more coins for later use.  It adds quite a bit to the game as you can make quick work of some enemies where they might have been almost impossible without upgraded weapons.


Speaking of weapons, there are many.  I won’t ruin the story, but suffice to say that you will end up with a katana, nunchaku, giant sword, blow dart, unlimited shurikens and more.  Each weapon is dramatically different than the last – you can become a master with the sword only to have your butt handed to you with the nunchaku.  The nunchaku is a high speed and circular weapon.  Timing is important as you juggle the weapon and multiple enemies in a series of attacks.  The giant sword is a heavy weapon that requires a bit more time to control due to the extreme weight.  Each weapon has a use, but learning to use them takes practice.  You can access a list of moves by hitting start, but actually pulling them off requires a bit of skill.  Put simply, you will need to learn the moves to become effective against some of the monsters in this title, but damn is it fun! 


Another aspect of the game is a bit of treasure hunting.  On level two you’ll be tasked with finding the head of a statue.  It isn’t always a required mission, but it does break up the action a bit.  Sometimes it is a piece of a puzzle, other times it is simply there to extend your life bar or enhance your ninjitsu. 


It simply wouldn’t be a ninja game without Ninja magic.  In this title it is called Ninpo, but I’ll just call it cool.  You start out with a nostalgic favorite, The Art of the Fire Wheel.  In essence, you momentarily burst into flame and fireballs spin around you damaging all in your path.  As you travel through the different areas of the game you can also purchase new ninja magic techniques or acquire them from other sources.  Each one is more lethal than the last and every one of them is very cool to watch in action.  You can also pick up armlets that grant different effects such as defensive power or offensive upgrades.  It lends a cool element to the game and allows you to really customize Ryu to your own fighting style.


This pretty much sums up the entire game really…it is simply amazing in action.  The screenshots just don’t do the game justice and even the videos can’t give you the full effect.  They can’t capture how amazing the game is to look at and it can’t capture how difficult it really is in some places.  You simply have to see it and play it yourself to believe it…

The game spans a staggering 15+ chapters and will take roughly 20 to 25 hours to run through on Normal difficulty.  Once you think you are badass enough to go through the game again, give it a spin on Hard mode and see how you fare.  Each area is elaborate and different with only a few treks across familiar territory.  The RPG-Lite elements of the title bring a point to all the killing as you might spend more time ‘leveling-up’ your Nunchaku instead of your Dragon Sword your first run through.  There are also a metric ton of moves, multiplied over and over again as you discover the variety of weapons throughout the game.


One big factor for a title as beautiful as this one would be loading times, but Team Ninja has you covered.  The loading time for a new level is very brief and it loads the entire area…or so it seems.  That is where Team Ninja pulls off a little Ninjitsu magic of their own.  As you enter a room there is a short transition where Ryu walks through the doorway, I suspect that there is a little burst loading done at that point.  It is fairly seamless and it ensures that you are only loading an area once.


One area that might raise a red flag is Xbox Live support.  While you can upload your scores to compete against other ninjas, there are no details on what will be available to download in the future.


Unlocking the other Ninja Gaiden titles will be a major factor in your mileage with this title.  Finding the golden scarabs in-game unlocks them, so it will take some dedication to accomplish that task, sadly it isn’t automatically unlocked when you finish the title.  When you do unlock them, you get a nostalgic walk down memory lane and a pointed reminder of why you hate birds and bats in any title.  It should remind you that the difficulty of this Xbox title is easily eclipsed by the bridge level before you fight The Jaquio in the original Ninja Gaiden. Have fun!

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