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Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden

“The Hayabusa Village has burned, and the Dark Dragon Blade is gone. Ryu has stowed aboard an Airship headed for Vigoor Empire. His goal: Vengeance”

Within the massive compartment, the steady droning of the airship’s engines is pierced by the sharp report of a gunshot. As you somersault forward, the bullet’s ricochet explodes with a shower of sparks on the metal catwalk mere inches from your head. Transitioning from somersault to full on sprint in one smooth motion, you reach back and rip your katana from its sheath just as two more gunshots sound. Deflecting the bullets with two impossibly quick waves of your sword, you leap high into the air, twisting gracefully above your aggressors. Another muzzle flashes and the resulting bullet pierces the air next to your ear, but you land unaffected on the catwalk and instantly lash out towards the nearest soldier. Cloth, armor and sinew give way with equal ease under the vicious arcing strokes of your Dragon Sword, and within a split second, two of the sentries are collapsing to the floor, lifeblood issuing liberally from numerous fatal wounds.

You turn to face the two remaining guards, eyes belying the bloodlust surging up from within. The fighting instinct of a thousand generations of warriors pours with searing intensity through your veins, infusing you with a skill unmatched in the mortal world. Both soldiers discard their pistols and unsheathe deadly electro-blades, their long reflective surfaces dancing with crackling blue energy. In unison, the soldiers charge, but you alertly roll from harm’s way as their electric blades slash through the space you just vacated. Wheeling on your heels, you send two shuriken tearing through the air, one embedding in the cartilage just above the chest plate of each soldier. As both men stagger in pain, you grip the hilt of your sword tightly and slowly draw the weapon back behind you.

The ancient blade begins to warm in your hands as it probes the area, its unseen tentacles searching for souls that have been newly unchained from their bonds of mortality. Discerning two nearby, the sword pulses blue in anticipation and wrenches the wandering souls in. As the tainted souls strike the blade’s pure surface, a scorching white light envelopes the area, followed immediately by a gigantic shockwave that shudders the entire airship. For an instant, your own soul bonds perfectly with the Dragon Sword and, feeding off the blade’s power, you launch forward in a blur, rematerializing just behind the two soldiers. Slowly lowering your weapon, you hear two heavy objects strike the metal grating of the catwalk. You turn around just in time to see the two headless bodies dropping to the floor, blood erupting from stumps in crimson geysers.

You sheath your katana and pad softly away, completely unaffected by the scene of carnage that lay just behind you. Many have perished before your blade thus far, and countless more are destined to follow, for death is the fate of all who oppose you on this mission of vengeance. Eyes narrowing with hatred as the image of Doku stepping over Kureha’s lifeless body once again flashes with terrible clarity in your mind, you spring off the far wall and up into the inky blackness above.

“In the mountains of Autumn, there is one who walks the path of the Ninja.”

Ninja Gaiden first made its console appearance in 1989 as an extremely challenging, yet completely brilliant action/platformer for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Tecmo, the game’s developer, released two quick sequels to take advantage of the original’s success, and those also achieved near classic status on Nintendo’s 8-bit console. Seeing a golden opportunity to bring back a classic franchise, Tecmo assigned their highly skilled Team Ninja development team (responsible for the Dead or Alive series of fighting games) to create an original Ninja Gaiden for Microsoft’s Xbox system. They knew that the new version not only had to feature all the fast-paced action that made the original trilogy so great, but it also had to make a seamless transition into the 3D dimension – a move that has tripped up many top developers in the past. So, now that the game is out, can it safely be said that Tecmo has achieved these goals? Hell yes, and then some.

To put it bluntly: Ninja Gaiden is a masterpiece. There is no better action game currently available across all consoles. There certainly have been some fantastic entries into the genre over the past several years – Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe and Prince of Persia spring to mind – but none have offered the same combination of brilliant level design, profoundly intuitive gameplay and luscious visuals that Tecmo instilled in this instant classic.

From start to finish, the main element that propels Ninja Gaiden above all others in the action genre is the dazzling combat-based gameplay. The game places you in the role of Ryu Hayabusa – a young ninja who is out for revenge after his village is burned to the ground and the mysterious Dark Dragon Blade that his clan protects is stolen. Ryu will leave his small Japanese village and travel to Tairon, capital of the Vigoor Empire, seeking his vengeance, and during this long journey he will cut a swath through all manners of enemies, from rival ninjas to 300-foot tall skeletal dinosaurs. In most action games, cutting a swath would consist of a few limited combinations, some jump attacks and maybe a few specials thrown in for good measure. Not so in Ninja Gaiden. Team Ninja has made the most of their experience with the Dead or Alive series and imbued Ryu with literally hundreds of fighting maneuvers. He can perform acrobatic attacks off walls, countless combinations, surreal magical assaults, throwing maneuvers and quick counter-attacks. On top of that, he has a wide selection of weapons to choose from, including: his trusty Dragon Katana, massive war axe, speedy nunchuckus and several others, and each of these weapons has a lengthy command list that one would expect to find in a deep one-on-on fighting game.

“The Dragon Sword, said to have been used by ancient warriors to slay the Black Dragons, was wrought during the age of ancient myth from the fang of a Dragon.”

Jaime Griesemer, a member of Halo’s development team, Bungie, once said in an interview that if you can nail 30 seconds of fantastic gameplay, then you can stretch those 30 seconds out over the length of an entire game. With Ninja Gaiden, Team Ninja absolutely nailed those crucial 30 seconds. Every encounter with a group of enemies is a beautiful thing, as you are forced to consider the type and number of enemies attacking, current weapon equipped for Ryu and nature of the immediate environment – all as the ebb and flow of the battle fluctuates wildly. Also, Team Ninja could have settled for including only a handful of common enemies, but instead they threw in dozens of truly unique baddies, each of which have completely different strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. That same combination that worked so well against Vigoorian soldiers may fail miserably when tried on a lumbering Ice Fiend. And that’s not even considering the game’s glorious bosses that will leave you slack jawed and blurry eyed the first time you face them (or should I say – get pummeled by them).

Ninja Gaiden’s excellent combat mechanics are further enhanced by the game’s nonlinear progression and minor RPG-like elements. Though the game is broken up into chapters that encourage you to explore a certain area in order to progress the story, Ryu usually has the freedom to backtrack to virtually any previously traversed location. This refreshing change of pace from the tired stage-to-stage format allows for you to choose exactly what you would like to do, whether it be to go forward to face new and unseen dangers, or to head backwards and earn some essence by vanquishing more familiar enemies. Essence is dropped by all slain common baddies in the game and essentially works as currency for purchasing items and upgrading weapons. This aspect of the game also ties marvelously into the game’s blissful fighting system, as the amount of essence awarded depends entirely upon how many uninterrupted attacks are performed in succession. Tearing into enemies for 50, 100, even 200 straight hits is entirely possible (though very challenging), and will reward the player will massive amounts of essence.

“The evil Dark Dragon Blade – A legendary sword, said to have been carved out of the bones of a Black Dragon; it brought plague and death to the world during the age of ancient myth.”

In a day and age when single player action games average about eight to twelve hours in length, Ninja Gaiden bucks the trend. Not only does it take about 25 hours to beat the first time through, but the game also has the classic Ninja Gaiden Trilogy hidden as unlockables. The emulation quality for these three timeless NES games is near perfect, and Team Ninja even included a simple password system so you no longer have to play through each game in one long session. There are other nifty easter eggs to be uncovered by the beating the game multiple times on every difficulty level, but the main reason you’ll keep coming back is because the gameplay is so totally engrossing. Also included is the Master Ninja Tournament online mode, which will allow gamers to compete in a series of competitions only available through Xbox Live.

Though Ninja Gaiden has been praised virtually unanimously by gaming websites and publications, there have been two main issues that people seem to have a problem with: the lack of story and the camera. It is true that the story takes a back seat to the action, but that is completely acceptable considering Ninja Gaiden is obviously gameplay-driven, not plot or character-driven. And even though emphasis is not placed on story, at many points during the game’s progression, gorgeous Squaresoft quality CGI cinemas do poignantly highlight major events. Also true is that much of the goings on in Tairon will remain unexplained even after completing the game, but one does get a sense of unspoken history just by traversing the extravagant underground aqueducts, ancient crypts, majestic cathedrals and other atmospheric locations. As for those who complain about the camera: it poses no more problems than in any other third person videogame in existence. In fact, it is even less of an issue because of how Ryu blocks in all directions and smartly focuses on the nearest enemy during combat. Also, regardless of where the camera is pointed, Ryu will not fall off any ledges during attacking, running or rolling – very helpful in limiting those infuriating pit related deaths that happened so frequently in the original Ninja Gaiden Trilogy.

“What is the hidden power behind the evil Dark Dragon Blade? How true are the atrocious tales of death and suffering brought on by the blade’s twisted curse?”

There are many attractive games available for the Xbox, but most of them are suddenly transformed into week-kneed imposters when compared to the visual superiority of Ninja Gaiden. All of the environments in the game, whether it is a quaint Japanese village, sweltering magma cavern or demonic spire, are unbelievably gorgeous and filled to the brim with minute details that most games completely overlook. For example: while traversing ancient tombs, exposed fossils can be seen periodically on the rough rock walls. In underground aqueducts, water trickles realistically out of cracks and exposed sections of piping. Larger bodies of water — like the channels in Tairon or the ancient underground rivers — undulate and dynamically reflect the surroundings. Not since Metroid Prime has a game’s environments been so varied and beautiful, and the plethora of masterful visual touches will keep you yearning to see what is around the next corner.

Like the environments, Ryu himself is exquisitely modeled. His movements are all fluid and lifelike, no matter if he is sprinting along a wall, tossing multiple shuriken or unleashing a wicked combo on a nearby enemy. Little touches abound, such as how you can actually see equipped weapons on Ryu’s in-game character model, either strapped across his back or hung from his belt. One of the best visual effects in the game occurs when Ryu simply swings his Dragon Blade. As the sword rips through the air, the environment behind the arc is stylishly blurred and distorted to give a sense of rapid motion. The various enemies in the game, whether they be the Vigoorian troopers, with their badass suits and glowing red eyes, or the demonic Fiends, with their glistening red skin and lumbering gaits, all look universally fantastic. Even the pesky cave bats look marvelous, as they flutter and swoop convincingly about the environments. The cherry on top of everything mentioned above is a framerate that stays looked into “super smooth” 100% of the time. The only “flaw” noticeable with Ninja Gaiden’s entire visual package is the fact that Ryu himself is not reflected by water or slick floor surfaces.

The game’s soundtrack is a memorable one, and features a wide variety of tunes ranging from energetic guitar riffs to majestic, sweeping scores. There were a few instances during the attack on the military base when the music seemed to be too keyed up to the point of actually becoming a bit tiring. But this complaint only refers to only a few minutes of gameplay out of 25 hours; so needless to say it is a very minor nitpick. Thankfully, Tecmo did a very smart thing by including the original Japanese voice acting. You do have the option to listen to the English dubbing, but it is a bit flat when compared to the original voice work, so it is recommended to go with the Japanese. The general sound effects in the game are up to the same level of excellence exhibited in every other area. Everything from the piercing shriek of a Sewer Fiend to the harsh metallic grating of Ryu’s sword as it rakes across a cavern wall is spot on and makes the game’s combat that much more engrossing.

“Dragon Sword gripped firmly in his grasp, young ninja Ryu Hayabusa steps forward to meet his destiny and uncover the shadowy mysteries surrounding the evil Dark Dragon Blade.”

Ninja Gaiden nestles snugly between Halo and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as the second best game on the Xbox system. All fans of the action genre should consider it absolutely mandatory to have this game in their collection, and even those who have shied away from traditional linear action titles in the past should go pick it up. Hell, if you are seventy years old and your idea of gaming is a trip down to the local casino to hit the slots, you should still go out immediately and purchase Ninja Gaiden. Games like this only come out once every blue moon and there is no telling when something comparable will be released.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

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