Ninja Gaiden (2004, XB)

By Gotama / March 2, 2004

Ninja Gaiden is the best 3D brawler ever made. It stands head and shoulders above anything else in the genre, in all aspects. It is a must-have title for any Xbox owner and the single biggest reason to buy an Xbox after Halo.
   Ninja Gaiden borrows a bit from other games in the genre (especially Devil May Cry, and this is a very good thing), but it refines it. The leveling system in particular feels like DMC's, with the glowing orbs you collect from fallen enemies and the way you use them to purchase new weapons and items and upgrade your equipment (which allows you to use more moves). The combat too has a few nods to DMC, with the combo counter and the system where the higher a combo used to dispatch an enemy, the larger the orb left behind.
   Those similarities aside, however, Ninja Gaiden takes the combat introduced in DMC and refines it to such an incredible level of depth and purity that it feels generations ahead of it. Ryu Hayabusa has a lot of moves, far more than any other character in an action game, and that's just with one of his many weapons.
   Ryu has lots of style. You know how in Shinobi you can achieve a stylish little cinematic where the enemies are cut in half if you kill a group of them fast enough? In Ninja Gaiden, you can (and often will) do that stuff in real time, as you kill wave after wave of enemy ninjas, demons, soldiers, and anything else foolish enough to get in your way.

   It's hard to describe the action in Ninja Gaiden. This is not a mere button-masher: there is a lot of freedom and options in combat: block the ninja's attack, then counter? Roll away and slash his back? Roll away and do a launcher move to air-combo him? Jump off a wall and cut off his head? Use shuriken to stun him, then do a zig-zag slash to cut off his head and that of his friend who is trying to sneak up behind you? Whatever you decide to do in that kind of situation, the controls are super fluid and responsive.
   The combat is very deep, but the enemy AI is smart. You can button-mash, but you will surely die if you do so. But don't get me wrong: while even the basic enemies in this game are hard, the challenge is so satisfying that you won't mind fighting bosses and even just the tough enemies over and over until you achieve mastery. Provided, of course, that you enjoy challenging videogames and like to invest the time required to become a master of the game. This is not a game for beginners, or even just casual gamers who only play an hour or two a week. It can take a lot of practice to even pass the first few levels, and this game works best when you can devote a few hours of solid time each session. Save points are fairly generous in the beginning of the game but get farther apart as you progress. Bosses are truly challenging as well: many have multiple patterns and strong AI, although nothing ever feels unbeatable, even as you are getting killed by a boss for the twentieth time.
   In terms of graphics and presentation, Ninja Gaiden is tops. Everything is covered in clean, sharp textures, high color and detail are everywhere, the frame rate is rock solid at 60 frames per second all the time, and character designs and art direction are fantastic. The sound effects are clear and sharp, even if a few of them are generic thumps, slices, and slashes. Music is great. The original 8-bit Ninja Gaiden side-scrolling trilogy (also included here as unlockable bonuses) is famous for its great soundtracks, and the new game lives up to that reputation. The music helps drive the action but it's also understated — you won't notice it because the action is so good, and yet part of the reason the action is so good is because of the great soundtrack. On top of this, the load times are super-fast. About two to four seconds loading time before a level, and no noticeable loading after that. It's obvious that Team Ninja has mastered the Xbox hardware.
   All this isn't to say that Ninja Gaiden is flawless, because there are a few minor problems. The first is that the main attack button is also the button that opens doors. Sometimes during heated fights, Ryu will open a door and enter a new room (or an old one) instead of cutting off some ninja heads. This can be annoying. But it's not really Team Ninja's fault — there are only so many buttons on the Xbox controller, and they are all mapped to other important functions. I can't imagine how they could have prevented this from happening, short of releasing a special Ninja Gaiden controller with an extra button just for opening doors.

   The second "problem" is the much lamented camera. Essentially the problem is this: Ryu moves faster than the camera can keep up. With the amount of freedom in Ninja Gaiden, the only way to make the camera always be in the right place is if it knew ahead of time what the player was going to do. In other words, Team Ninja could not have ''fixed'' the camera unless they had also imposed limits on the player's movements (or just fixed the camera into a single perspective à la DMC). As it is, the camera takes some getting used to, but it's also the best camera system for a third-person action game yet. Because the player can center the camera with a single button press, he adapts and begins to use the camera button in between maneuvers and combos. Block-dodge-camera-wall jump-decap ninja-block-camera-combo will become second nature and it will become hard to play other action games with more rigid camera systems as a result. As mentioned above, this is not a game for beginners, or for casual gamers unwilling to invest time into mastering the game. Ninja Gaiden requires a great deal of skill and a great deal of dedication. To those gamers who play on easy and throw the controller when they lose to a game's final boss, Ninja Gaiden might become more of a chore than pleasure. But for hardcore gamers, or just gamers who enjoy challenging games that rely heavily on skill, Ninja Gaiden is a gift. Every gamer worth his or her Xbox should at least play Ninja Gaiden for a few hours, if not just rush out and buy it right away. Gamers without an Xbox should seriously consider buying one just for this game. There is nothing that can touch it in the 3D action category, and there are very few games of this quality in any genre, period.
   An absolute, no doubt about it, masterpiece.

Ninja Gaiden is runner-up to Insomnia's 2004 Game of the Year.