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