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.