Perhaps it's the signature moments that separate great games from good. The classics are brave enough to linger over that single, defining action, while merely decent games let their competent mechanics blur together in a friendly muddle. That's why the killer bounce-and-rebound in Mario is a thousand times more satisfying than bottom-stomping baddies in a dozen other platformers, and why slicing enemies into chunks in Ninja Gaiden, screaming down out of the sky, dragon sword glinting in the neon and cherry blossom, is just more effective and exhilarating than chopping up chumps in other fighting games. Signature moments separate the great from the good, and Team Ninja's signature moments separate limbs from torsos and heads from necks at the same time. It's kind of beautiful, really.
This is dismembering to remember, then, and no one understands that better than the people who actually make the games. Brand expression goes deep, too: at a recent press event for Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 - PS3's inevitable rebalancing of last year's Ninja Gaiden II - every executive's name flashed up on the PowerPoint accompanied by a concise shriek of tempered blade over the sound system, suggesting, perhaps, that the role-call of mild-mannered corner-office types announcing the merger of Tecmo and Koei might possess secret double-dangerous ninja skills alongside MBAs from the world's finest business schools. It certainly added an air of unpredictable danger to the ensuing Q&A session.
Mostly, however, the Q&A was about what people can expect from the latest Sigma - what NGII has picked up or sacrificed in the transition between platforms and the space of a year's extra consideration. Those of a technical disposition will already be aware of the key differences, the trade-off between memory and vertex shaders which the shift to PS3 has brought about, while, on a more hyperbolic bent, Team Ninja itself is suggesting that this will be the culmination not just of the Ninja Gaiden series to this point, but all action games in general. That sounds lovely! But alongside the hype and the specs, there's a handful of more obvious differences too.
Chief amongst them is the expanded cast, as Ryu Hayabusa is joined by a trio of new playable characters. Typically for Team Ninja, these characters are all ladies, and even more typically, they're the kind of ladies you rarely see when you're pottering about in Superdrug looking for eardrops. Ayane, the butterfly-bowed lilac death-doll from Dead or Alive, makes an appearance - a faster character for a game that was hardly slow in the first place, built for close-up knifings and blasts of knock-down spells. Backing her up is Momiji, first spotted in the DS's Dragon Sword, and a bit trickier to get to grips with initially, for us at least: a technically-skilled fighter with a much longer reach due to her mastery of the naginata.
Finally, just announced is Rachel, from the original Ninja Gaiden. She wasn't available in the demo, but apparently she wields an axe and a machinegun. Alongside offering a different approach to the combat, the new characters also have their own storylines - divergent rambles that fold in and out of Ryu's tale as a kind of sub-plot system, suggesting each narrative will probably have a handful of new areas sprinkled into the main campaign, and a few different cut-scenes.
Sigma 2 also has new online features. The focus is on co-op, rather than versus modes, in keeping with the strengths of the series, but it's not full-on campaign multiplayer - at least not yet. Instead, two players will be able to join together to take on a series of challenge rooms, with online leaderboard support and four different difficulty levels, the hardest of which, if Team Ninja's staying true to sadistic form, will probably cut the controller out completely, fusing your television, lighting your house on fire, and framing you for a real-world murder.
A fully integrated multiplayer campaign is heavily hinted at as probably coming down the pipe on a later date, but it's going to take time to get it to work. For something like Ninja Gaiden, co-op's a proposition as hazardous as it is tempting: with its constant dance of strength and weaknesses, every attack leaving you open to a counter somewhere else, Ryu's world is often a splattery puzzle which forces you to think about placement and space as much as which button to press next. It's a Rubik's Cube of violence, and throwing in another character could be a bit like chucking a seventh colour into the mix.
Inevitably, Team Ninja's also taking the chance to tweak the difficulty somewhat. At times, NGII appeared to have been built in collaboration with torture squads culled from history's most awful military regimes, so this time we're promised "a focus on challenge as much as difficulty". It's a typically poetic statement, and one that hopefully translates into taking a good hard look at checkpoint spacing, for starters.
Along with the fresh take on difficulty, the promise of new enemies and bosses, and "variable AI", which will see baddies reacting in a wider range of ways to your attacks, the camera's had a much-needed overhaul. Happily, it's easy to see the changes over the course of even a short playthrough. The biggest takeaway is that the game is less tempted to dither over who or what to focus on, and less eager to flip out totally when there's a lot going on at once. Framing's still a little sluggish when corners come into play, but overall it's a lot better than it used to be, and that should make a stubborn but enjoyable game a little more accessible.
Playing also reminds us that, beyond the tweaking, and even with a new character on-screen, Sigma 2 is still very much the same basic game: enemies rush breathlessly at you even from an early stage, the challenge remains steep, and the combat is entirely satisfying when you finally get into a groove. The new cast members share Ryu's speed and elegance, of course, as the game is too heavily geared towards manoeuvrability for Team Ninja to experiment with radically different styles. Whether it's Ayane or Momiji, the pace and thrust of the carnage is likeably consistent, the nuances of the move-sets presumably becoming more apparent over time.
Perhaps even more beautiful in motion on the PS3 than it was on Xbox 360, Sigma 2's also a lot less gory, enemy torsos dissipating in a magical purple mist rather than a red, gristly shower, providing more palatable slaughter for those who still want disembowelled enemies to lunge towards them over the cobbles for one last attack, but don't want them dripping with quite so much gooey matter while they do it. Team Ninja suggests it's a difference in temperament, as this version's presumably been built for a Japanese and European audience more than an American one.
On that rather tricky subject, the developer is stating that the additions Sigma 2 has brought with it are not going to make their way to Xbox 360 as DLC. The changes to level layout, camera tech and AI suggest this is probably true, but in this era of timed exclusives, announcement exclusives and flat-out exclusives that aren't exclusive at all, you can never be entirely sure. While there will doubtless be understandable bickering between platform owners and holders and endless cyclical arguments about whether we're being sold the same basic game for a second time, not much of that really matters once the steel starts to flash and the limbs start to rupture: beneath the frustrating camera and astonishing difficulty levels, Ninja Gaiden II was a great game for the most part, and Sigma 2 is simply more of it.