Why I Love: Ninja Gaiden II

Punish me!

If by a man's work shall ye know him, Tomonobu Itagaki is a smashed Xbox 360 control pad. In fact, he's a special kind of smashed Xbox 360 control pad. He's the kind that was desecrated in a frenzied tantrum of bile and frustration, its destruction soundtracked by a stream of vitriolic swearwords so extreme any senior citizens within earshot would spontaneously combust.

This is because Itagaki is the man who presided over the creation of Ninja Gaiden II. It is a very easy game to hate. And yet I find myself going back to it again and again, like a masochist who just can't walk away from their sadistic other half.

But before I delve into Ninja Gaiden II's dark side, it's fair I point out that there are a lot of things I find instantly gratifying about the game. It looks lovely (at least I think so), the soundtrack is great and the combat is awesome.

I could wax lyrical on meaty controls and globules of claret, but for the purposes of brevity, let's just say I find the sight of Ryu Hayabusa ploughing through corridors of ninjas with a scythe to be an absolute delight.

I came to NGII quite late in the day. I first played it at the same time I was wading through the review code for Final Fantasy XIII. It provided a great counterbalance; having spent hours working through what amounts to an interactive anime, it was refreshing to play a game with a similar visual aesthetic in which, when you pressed a button, your character cut someone's head off.

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Paint the town red: There's a lot of blood flying about in Ninja Gaiden II. A LOT of blood.

I also appreciated (and still do) that all the cut-scenes are short and skippable. There's no point at which the player is forced to sit through a lengthy cinematic which tells part of a ridiculous story it's hard to care about. You're simply given a large sword, presented with a room full of enemies and allowed to get on with it.

However, there are plenty of reasons to take issue with Ninja Gaiden II. In the interests of giving the game a fair shake, we'll start by putting aside its ludicrous story and leering, immature treatment of the fairer sex. Both are pretty abominable, but they don't exactly make Ninja Gaiden II unique among video games produced in the Far East.

Ninja Gaiden II's most notable quality is that it is insanely hard. Perhaps bolstered by the fact the Ninja Gaiden series has a reputation for being challenging, Itagaki's Team Ninja decided the best way forward was to make NGII the most difficult instalment yet. And that this was best done by hamstringing the player right out of the gate.

It doesn't matter how many hours you put in, how many combos you learn or how sparingly you use those Ninpo attacks. The game counters this with enemies which spawn on top of you and bash through blocks like they're made of paper.

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There's something refreshing about lopping off limbs and heads. Or is that just me?

It drops you into boss battles with creatures who can only be defeated with the application of combo-knowledge and lightning reflexes. It stations opponents at hard-to-reach distances, allowing them to bombard you with rockets which you're forced to juggle until you're hanging on to life by a thread.

And then it laughs. It laughs in your face as it ramps up the difficulty by introducing enemies with unblockable attacks, along with opponents who explode and cause damage when beaten. All the while, Ninja Gaiden II strings you along by hinting that button-bashing might actually be enough to win the day. Yet it never is.

But Ninja Gaiden II isn't just difficult in terms of the level of skill it requires. It's difficult in cheap ways, too.

A lot of this is down to the game's atrocious camera. Move it to the right or left of Ryu and it snaps back behind him. Tilt it forward or back to look up or down, and the same thing happens. Attempt to pan around the side and it moves at a grindingly slow pace. All of this would be irritating if you were filming a documentary on the movement of sloths, but when trying to fend off lethal attacks from all sides it's downright infuriating.

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