Version tested: PlayStation 3
Let's get one thing out of the way early on: Ninja Gaiden is a great game. If you have an unholy appreciation for all things action, then this is a game that's well worth a look. Boasting the kind of combat depth that's had the hardcore frothing for the past three years or more, it's a brutal exercise in how to use top-line beat-'em-up mechanics in a fleshed-out game.
Now expanded into an epic 19-mission campaign (with countless extras), it's well-constructed, with an array of memorable moments, pad-trashing boss encounters and plenty of worthwhile unlockable extras to keep you coming back for more. Sure, there are plenty of negatives to go into (more of that later), but the core combat at the heart of the game is unarguably what makes it so revered. As Tom noted in the review of the Xbox original, "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."
Tecmo and Team Ninja is evidently really fed up with being told how brilliant its game is while not reaping the full commercial rewards for its efforts. How else do you explain why it's releasing its 2004 classic for the third time? Last time we revisited the game, releasing Ninja Gaiden Black in the latter half of 2005 was a totally understandable and justifiable decision. For a start it was a budget 'Classic' release, so it was something Microsoft was going to do anyway. On top of that it helped address several of the things that were wrong with the game in the first place - such as adding proper camera controls, and a far more accessible difficulty level, as well as a number of added bonuses that fans appreciated. It was, effectively, a Special Edition, and, as far as Xbox games go, one of the finest in the console's repertoire.
Extra track and a tacky badge
In 2007, with whatever period of Xbox exclusivity having now expired, you might logically expect Tecmo to port this to the PlayStation 2 and mop up the stragglers with another tempting budget-priced release that would finally expose the game to a mass audience. Having seen the PS2's technical prowess recently in God of War 2, there's absolutely no reason to imagine that Tecmo couldn't have done a great job with a belated port. It's not as if compatibility with the PS3 would have been much of an issue, after all.
Instead, Tecmo has gone down the road of inexplicably releasing the game as a full-priced PS3 title - and one that you might reasonably expect is an all-new game in the series. Not so. All it has done, effectively, is add the 'Sigma' subtitle and three really short levels where you play as Rachel, thrown in a higher top resolution, shoehorned in utterly pointless Sixaxis controls and stood there with its hands held out. Are we supposed to be grateful? Remaking the original Tomb Raider or Resident Evil is one thing, (and something that worked out amazingly well in both instances), but this is no crafted remake. Ninja Gaiden Sigma is a cynical exercise in porting a very good last-gen game with minimal effort. No one should be under any illusions here.
There are two ways of looking at Ninja Gaiden Sigma. One is from a fan's-eye view, and another is from the perspective of someone who's never played it before. If you're in the former camp, you've already played it to death, and probably pre-ordered the game weeks ago. Good for you. It's out now, so there's no need to waste any more time. Go play.
You could have said no, if you wanted to
If you're someone who's never played it before, but have maybe dabbled in Devil May Cry, Onimusha or God of War on PlayStation 2, you might feel obliged to play Ninja Gaiden Sigma. After all, isn't this supposed to be the absolute pinnacle of the genre, akin to being a rock fan who hasn't heard any Led Zeppelin yet? A mighty, leather-clad, blood-spurting action spectacular to end them all? In terms of the combat, indeed it is one of the best you'll find, but playing it in 2007, it's nowhere near as deserving of all this undiluted praise as you might imagine.
The most obvious thing to comment on is how it looks, as it's probably the first thing that lets the game down. When games were designed to run on SDTVs, developers could get away with all sorts. It didn't matter a great deal whether the textures were particularly detailed, for example, because the natural aliasing that you get from smaller TVs with scanlines fools the eye into making the image look great. Without completely overhauling the entire art in the game, upscaling the image to 720p or even 1080p can instantly make things look too sterile, too clean, and, ultimately, rob it of any atmosphere it had. And, somehow, there's still noticeable v-sync issues. Compared with the recent strides made by the likes of God of War 1 and 2, Ninja Gaiden Sigma lacks the wow factor, with environments that are far too 'clean' for their own good, and creatures that you've seen before in numerous other games. As impressive as the game looked in early 2004, we've been spoilt rotten ever since, and even the once-massive boss monsters look fairly standard through today's eyes. Progress is as harsh a mistress as it ever was, sadly.
Furthermore, the game simply feels old fashioned in all sorts of ways today. The fact that there are dreadful loading pauses all over the place is something we didn't even think to comment on in 2004. Most games had that. But in today's seamless streaming game worlds, it's a bugbear to have the sense of immersion shattered every time you run between one short section and another. [Edit: even installing the game to the PS3's hard disk does not cure the problem, despite what you may have read]. Admittedly, things like the wall-running and the slick way Ryu can bound gracefully between walls and platforms is still exhilarating, but doesn't ever feel as slick or as intuitive as any number of action adventures that we've played since.
Buy both and feel deceived
Unfortunately, the list goes on: why on Earth make the attack button the same one that opens doors? Not only is it annoying to find yourself entering another room midway through a life or death battle, but it can be very costly thanks to the game's insistence on respawning enemies in certain sections, no matter how many times you've slain them. In other words, you might have one enemy left, and accidentally open a door, only to return to find the whole posse is back, as if by magic. But it's not the kind of magic we appreciate: The whole respawning enemy thing was an old fashioned, lazy approach to level design in 2004 - in 2007 it feels as unnecessary as one hit kills and daft checkpointing - things most top developers have eradicated from games since then. In Ninja Gaiden, it's just about justifiable on the basis of harvesting the game's currency (which you need in order to upgrade weapons and buy health vials and so on), but it makes navigating around previously explored areas a mighty pain in the backside. Given that this is something you have to do a lot, this isn't a minor issue either.
While we're in full power Moan Mode, why does the game not bother to save your progress automatically upon completion of a level? The game even states 'saving' in the top right of the screen, but if you happen to, say, fall into a bottomless pit on the next level, you might find yourself having to re-do that really tough boss battle on the climax of the previous level if you're not careful. Other silly things chip away at your love for the game, like an inability to quit the game from the in-game menu (without knowing the secret combination of shoulder buttons, select and start - oh THANKS Tecmo), or reconfigure your controls, or the way the game forces you to run over all the 'essence' blobs to pick them up unless you hold down the triangle button. All of these nitpicky things should be standard-issue by now, and it's just a sign of Tecmo's sloppy approach to this project.
Compounding all of these niggly issues, it's not a game that ever likely to grab you on a narrative level. As many have observed over the years, the story's still harmless, throwaway nonsense, made even less appealing in this version by the fact that the rendered cut-scenes haven't been resampled to take advantage of high definition. Switching between razor-sharp game-engine moments to somewhat blurry-looking renders to move the story on is, well, lazy in the extreme. Add to that some sub-standard voice acting, some of the most generic bad guys ever seen, and the enigmatic lack of star quality from the lead character, Ryu Hyabusa, and it's a game that's distinctly lacking soul.
They can never taint you in my eyes
As we said right at the beginning, the real core of the game - the combat - is as good as any game we've played in the long history of the genre. That said, it comes at a price: unless you're prepared to tough it out on the harder levels, this acknowledged subtlety is not something you're ever likely to fully appreciate. But much could also be said of every game in this genre, to be fair. Remember on the original Xbox version where you had no choice to just spend hours on end learning and re-learning how to get through certain sections, and build up a proper understanding of the combat? Well, as with the Black version, you do have the option to make it a lot more forgiving and drop down to Ninja Dog difficulty if it's all getting a bit too frustrating. If we assume that this is where most mere mortal players will head after a few hours of being beaten to death, then the cold reality is that Ninja Gaiden Sigma feels much like any other blockbuster hackandslash - which is to say relentlessly entertaining, without doing anything especially different to any number of its equally entertaining rivals. Just like all the games in this genre, it's all about using triangle and square a lot, using special power-ups wisely, mixing it up with aerial attacks, 'Ultimate Techniques', blocking well, and careful use of dodge and counter manoeuvres.
In common with its rivals, Ninja Gaiden Sigma has a variety of weapons to power up as you wish (one of which, Dragon Teeth And Tiger Claws, is a dual-wield weapon new to this version), and you'll build up a roster of special techniques over time. But is it really so much more sophisticated and enjoyable than other games in the genre? Not to the extent that the evangelical following will have you believe. In fact, taking into account some of the problems we've discussed, it's fair to say that, overall, as good as it is, it certainly does not warrant being re-issued at full price.
But even if you're prepared to overlook every single piece of criticism directed at the game, there still remains a question mark over whether the new content and tweaks are justifiable to make you want to shell out full whack for the game all over again. In terms of long-term challenge, the addition of new standalone combat missions doesn't hurt, while the appearance of online leaderboards will be a must for the biggest fans of the series. Elsewhere, the new additions aren't such a big deal. As we touched on, two out of the three Rachel levels are ridiculously short and lightweight, and her sluggish yet all-powerful hammer attack ploughs through most enemies without too much finesse - like that galoot in Genji. Cynically, we might suggest they're more an excuse to show more of her hilarious wobbly bits than to make the game more interesting. Well, they had to use that Volleyball tech somewhere didn't they?
Elsewhere, little nips and tucks help make certain moments of specific levels less frustrating and others have just been changed in minor ways that balance the play a little more. For example, the placement of shops near boss encounters is one key thing you might notice, or the unexpected arrival of creatures and different items in the many chests scattered around - but like we said, these aren't things that you'll notice unless you're a massive Ninja Gaiden obsessive.
What we will say, though, is that the changes and additions do make it a better game and, as such, Ninja Gaiden Sigma is unarguably the best version of the game to date. For some, that might be all you'll need to know, but for the rest of us merely looking for a blockbuster game to see us through the barren PS3 summer, we'd strongly suggest you try before you buy, because it's by no means the best the genre has to offer any more.
7 / 10