Publisher: Tecmo Koei / Developer: Team Ninja / Price: $39.99 / Played on: PlayStation Vita / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
By now, Ninja Gaiden’s been released on three different consoles in various configurations: it first appeared on the original Xbox, then was upgraded as Ninja Gaiden Sigma for PS3 in 2007, until its most recent revision into Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, a launch title for PlayStation Vita. Now that I know this game’s been done and redone twice before, stretching back eight years to its 2004 debut, I understand why certain aspects work well, and why others fall painfully short. In all, there’s probably a genuinely good game hidden here someplace, but I’ll be damned if I could find it.
For most of the game, you play as Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja who can run up and around walls and fight with a variety of collectible and upgradeable weapons such as swords, nunchaku, lunar (a staff), flails, and more. Combining combat and acrobatics, Ryu fights, climbs, and jumps his way through a dystopian world to recover the Dark Dragon Blade. A few times, you get to play as Rachel, a scantily clad and enormously bosomed “fiend hunter” who shares similar acrobatic skills to Ryu, but with different moves and only one weapon, the warhammer.
Both Ryu and Rachel can access magic attacks, or “ninpo.” As Ryu progresses, he finds more magic abilities, as well as yellow essence, which can be traded in at shops to upgrade weapons, magic, purchase new weapons or gear, or refill projectile weapons like exploding shuriken or armor piercing arrows.
While that all sounds like a solid adventure, the results leave much to be desired. The game’s difficulty is punishing to the point of absurdity. By the time Ryu reaches the second level, he encounters crazy-powerful vanishing ninjas who shoot balls of energy, and the enemies only get tougher. The game offers a “Hero Mode” instead of “easy mode,” an apt name, since the difficulty in Hero Mode isn’t toned down at all. Instead, health gets low, Hero Mode activates for a time, resulting in auto-blocking and unlimited magic attacks. Despite the assistance, the game remains super hard, and more than a little frustrating.
Beyond the difficulty, though, there isn’t a lot here to keep tedium at bay. There’s a long stretch where Ryu explores a big, labyrinthine city, unlocking doors, flipping switches, finding artifacts, and fighting wave after wave of endless soldiers and ninjas. Particularly annoying is that enemies constantly respawn in areas you’ve cleared, regardless of whether you’ve really left. There were plenty of times where I left corridors I’d cleared of soldiers, but went the wrong way—then after heading back in the right direction, I’d be swarmed again.
Worse, the game frequently stops mid-action to load, often mid-fight. Other times, certain triggers for the next game sequence need multiple stimuli to activate. For example, I needed a keycard to open a door, but there was literally nowhere to go to find it. So I double-backed, fought the same bad guys again, and this time the necessary keycard appeared at battle’s end. Another time, after escaping a train-wreck I entered fenced-in area. I walked all around the pen, seeing no exit, stuck. I went back to the train-wreck to see if I missed anything, found nothing, then went back into the pen—at which point the next cutscene finally triggered and I could get on with things. All of this is flat-out irritating.
And the game never seems to end… it’s got a whopping nineteen enormous stages, so the torture mounts as you go, daring you to come back for more. Often, I felt like I was in some kind of twisted video game snuff film, tormented with monotonous battles and frustrating levels to traverse and re-traverse as I brought one artifact to one door, which opened another so I could find the next artifact, then fight a bunch of demons while trying to get the key and avoid the spikes that erupted from the floor… ugh.
I’ll admit that the large levels invite tons of exploration, and there’s a certain satisfaction to dispatching enemies after upgrading a weapon or learning new magic. But the times when I truly enjoyed myself during this game were few and far between. Mostly, the game feels dated at best, and suffers from clunky, user-hostile design at worst. I never really felt like a “super ninja”; instead, I felt more like a lab rat trapped in a never-ending maze.
The story is utter nonsense, but it’s not evident until about a fourth of the way in. Ryu starts out as a simple ninja living in his peaceful ninja village in what looks like feudal Japan. Sure, “peaceful ninja village” sounds like a contradiction in terms—and it is—but it’s one of the more easy-to-swallow ideas present. When the Dark Dragon Blade his family’s protected for generations is stolen by some evil samurai-looking guy, Ryu sets out to find it, and avenge the violence the thief’s evil forces have visited upon his home.
After stowing away on a cool airship (this level was about the only one I really dug), Ryu meets the aforementioned Rachel, who became a fiend (demon-thing?) hunter because her twin sister got turned into one. From there, the plot dissolves—you keep fighting ninjas, soldiers, fiends, many tentacle monsters (they look like dicks), eventually coming up against the evil mastermind. To be honest, I couldn’t really keep track of the story at all, and it didn’t seem to matter much since the game’s map simply told me where to go and what do to every step of the way. I rarely felt as though I was participating in the story of the game, merely going from point A to B to C in order to trigger the next cutscene.
Sometimes combat with Ryu is pretty fun, largely due to the extensive move-list and combos he can string together. That Ryu’s made appearances in Tecmo’s Dead or Alive series makes sense considering that each weapon comes with its own fighting-game-style moves. But usually it’s hard to pull off all these moves while mired deep in combat, surrounded by multiple enemies, resulting in little-more than button mash-a-thons. Ryu’s ninja agility also doesn’t feel too agile. I always felt a slight disconnect between what I wanted Ryu to do when traversing levels and what he actually did—but whether or not this is a limitation of the Vita’s tiny dual sticks or a flaw of the game itself, I can’t say.
What I can say, though, is that the touch-controls are irritating. When tapping the main screen, the camera switches to first-person view, and looking around can be controlled by moving the system itself or the left thumb stick. While this is a neat trick, the novelty wears off soon when you realize that even the slightest touch of the screen will switch your view. For a while, I accidentally grazed the screen with my thumbs while maneuvering Ryu out of danger, screwing everything up. Worse, firing arrows at specific targets is a chore because the only way to activate first-person aiming is to tap the screen, meaning you’ll have to lift your fingers from the face buttons to get into that mode, then move them back before your enemies can fire on you, which is extremely tricky.
The rear touch screen doesn’t add much either. The only time it comes into play is during ninpo attacks, requiring specific inputs to maximize its power. But you can just tap the screen in the generally correct area to get this to work, leaving me to wonder why it’s there at all. It didn’t feel particularly magical, just dumb.
Lastly, the “interact” button was mapped to the projectile weapon button, meaning I wasted a shit-ton of arrows when all I wanted to do was open a door or pick up an object. Again: annoying.
The graphics are one of the game’s strong suits. Pre-rendered and real-time cut scenes look fantastic on the Vita’s huge, bright screen, and the animation throughout the game is smooth (excepting, of course, the aforementioned breaks for load times). Watching Ryu jump around the levels is exciting, and the levels themselves all have their own distinct and interesting looks to them, ranging from demon-infested aqueducts to Egyptian-themed tombs.
Of course, this greatness is marred by a truly terrible camera, which bugs out like crazy whenever you’re fighting in a corridor or enclosed area. I was often beset with enemies shooting at me when I had a hell of a time working the camera in a way so I could find them.
And then there’s Rachel… and her tit-physics. Now, I understand that women in video games often feature exaggerated portrayals, but Rachel’s enormous, globular, mostly-creepy looking breasts are laughable in their absurdity, made even more so by their “realistic” jiggling any time she moves. At one point, a bad guy picks her up and throws her across a room. When the camera cuts to where she’s landed after a moment, she’s laying perfectly still… except her boobs are swaying to and fro as the camera pulls backwards. It’s impressive that even when she’s been sapped of all strength, her tits find a way to go on.
If you like that sort of thing, fine—more power to you. But for me, Rachel is just an embarrassing aspect to a game that already feels too much like a throwback to an age in video games I thought we’d moved past.
I’m willing to believe that, at one point, Ninja Gaiden was an amazing feat of video game design. But considering all of the action-adventure games that have come and gone in the years since this game made its first appearance, I find it hard to believe that other first-time ninjas will have a good time with this game. There are so many aspects of this game to which I can say “if only”… if only the camera worked right, if only the controls were tighter, if only there were more to do than find keys and kill the same dudes over and over again. But the game is what it is, and the bad seems to outweigh the good at every turn. Simply put, it doesn’t seem like you can teach an old ninja new tricks.