Version tested: PlayStation 3
Once upon a time, there was a six-limbed giant demonic werewolf named Volf, who lived in a lovely upscale mansion in the heart of Venice. One day, a Mr Ryu Hayabusa came to visit. Volf was pleased, as - truth to tell - he'd grown rather bored of late. Not surprising, really, seeing as the city beyond his manly stained-glass windows was entirely devoid of inhabitants besides Volf's own marauding monsters, and he rarely got out much these days, anyway, on account of the bizarre layout of his home, which saw rooms slotted together haphazardly, with some chambers only accessible by backflipping up through the chimney below and out of the fireplace.
Anyway, Volf suggested that Mr Hayabusa join him across the street, in his own private coliseum. Long story short, once they got there Mr Hayabusa chopped Volf's head off before escaping on the skids of a passing attack helicopter, piloted by a sexy CIA agent dressed only in some leather underwear.
There are two things you need to know up front about Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. One: it's still ridiculous. Two: it's still hard. Three: it's no longer ridiculously hard, however. Four: that makes three. Team Ninja has used the PS3 remix of last year's Xbox 360 splatterfest to make a number of tweaks to its original design, adding a handful of new elements like bosses, playable characters and modes, while seeking to refine the whole experience. The result is a game that's certainly a little more forgiving than it previously was, and perhaps a little more enjoyable too.
We should start with the controversial stuff, however: Ninja Gaiden's no longer quite the bloodbath you knew and loved. While Hayabusa, a deadly ninja who likes to head out on his adventures dressed in the manner of an S&M pro ice-skater, still wastes little time separating arms from torsos and heads from necks, the lopped-off appendages have a habit of disappearing before they hit the ground on this outing, and the resulting spew of particles from mangled stumps tends to be a festive purple rather than a thick viscous red.
It sounds like heresy but, to tell the truth, once you're deep inside the game upgrading weapons, lamping strangers and busting up gigantic skeletal dinosaurs, you may find that you don't have time to miss the gristle and brain matter. I barely noticed the difference after the first few minutes. If the worst comes to the worst, as your enemies expire in a cloud of jaunty violet spray, you can always pretend that you're wading through Teletubbies.
There's even a plus side: Sigma's frame-rate is a significant improvement over the original, possibly because the engine no longer needs to keep track of all those rolling heads (I know nothing about engines, so this is conjecture). Elsewhere, the series' notorious camera has also been tweaked somewhat. It still struggles with interiors and narrow alleyways - and, okay, sometimes it struggles with exteriors too - but it feels more decisive as it chooses its targets, and rarely opts to frame your best moments from the wrong side of a gloriously high-def wall.
Checkpoints seem a little kinder in their placement, too - although this may just be the onset of Stockholm Syndrome - and beginners playing on the Acolyte setting now stand a decent chance of getting to the end of the game, albeit with a few major roadblocks along the way. And then, of course, there's new stuff to hack to pieces, although the headline act turns out to be a bit of a bore. With her glowing eyes and blank stare, The Statue of Liberty looks deeply spooky, but limp attack patterns mean that beating up a famous landmark turns out to be a bit less exciting than you may have expected.
A much better inclusion is the new playable characters sprinkled into the main campaign: Momiji from Dragon Sword on the DS, Ayane from Dead or Alive, and Rachel making a return visit from Ninja Gaiden. All of them give you fresh options - Momiji has height and reach, Ayane's super speedy, and Rachel's slow but has a really big hammer, which seems like a fair trade - and at one level apiece none of them outstays their welcome, providing a series of vivid interludes before you're back to the grind with Hayabusa.
If they're too fleeting in the main campaign, the new Team Missions give you more of a chance to learn the additional characters' quirks and exploits. The developer's concession to the online world, the missions are slices of smartly-paced score-attack combat that get progressively harder until you're fighting against four bosses at once. The single-player design of Ninja Gaiden adapts surprisingly well to the change and since there's no split screen - the mode is limited to two players online, or one player accompanied by surprisingly decent AI partner - the camera is no more of a problem than it usually is, which means you'll still get hit by shuriken thrown from off-screen opponents quite a lot, but you won't be able to blame the fact that you're playing with your friend Floyd from Milwaukee.
Ultimately, though, it's business as usual. Ninja Gaiden 2's insane story has lost none of its mindless appeal - the Fiends, right, are trying to raise the Arch Fiend - and it still provides plenty of opportunities to face off against waves of creatively accessorised baddies in beautiful, if lifeless, locations.
And the core of the game, the combat, is as brilliant as it ever was, its simple mixture of weaks, strongs and blocks, melee, ranged and magic, coming together to allow for delirious complexity as weapons level up (albeit in a simplified form, with each blacksmith granting you one extra level each time), dodges are perfected, and new techniques emerge. It's a rhythm game at heart, as you unearth the best combo to take down each foe quickly, or learn to spot the moment an enemy's guard is lowered, and the true master - granted, not me, but I have a friend who's not bad - works with a stylish efficiency.
Not that Team Ninja always gets it right. A nasty combination of flying fish attacks, coupled with the game's sudden intention to become as acrobatic as Tomb Raider, cross the line between challenge and frustration early on, and the spectacle offered by some of the larger bosses often misfires, as they face you, rather undramatically, as if propped against a lunch counter. It can be hard to feel like a badass when you're simply hitting someone in the fingernail until they drop dead. Unless you're hitting them in the fingernail with a Trans-Am, I guess.
Such irritations are short-lived, however. Back in the mid-nineties, after an evening spent listening to OG: Original Gangster on heavy repeat, a wise friend of mine pointed out that Ice-T couldn't lose, really: his lyrics were either brilliant or hilarious, and either way there was something for you to enjoy. The same is true of Ninja Gaiden - the combat is fantastic, while the goofy leather-clad nonsense remains endearingly loopy.
As games steadily become more ingratiating, Team Ninja offers you an increasingly rare prospect: the chance to truly master something brutal. It's the chance to bounce up out of a well into a midnight world littered with skyscrapers and pagodas and fearsome enemies who are yours to toy with, the chance to spend your time finding the best means of slicing a foe's life expectancy from 15 seconds to just two. You wouldn't want every game to present a challenge so steep, perhaps, but when it's put together with such arrogant style, it's hard to dislike.
In the end, then, despite the toning down, despite the wonky camera, and despite the fact that at times it's all just a remix, all that's left is the controller in your hand at three in the morning. You'll be late for work tomorrow, but as the cherry blossom fills the air, and six new enemies drop into view and, behind them, you spy the familiar blue glow of your next save point, none of that really matters.
8 / 10