Version tested: Xbox
If you were to clone John Holmes one hundred times, and then park your creations at the business end of some of the porn industry's finest, you'd still fail to recreate the ferocity of genital eruption that greeted the first promo trailer for Dead Or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball in May 2002.
A little under a year later though, the resultant game proved to be less of a custard geyser [enough of the man milk imagery -Ed] and more of a damp squib, with opinion divided between those who felt it was a meaningless waste of Tecmo's development talent, those who thought it was reasonably unconventional and enjoyable, and a minority of folks who frankly sounded like they were on the take. However we all certainly agreed on one key point: that nobody else on the planet was doing a better job marketing the Xbox' technological superiority. With or without realistic breast physics.
Fast-forward to March 2004, and once again we're floored by the graphical magnificence of a Tecmo game. Only, this time, it's much more than tits and arse - although fans of the DOA ladies will no doubt welcome the arrival of Fiend-hunter Rachel. This time, it's bound to a game befitting the developer's artistic ambition. This time, it's worth ruining some underwear to express our excitement. This time, we're playing Ninja Gaiden.
Ninja Gaiden is the sort of thing we've always wanted Tecmo to make - a dazzlingly gorgeous action game that marries a slow-burning combat system to accepted ninja design theory - running on walls, inexplicable brutality, lightning pace - and justifies its extreme difficulty level with cinematic rewards that belittle the efforts of any other developer tackling the subject matter. Anybody involved in Sega's Shinobi, for example, ought to be hanging their heads in shame by the time severed noggins start rolling a few minutes beyond the title sequence. This is how it's meant to be done, guys. Take note.
In fact, you can scratch that comment about "cinematic rewards". Even if you stripped out the cut sequences, which at times left us crawling around battered and bruised groping for superlatives on the living room floor, Ninja Gaiden would still be more than worthy of your time, because it does what every modern game really ought to aspire to do: it makes you look and feel incredibly cool a hell of a lot of the time. Within an hour of picking up the pad you'll be running around on walls, leaping from the shoulders of your enemies and tossing handfuls of shuriken at advancing reinforcements while your blade cauterises anything it touches.
An hour later you'll be getting to grips with the subtleties of the combat system, and refining your approach in the face of superior adversaries, so that you can uppercut them into the sky and then juggle them on wave after wave of fearsome blows, before pile-driving them headfirst into the ground and watching them explode in a shower of gore. It captures the essence of what every gamer wants from the word "ninja" - graceful, exhilarating, impossible violence that up until now only the big screen has been able to convey - and all without sacrificing any of the variety, challenge, longevity or addictiveness we've come to demand from the very best games. It's a gamer's game, and it looks stunning to boot.
Granted, it would be wrong to claim it's not without its flaws, and your mileage may vary where some of them are concerned, but, if you ask me (and by clicking the link you basically did), allowing them to spoil the experience would be like crying over a stolen car the day after you win the National Lottery. In the grand scheme of things, a few quid lost to joyriding hoodlums shouldn't bog you down while there's a life-altering slip of paper tucked in your wallet. Or, in this case, throbbing inside your Xbox. I'm sure you understand what I'm saying: to fall back on standard discussion thread parlance, it's "better than Halo".
The Path of the Ninja
Anyway, by now you've probably grasped that I rather like this Ninja Gaiden lark, so I probably ought to get on with explaining why it's so good. Ignoring the graphics (oh we'll get back to them, don't you worry), in gameplay terms it all starts off unassumingly enough, as you steer young ninja Ryu Hayabusa through the confines of a rocky valley in third-person, learning how to run up and along walls and use the environment to your advantage as you go. It isn't long though before you're getting your first taste of the game's combat system, fashioning crude X-button-mashing sword combos out of fairly basic sword fodder enemies, and tearing around a Ninja Fortress gawping at the ease and speed with which you can spin through the air and whip your sword about like a true warrior. But these faltering swipes and thrusts are merely the tip of the iceberg in combat terms, and it isn't long before greater numbers of foes force you to cast your frenzied wall-running and ninja play-set fantasies aside and work on blocking and picking the ideal moment to strike. Only then can you start to develop and deploy truly acrobatic ninja tactics.
After a ferocious start though, in structure at least Ninja Gaiden subsequently reveals itself as a fairly conventional third-person action slash-'em-up, albeit fashioned with an adventuring mentality and level design that stands stronger than most, and obviously took its lead from the combat. You work your way through a series of 16 levels (or chapters), gradually gathering combat proficiency and learning advanced techniques, buying supplies, upgrading your arsenal and advancing the plot, which sets Ryu on a collision course with the master of the Vigor empire, who seems to have lain waste to his sacred village home in pursuit of an evil dragon sword.
The levels are much less linear than those in some other, similar titles, and you'll have to worry about maps and finding your way around just as much as the (sadly respawning) bands of enemies who await you, but on the whole the non-linearity seems to be worth the hassle of juggling a sometimes awkward map system. The chapter six boss for instance - an enormous skeletal dragon literally 20 times the size of Ryu - wouldn't be quite so effective if you didn't wander past his slumbering frame early on, and spend the rest of the level toiling around with the spectre of an impending showdown weighing heavily on your mind. That's barely a spoiler by the way - in over 20 hours of gameplay he's actually one of the weaker enemies you'll face.
Non-linearity aside, there are plenty of other elements the average action-adventure fan will be able to relate to immediately. There are secret bits scattered hither and thither, some more obvious than others; fallen enemies leave floating blobs of yellow soul juice behind - the game's currency - or life-replenishing blue orbs to unwittingly aid your progress; the game often points you in the right direction, periodically teaches you new things and offers you incentive to explore via a system of hint scrolls, which crop up here and there or whistle past your head wrapped round a throwing dart; and most levels culminate in a boss encounter that forces you to look for patterns and exploit weaknesses to avoid exotic and heavily damaging attacks. Like being shaken violently and then shot in the face at close range by a frothing handheld plasma coil.
As the glowing praise at the top of the piece implies though, there are plenty of things that set Ninja Gaiden apart from the average actiony slasher. It's all miraculously accessible and responsive, for a start, even if it is harder than a concrete elephant from time to time. Your basic concerns are movement (left stick), centring the camera (right trigger), jumping (A), slashing (X), blocking (left trigger), and using your more powerful attack (Y) and projectile weapons (B).
Extensions of the basic principles of ninjadom are fairly logical - if you opt for a bow and arrow instead of shuriken, pressing B brings up a first-person aiming view, allowing you to unleash an accurate volley as quickly as your Halo-honed thumbs allow. If you want to attack the nearest enemy directly, you can call on a special jump that heads directly for them. If you want to run on the walls or leap between them, you just jump towards them and hold that direction, then spring off at an angle by jumping again and directing Ryu's flight - and not necessarily at a right angle like a certain popular Persian Prince, either. If you want to call upon 'Ninpo' magical powers and attacks, you can unleash them by pressing Y and B together. If you want to develop your combat technique, special attacks and combinations are just strings of face buttons and directions lashed together according to the secrets of the ninja (secreted rather invitingly on the pause menu). And if you find time in battle, you can also call upon Ultimate Techniques, sucking in the rising souls of enemies by holding the Y button and then letting go to have Ryu disembowel adversaries at lightning speed. Or whatever his current weapon does.
Ninja followers might be expecting a spot of stealth to offset the carnage, but Tecmo seems content to let the blood flow and leave the creeping around to the likes of Tenchu. And who can blame them? Especially when you consider how varied the combat system is. Over the 20 [Tom] hours [that's about 30 odd of mine from experience -Ed] or so of gameplay (and we can't really emphasise that bit enough; this is a long game compared to what you usually get from this genre), you'll never experience two battles that pan out in precisely the same way. To be honest, it's surprising more beat-'em-up developers don't apply their craft to the third-person genre with this level of success. The AI of your enemies grows in complexity and dynamism from chapter to chapter, and you can't simply advance by remembering how to attack individual types as you might expect - instead you'll have to improvise and react on the fly; you'll actually have to learn how to block and fight effectively; and the game will give you greater rewards for skilful combat and especially the use of Ultimate Techniques, which act as a multiplier for the soul power rising out of the remains of fallen enemies.
Even the boss fights, which ought to be more rigid and predictable than roaming enemies, often surprise you by changing in pace or ferocity from bout to bout - I only encountered the aforementioned skeleton dragon boss's bite attack on my fifth attempt to topple him, for example. In fact, the only real complaint about Ninja Gaiden's combat system - which is basically 90 per cent of the game - is that there's almost too much at your disposal by the end, with weapons like the Vigor Flail or nunchakus that you could just as well leave to rot in your inventory. Hrm. Then again, as a reviewer you know you're being forced to nitpick when you're fashioning diversity and replayability into some form of criticism...
You could however quite reasonably argue that the difficulty curves upwards a bit beyond the reach of the average gamer, and that there are too many instances particularly towards the end when you simply don't have enough health elixirs to continue making progress, and falling back to a previous save game becomes necessary. Backtracking is generally possible, but it's not ideal because enemies tend to respawn along the way, meaning that if you can't go forward you probably stand just as little chance of being able to going back - with ninjas, dinosaur-like fiends and floating zombie-conjuring variants, not to mention all manner of undead adversaries more than happy to take some time out from lurking and standing around to pummel your shrouded face into the cobblestones of Tairon or wherever.
But while Ninja Gaiden is hard, it generally manages to avoid slaughtering you unless it's expressly your own fault. Generally. If you were to slip into bottomless pits because you held the wrong directional button or something, it wouldn't be too hard to complain, but thankfully something like this only happened to me once, even if it was directly after a boss encounter (grr). Fail to decapitate a skeletal zombie, though, and you haven't much cause for complaint if it manages to grab hold of you and chew your throat away before you can administer an elixir. In my view, while it's fair to say that some gamers will find this too intimidating an undertaking, it's worth rehashing the same argument that applied to Viewtiful Joe - those in search of a challenge will appreciate the need to practice and learn how to play it in lieu of easy success. A lot of games with really deep and enjoyable combat systems often fail in this regard, and Tecmo's deserves praise, not criticism, for tailoring Ninja Gaiden in this manner.
And, besides the difficulty, the column in my notebook marked 'problems' is rather on the short side, and most of the items on it are fairly minor. Let's see what I've got. Ah - I morally object to 'find the key' puzzles, for example, but - oh - these ones are neither hard nor the real focus of your activities. Aha! I also sometimes yearned for an on-screen mini-map! But, well, I don't think it would have made that much difference in the long run. Dammit. I can at least state with some conviction that I was "mildly irritated" (it says 'ere) when I encountered lengthy and unskippable cut-scenes on the path between pre-boss save spots and boss-fights themselves. I can also complain that certain sections outstay their welcome, but at least there aren't too many occasions when you find yourself completely lost. And, really, there aren't too many nasty things I can bring myself to say about Ninja Gaiden...
You've (Not) Been Framed
Except, that is, in one case - a simple and recurring problem in third-person games that I'd be a fool to ignore here: the camera system. Now, I'm always the first with daggers in my eyes when a reviewer lets a game off the hook for failing to implement a proper third-person camera system - God knows developers have had long enough to figure the bloody things out by now - and I find it depressing that some reviewers are already claiming they had no problem at all with the camera in Ninja Gaiden. They lie! However, in all honesty, I did feel - presumably like them - that in the case of this game it was something I was prepared to put up with, however effing annoying it becomes at times.
Oh all right. [Mouths to site operator: "Disengage fanboy protocol."] Looking at it objectively, with a lack of right-stick mapping (the right stick is used for looking around in first-person while stationary), the "centre camera behind Ryu" command simply isn't enough to make up for the game's sometimes woeful inability to figure out what it might be useful to see, not to mention its failure to adopt the right angles for ease of movement.
It's bad enough trying to leap back and forward between walls when the camera angle and your stick movements prove slightly incongruous; or trying and failing to leap between walls in a narrow alley and then having to wrestle the camera back into a good position to try it again. But battle sequences here are frenetic affairs, and if you die it probably isn't simply a case of picking up from five seconds earlier, as the game can be quite stingy with its save points. So there's a very real prospect, on those occasions when the camera fails to frame the whole scene and the screen fades to Game Over, that you'll slam the pad down in frustration and subsequently bruise your knuckles when you try and punch a sofa cushion and wind up hitting a wooden armrest. (Not that I did that, mind. Cough.) And of course, if you're not getting paid to play it, you'll probably give up for the evening and walk away fuming. Not good.
Star of the Show
Ultimately though it's a question of tolerance, and if you can tolerate the game's most niggling shortcoming then you're going to wind up loving Ninja Gaiden just as much as I do. And, to return to the game's most obvious asset, at least part of that love stems from the fact that almost no other game on any console system looks as beautiful as this one - with the possible exception of ICO [which I promise you doesn�t look quite as beautiful as you remember it when you stretch it out on a giant widescreen telly -Ed]. Almost every aspect is worthy of praise. Ryu is exquisitely detailed in his figure-hugging ninja suit, with flapping sash and dauntingly well-animated routines in every circumstance - whether he's swinging between poles, running across the surface of a glistening and playfully reflective lake, racing along walls or performing any of a thousand different combat moves. His sword is particularly remarkable, warping the air around it with every slash and thrust, and acting with precision to visibly parry multiple blows during close quarters confrontations.
Ryu's enemies are also impressive from the lowliest foot soldiers up to the consistently dazzling boss creatures. There are some weak links - the green hourglass-shaped zombie warriors are pretty passť, as is the tentacle fiend boss - but these barely linger when you're also up against lumbering skeletal zombies, who swing ridiculously heavy weapons around with immense difficulty, and keep fighting even after their heads and arms have been severed completely (without a trace of Python-esque absurdity, either!).
Moreover, it's the sheer cohesiveness and almost flawless composition of the graphics engine that gives it the edge over everything else on the system. The Vigorian environmental design, which drags the game out of familiar looking oriental environments and through a rich tapestry of quaint Prague-like city streets and waterfronts, then on through underground caverns and into more industrial and militaristic playgrounds, at times has you hammering the floor rhythmically with your jaw in appreciation. Every angle has been sanded down to a barely detectable edge, whether it's Ryu's rippling muscles or the intricately detailed marble columns lining the interior of a church hall, with reflections, shadows and lighting effects in general that are consistently on a par if not superior to Dead or Alive 3 or DOA XBV - chopping down with a well-aimed Windmill Shuriken the concerns of those who thought the Xbox couldn't handle that level of detail in a 'proper' game.
The Spirits Within
It's also hard to talk about the visual side of Ninja Gaiden without mentioning the ocean of blood that Ryu will spill on his mission to Vigor, although despite worries that it will catch the attention of censors in Europe, it's not actually that wanton by comparison to something like Kill Bill Vol.1 or, in gaming terms, the last Mortal Kombat title. Indeed, you'd almost feel a bit jipped by the lack of bloodstained battlegrounds and the rarity of limb loss, were it not for the uplifting sight of a well-measured decapitation every now and then, and the frame rate, which only stoops from its position of inscrutable consistency on a couple of very rare occasions.
Then there are the cut sequences. Tecmo is of course renowned for its mastery of CG, and you could happily argue that here it rivals Square Enix's videogame related efforts - though perhaps not FF The Spirits Within or FFVII: Advent Children. It takes what you do in the game and makes it look even better, framing cinematic moments with grit and fire - with blood gushing out of broken bodies and pyrotechnics the likes of which would prevent James Cameron standing up for a few minutes.
Indeed, technically speaking it's easy to see where all the development resources went, and why Tecmo's Tomonobu Itagaki hasn't shied away from making seemingly outrageous claims in the press. Ninja Gaiden extracts every last drop of power from the Xbox and ticks all the right boxes, including widescreen and 5.1 surround sound naturally. It even has the option of subtitled Japanese language voice-overs for those who think American videogame voice actors are overpaid under-performers. Listening to it in Japanese also helps mask the passable narrative from that much criticism - fortunately though it never dominates proceedings to the detriment of the gameplay, so it's not worth laying into it.
A Ninja In Every Way
Honestly, if you can get past the failings of the camera system and the few other trifling problems I've mentioned, this ought to take its rightful place alongside Halo and Knights of the Old Republic as part of a key troika of influential fantasy titles on Xbox. And even though Microsoft UK has yet to definitively confirm that European gamers will be able to take part in the Master Ninja Tournament, the lack of a Live aspect from day one doesn't even weigh on our minds. We know you'll get more enjoyment out of this than virtually every game due this side of Christmas. Those of you with American or (cough) the correctly equipped Xbox consoles would be well advised to pick this up right now instead of waiting for the PAL conversion, because you've never played a game that's simultaneously as gorgeous, entertaining, inviting and downright hardcore as Ninja Gaiden. No other game manages to deliver on the potential of controlling a ninja with this much flair and authority - it is one of the finest action games ever made. Sever my spinal cord if I'm lying [snip -Ed].
9 / 10