STAFF REVIEW of Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)

Saturday, March 6, 2004.
by RichVGS

Ninja Gaiden Box art When it comes to cross-console game sequels, it literally is hit or miss. The audience already has predetermined expectations based on previous versions, which means such games are riskier then new concept games. On the other hand, some might say that such games will bring with them instant success because fans who bought into the game before will so again. But the question is can a game series without an entry in over a decade find the old audience, or even an audience period? With Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo once again takes on one of the most popular game series of ?90s and tries to reintroduce older gamers and bring in a whole new audience in 2004. Did their gamble payoff? Did they find that target audience? Did Ninja Gaiden live up to all the hype? The answer, without a doubt, is yes.

In Ninja Gaiden, you assume the role of Ryu Hayabusa, a highly skilled and deadly ninja who, after the massacre of his clan, has one thing on his mind?revenge. Take control of Ryu and venture deep into the world of Vigoor Empire, where challenge after challenge lies ahead for a single rouge ninja. Armed with deadly weapons, beyond belief agility and a will to kill, Ryu just may succeed in his mission. Along the way, Ryu (you) will receive much needed advice from an unknown source via Kunai scrolls to keep him on the right track. But this only brings up more and more questions as far as who is there to help Ryu and who is there to hurt Ryu. Keep your friends close and keep your enemies even closer in this game.

Far too many times interesting storylines get in the way of game play, but thankfully that is not the case with Ninja Gaiden. The cut scenes are nicely spaced out so they usually occur after a long, hard-fought battle, right at the point where your fingers need short break to recover from the button-meshing. Personally, it was usually the cut scenes that caused me to continue playing as opposed to taking a short break. If nothing else, the story will give players a reason to hate the Vigoor Empire (which just fuels the desire to go out and slice and dice some more bad guys).

People are saying this is the best game of 2004 so far. I would go a bit further and say this is the best game of the last year because, if no other reason, the game play is simply amazing. The movement physics are ultra smooth and fast paced. But, the real fun comes from flipping off of walls and (taking a page out of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) wall running to get to areas normally unreachable (or to perform insanely cool fight combos). My personal favorite is starting to wall run, jumping back over the top of a ninja soldier and delivering a big ten hit combo in a matter of seconds.

Speaking of combos and button-meshing, this is what Ninja Gaiden is all about. Switching between sword attacks, hand-to-hand combat and throwing weapons allows for the player to perform multiple hit combos to three or four ninjas at a time. The time to shine here is not against the single boss villain, but when you enter a room and get surrounded by a few ninjas. Sword slash one ninja down, back flip over another while throwing shuriken stars at a late arriving ninja, and finally, slice the head off of the ninja you just jumped over (you do all this in a matter of like five seconds). Now, keep in mind that you probably won?t pull off big combos right away. Much like a fighting game, you have to learn button combos in order to take out a room full of ninjas without getting hit once (or you can just hit buttons randomly and hope it works out).

Let?s review. You have amazing ninja moves and a deadly assortment of weapons at your disposal. What else could a ninja with revenge on the mind need? How about some magic for your troubles. Better known as ?Ninpo,? this magic allows you to pull of attacks that will affect multiple opponents at once. As you venture on, you will find scrolls containing these Ninpo techniques. In order to use these techniques, you must use Ki, which is where you derive your Ninpo power from. Ki can be obtained and refilled as a result of beating ninjas and collecting Ki orbs. These spells include Inferno, Ice Storm and Inazuma (lighting) and are all quite deadly. Inferno is a personal favorite as it allows you to shoot massive fireballs at opponents. Kentucky fried ninja anyone?

The deadliest of all ninjas armed to the teeth?this should be a walk in the park, right? Wrong. The Vigoor Empire does not employ slack-jawed morons. Even the soldier ninjas have some fighting skills. Ryu will be fighting two ninjas on one end of a room and a third ninja will be throwing stars at Ryu. These guys are smart and will try to corner you and even try flanking if there is enough of them and enough room to do it. As far as the bosses go, good luck. The first boss fight I engaged in was more difficult then most final boss fights in recent games. You?ll need to utilize all your ninja skills if you want to get through this alive.

For those of you who have played the previous Ninja Gaiden games, the days of simple side-scrolling action is long forgotten. This new incarnation takes place in a breathtaking, detailed enriched, 3D environment. Graphically, Ninja Gaiden uses all the power of the Xbox and takes it a step further. From the design of the characters, to the simple details, everything looks fantastic. As you walk up an outdoor hallway, you can?t help but notice the leaves falling from the nearby trees and being carried in the wind. The lighting in this game is well detailed too. Shadows in brighter areas and flickering of light in darker areas stays true to life. While the soldier ninjas all look the same in their basic uniforms, the main and supporting players look like finely painted portraits. Stand out characters include the barbarian ninja Murai, hunter Rachel and the ominous Dark Disciple.

Going in hand with the graphics, the sound is just as rich and vibrant. The sound effects in marshal arts games tend to walk a fine line between quality and cheesiness. Ninja Gaiden keeps it simple and realistic here. You really get a sense of the sound quality when the game opens near a waterfall. As you move closer to and further away from the waterfall, the sound fades in and out as it would if you were really there (I know it seems like a small thing to most people, but water seems to get screwed up more then any other sound in most games). Players with surround systems will appreciate the depth of the sound, especially the sound of approaching soldiers which even had me looking behind my back once in a while. The metal on metal hits during fights is some of the best ever. Equally great is the soundtrack. Very peaceful and relaxing during down times and suspenseful during fights scenes. Normally I?m one for custom soundtracks, but I won?t use one here.

Now that we?ve covered so many reasons why this game has lived up to the hype, let?s talk about what?s not so good. After playing for hours and hours, I could only discover two small things that kept this game from getting a perfect score. The first problem is the very occasional buffering issue, which only showed itself twice in ten hours of game play. But I can overlook that with the fast-paced action going on in Ninja Gaiden. The second problem is the camera. Similar to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the camera can be a major enemy during serious fights. Granted, you can reposition the camera by hitting the R button, but in a major battle, especially a boss fight, remembering to hit the R button is difficult. I word of advice would be to hit the R button each time you go around a blind corner so you don?t get jumped by surprise. But aside from those two minor issues, this game is flawless.

Earlier on I referenced audiences that grew up with the Ninja Gaiden series back in the early ?90s. Well now you can relive those early ?90s games because Tecmo has included within the game the first three Ninja Gaiden games in their entirety. So junkies of retro games can rejoice, and young gamers can enjoy some jewels of the past (and I?d argue that the originals are more difficult then the new version). Bad news is that you can?t access the classics right off the bat. As you progress in the new game and achieve master ninja rankings, then you unlock the previous games. Happy hunting.

So what about online play? Well, the bad news is?there is none. But not to worry. You can use Live to post your scores and progress in order to achieve the honor of being the worldwide master ninja. More important then that, Ninja Gaiden does include the downloadable content feature. New weapons and levels (possibly even new Ninpo) will be available for download as time goes on. Personally, I?d like to see some double sword action in the near future.

Like I said before, cross-console game sequels are hit or miss. Well, Tecmo has hit one clear out of the park with Ninja Gaiden. Amazing move physics, button-meshing hit combos, Ninpo, a deadly arsenal of weapons, challenging opponents, downloadable content, classic Ninja Gaiden games can be unlocked, etc. All of these elements add up to a game that is the best of 2004 so far. Very rarely does a game get as much hype as this one did and lived up to it. Thankfully, Ninja Gaiden not only lived up to the hype, the hype did the game no justice. So do yourself a favor, throw up an away message right now, leave your residence, get to a game store and buy this game immediately. You won?t be disappointed.

Overall: 9.6 / 10
Gameplay: 9.8 / 10
Visuals: 9.4 / 10
Sound: 9.6 / 10


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