Release Date: March 2, 2004
Buy 'NINJA GAIDEN': Xbox
Prince of Onimusha Slices XBox
Did you know that Ninja Gaiden was originally Ninja Gaijin? You see, the original Ryu was a white guy, hence the Gai-Jin, which is a not so nice Japanese word used for white people. Incidentally, in Chinese the word is Gwae-Lo and in Korean it is Pei-Gin. Anyhow, racial epithets aside, Ninja Pei-Gin…er…Gaiden, is one of the latest top flight titles out exclusively for XBox. Tecmo's Team Ninja (the very team that brought you the Dead or Alive franchise, including that volley ball game) has been working on this title for what seemed like an indefinite amount of time. Indeed, Ninja Gaiden was beginning to broach the realm of vaporware as it had been promised so long ago and delayed many times since then. Now, the waiting is over and it can be affirmed that the wait was worth it and the hype is for real.
Ninja Gaiden (herein referred to as NG) is a 3D action/adventure game where you control a ninja through a tale of rage and revenge that revels in cinematic zest and intense gameplay. The best aspect of NG is not the graphics or epic storyline, it is the mechanics. I usually grow tired or frustrated with games like NG. Comparable titles would be Onimusha, Rygar, Devil May Cry, you get the idea. Usually after a while I grow annoyed with some sort of intransigent gameplay mechanic which makes me grumble, "Why the Hell can't I do that?"
NG maneuvers around gameplay shortcomings with an élan I have yet to experience. I liked the gameplay functions of Prince of Persia a great deal. I thought the maneuvers you could pull were mind blowing and fluid. NG takes POP's fluidity to new heights. You see, NG's control schema and functions simply make sense. Ryu does this when you do that and you nod in agreement. You can block nearly instantly when you pull the left trigger. While blocking you can duck or dodge out of the way by tapping the analog stick in a direction. Time it right and you can counter out of a block with a devastating attack. Jumping is context sensitive so if you leap into a wall, you're given a chance to vault yourself in another direction.
The control you have over Ryu is extensive and deep and changes depending on Ryu's current situation. You can wall ride, reverse your jumps off of walls, shimmy across ledges and vault onto plateaus. Take into account all the variations of these maneuvers and you have a fully articulated hero that can really interact in his environment in a meaningful and impressive way. Should you see NG in action then you'll understand. Ryu, in the controls of a warmed up gamer, can do things that no other avatar can do and do it with ease. Just know what button to go with and when to go and you'll find yourself satisfied with what you're doing to the various foemen in this game.
Graphically, NG dazzles the mind. I found the aesthetic design choices to be a little at odds during the development of the game, but the differences are only truly glaring in the beginning. NG begins with Ryu in a traditional pajama get-up bounding around a Japanese village with a distinct Sengoko Era flavor. Your foes are even armor clad Samurai and phantom like ninja. Now, the modeling, animation and texture work for these models are astounding to say the least. The articulation of the joints looks natural and lifelike. The uniforms, while the same from foe to foe, are highly detailed. Then after what plays out to be the "intro" level of this little ninja village, you're then transported to an air ship (?) where you are now fighting near-futuristic soldiers with stun batons and pistols. Soon you'll find yourself in the proverbial pits of Hell. As you progress into the story you see the fulfillment of the somewhat cliché prologue where an evil demon, Lord Doku, wants the Dragon Blade (which has unspeakably evil powers beyond anyone's imagination) so he can, ready, rule the world. Along the way more characters are interspersed and introduced and all carry themselves with a graphical flare that screams style and for over substance and function. Am I complaining? No.
The graphical intensity of the 3D environments is breathtaking. The maps try to not be linear and are designed with minimal backtracking in mind (thank you) but most importantly these are fully realized and integrated 3D environments. If you see a long staircase running along a wall to a street below, you can skip the stairs and jump down to the street. That same street runs around a corner and into a courtyard and you go along your way without seeing one load screen. There are points where the environment is being loaded, but they are snuck in with grace and subtlety.
In terms of playability, Ryu is equipped with much more than just his sword. You will find that Ryu's Dragon Sword (not the one they sell late night on HSN) is more than up to the task of dispatching samurai, troopers and demons with equal aplomb, especially when you get it upgraded at Muramasa's pit stops along the way. To round things out you can also find a pair of nunchuckus which look pretty cool, but aren't all that practical. You can also, for increased challenge, pick up a bokken (wooden practice sword) which doesn't slice or dice but rather bludgeons. Rounding things out are some not-so-ninja weapons like a giant axe and bladed twirling thingies which are pretty sweet. If you do well and collect the game's secret tokens to trade with Muramasa then you can even get yourself this super-duper sword which is incredibly nasty, but in my opinion looks kind of weird in Ryu's hands.
The sound and music for NG is composed well. The sound effects are good and they become great with surround sound. While not exactly epic, the music is fine but ultimately forgettable. Unlike Halo, where some people know sections of that score by name and own the soundtrack (I'll own up to it); NG isn't making Howard Shore sweat. As for dialogue, the voice acting is competent and smacks of good quality Anime production values, although the voice-overs are nowhere near as good as say Metal Arms: Glitch in the System in which the voice acting induces not only an engrossing conversation but also makes you laugh. I suppose that's not fair for Ryu; as Ninjas aren't exactly known for their sense of humor, but I call'em as I see'em.
All in all, Ninja Gaiden stands out in my mind as a top tier title in all respects. I am hard pressed to find any quibbles or criticisms. Tecmo could have easily chinced out on any multiplayer functionality because a 3D action/adventure game doesn't lend well to Live play, however Team Ninja went forth and tried to innovate with a Master Ninja Tournament in which you can compete in online events to see just who really is the Master Ninja. Not exactly my bag, but for you uber-133t h@x0r5 who want to 0wnz some n00b5, then by all means tourney away. If there is one complaint I have it is totally preferential as it has to do with the save system. Personally, I hate it when I die just before the next save point and have to go through fifteen minutes of what I just played. Usually I curse the TV out and toss the controller and turn the console off. I found myself doing a few times in the middle of NG after dying. Also, there are times when I have to put the controller down and get something done right now, such as walk my dog before he explodes with urine and feces and leaving my system and TV on for an hour or so while I walk him is hardly a solution. If anything, it's wasteful. So, there you have it, Ninja Gaiden's biggest flaw is that it is not ecologically sound. In all other regards, it rocks.
Score : 9.5/10
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