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Ninja Gaiden (Xbox): ****(four stars)

March 11, 2010

Ninja Gaiden could be considered a “hard” or “difficult” game, but I do not believe it is either of these things. The game is tailored to your perception of the game’s relative challenge diving into the content – either it will be too hard, or just right. Much of this comes from the various obstacles that a player will have to deal with along the way, which are wildly different and too numerous to list.

First, we have the combat system. The rules of the game are quite simple – get from point A to point B, and kill every obstacle in your way. Sure, there are plenty of “puzzles” and the like, but the moments where combat is absent are solely there to let you breath a sigh of relief as you prepare for the next encounter. Ninja Gaiden gives the player many options to dispatch the enemy. In fact, I would go so far to say that there are too many, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Each person will find their particular niche in the system, and work according to those mechanics. Say, for example, I am a very defensive player and I tend to choose weapons that protect me from all sides in the ever-expanding onslaught. Most likely, I’ll choose a weapon like the Vigoorian Flail/Nunchaku, as they deal with a wide crowd of enemies with ease, provided I time my attacks correctly. The Flail can be used for crowd control, hitting multiple enemies at the same time and racking up huge combo totals in the process. Perhaps I am more offensive, and wish to play in a hit and run manner with incredibly powerful strikes that behead enemies in several blows of the blade; I may choose the Warhammer, or its clone the Dabilhro, in combat situations. Long-range combat with arrows, magic and the like can also be an option. There are many decisions like this in Ninja Gaiden – the rules are presented clearly and without holding your hand. There’s no tutorial to speak of, and you are basically thrust into a very difficult first level without any prior explanations; one just simply “learns”, rather than being forced to sit through a boring sequence where the game treats me like I have no idea how to use a controller.

Certainly, I cannot say this game is accessible for the layman – if you are looking for a “good time” or simply to “relax”, this game is not going to meet your expectations. The combat demands to be learned, and learned well, like a complicated fighting game. The Dead or Alive series (not surprisingly headed by the same director as Ninja Gaiden) bears striking similarities to Ninja Gaiden not only in superficial ways. The dial-a-combo system (as in pressing a number of buttons in sequence to perform attacks) returns here, as well as an emphasis on counterattacks and dodges. Whereas in Dead or Alive the block +foward or diagonal forward (for low attacks) is used, Ninja Gaiden necessitates a much larger control scheme and simply uses its attack buttons while blocking at the moment an enemy attacks. To demand that the player willingly relinquish their defenses would simply be madness – the odds are stacked against you here. The main character, Ryu Hayabusa also has air attacks which come into great use (the diving Flying Swallow, or Divine Cicade Slash, are both effective), and several command throws. Ryu can jump and dodge through rolls to great effect (rolling jumping ends up being the most effective tool in the game at points, as well) Although many say that the main strategy is to balance offense and defense when fighting, I believe it goes more like this:

1.Block like a madman. Blocking stops nearly everything in this game

2.Wait for a proper time to strike or counter.

3.Kill enemy in the most efficient way possible

4.Repeat, roll/jump to next enemy.

Of course, there are a variety of enemies and most tend to be melee attackers, but projectile wielding killers are always thrown into the mix, and you must be wary of them; not only do they interrupt your combos, they can open you up for insane amounts of damage from other foes attacking you at the same time. One has to prioritize about which targets are the most dangerous and eliminate them quickly – these tend to be large creatures, or those with dangerous explosive projectiles. There’s no time for “stylish play” like Devil May Cry. This is not about combos; it’s about survival, using your reflexes to their best effect with the tools at hand to, quite literally, act like a ninja should. In this respect, Ninja Gaiden forces you to treat every encounter as a life and death situation and act accordingly. Once you dedicate to an attack, it is impossible to interrupt; therefore, you must be fully invested in your particular attack; good timing is a requirement. Over time, the encounters will become easier only because the seriousness of the situations is beat into you over and over again with the constant presence of the “Game Over” screen. You will see it constantly, and unless you are dedicated, you will see it forever. Perseverance is necessary to finish the game.

This does not even touch upon bosses, which exist in their own category. Boss strategies are hit and run affairs; stop moving for a second, and prepare for instant death. Ninja Gaiden is not so much “hard”, as much as it heavily punishes the mistakes of the player. Make a wrong move, and a half of your life is gone. The boss fights only exacerbate the necessity to “not make mistakes”. Sure, one could simply spam health potions throughout the fight, but even the highest level of challenge here can be won without taking a single hit. It requires practice, certainly, but it is possible. Every fight, even the boss fights, are fair – they are just more intimidating than most, considering how they require last-second dodges. Soon enough, pattern recognition develops and the boss can be eliminated as every other enemy. The roll jump is invaluable here, as well as restraint; certainly, large combos can be used on bosses like Alma in Chapter 7, who remains vulnerable only after a well-timed Flying Swallow, but most players will simply be punished for trying for too much. If I go for a simple X, X, X combo, it should be sufficient, but I can try for the air combo X, Y, X, X, X, X if I positioned myself well and know how long she will be down after the Flying Swallow. If I remain too close, she may use here unblock able grab attack, taking half of my life, or melee me for huge damage. Too far, and she will constantly fling energy balls and columns from the room which she is fought in. Thus, I need to learn when to stun her (such as right before an attack) and how long I have to damage here before she starts the assault. Again, these are split-second decisions that have to be made, and the game is all the better for them. Every mistake made is a mistake of the player, not the enemy; they do not make mistakes. Bosses tend to include varied tactics as well; some require purely ranged means of attack, while others make the player get in close to do damage, and dodge their attacks the rest of the time. Their requirements are stringent, and may require different strategies from regular combat; thus, not only do they provide a stiff obstacle, but variety as well.

However, much ado has been said about the supposedly “terrible” camera angles this game imposes upon the player. In most situations, a designer-chosen camera angle rules the day (unless you are playing Ninja Gaiden Black, but the situation only allows control in wide open areas). In some cases, this makes jumps difficult, or results in a “surprise attack”. However, wouldn’t enemy want to catch you off-guard? Perhaps one does not always have the best viewing angle when making a jump? I find the fact that enemies attack me from behind or an unseen angle not so much “cheap” as I do see them as part of being aware. Ninja Gaiden forces you to keep your guard up, lest a horde of Black Spider Ninjas cut you up and blow you to smithereens with incendiary shurikens. These design choices are intentional, not flaws in the design. The game emphasize this “I am a ninja” theme because you are playing a ninja, and anything it can do to contribute to this role play of sorts is much appreciated. Ruthless, efficient, aware – that is the law of Ninja Gaiden, and if you cannot handle it, I suggest playing something simpler.

Another obstacles pertains to the life bar – it does not refill automatically. There are plenty of health items if you use them sparingly, but otherwise one’s life can get quite low, and there is no automatic health generation here (except with the use of a special armlet). The game does reward the player with health after fighting enemies in some cases, as well as money to buy new abilities, but this requires the player to actually win fights and do them without taking any damage. Ninja Gaiden encourages you to get better as you play, and every system in its power enhances this sentiment.

Of course, there are genuine flaws – there is too much exploring, for one. I want to fight some more, and though it is fine to have some downtime, there are stretches of the game (such as the whole early Vigoor Empire sequence) that require too much exploration and work to find simple items. Provide the player with optional fight sequences if he desires the rare items in the game, such as increases in total health. I should not have to search around for hours finding this key or that key to progress – the main mechanic of the game should be emphasized, and nothing else should impede my game time. The puzzles tend to be inane and simple as well. Why leave them in at all? Ninja Gaiden could have benefited from a more linear presentation (like its sequel, for example) that placed more emphasis on the combat, providing a wider array of enemies and needed strategy.

These are minor complaints, however; Ninja Gaiden is worth the patience. The more effort you expend, the better it becomes in turn. If you choose to keep playing, it will provide as much challenge as you desire. It truly is the best action game I have played in a long time, surpassing efforts like Devil May Cry 3 (whose battle system had unparalleled variety). It works because it asks more of the player than we wish to give; learn the system and mechanics, and the game will reward you effort.

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