Team Ninja's 2004 Xbox hit, Ninja Gaiden, wasn't just a franchise reboot for the 3D era - it helped to define the template for the melee combat games to come across two further console generations. You can play that seminal release locked to 60fps at extreme resolution via Xbox One X enhanced backwards compatibility - and now its sequel has received the same treatment to spectacular effect. Ninja Gaiden 2 launched as a platform exclusive designed to highlight the strengths of the Xbox 360 architecture but it was compromised by several technical problems - aspects that are entirely cleaned up ten years later on Xbox One X. Quite simply, it's the best way to play the game - and when it comes to Ninja Gaiden 2, users certainly have plenty of choice.
Ninja Gaiden 2 is actually one of the most fascinating cross-platform development projects Digital Foundry has looked at across the last decade. A year after its Xbox 360 debut, a PlayStation 3 version emerged, dubbed Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. It featured a vast array of visual changes alongside a fundamental shift in gameplay, all designed to better suit the capabilities of Sony's hardware. This was followed by a PlayStation Vita port of the PS3 game, which doesn't really work as a Ninja Gaiden game, but it is fascinating to take a look at, nonetheless.
But why is Ninja Gaiden 2 so fascinating and why is the X-enhanced back-compat support such a big deal? It's all about the gameplay. To my mind, the original Ninja Gaiden redefined 3D action games: the gameplay was fast, fluid and challenging but it was the brilliant level design and hub system that really pushed it to the top. In many ways, it almost feels like a much faster progenitor to the space that Dark Souls would come to inhabit years later, not just because of its challenging melee combat, but also because of its overall flow and level design. It still works brilliantly today - and it's awesome on Xbox One X.
Four years after its Xbox reboot, Ninja Gaiden 2 for the 360 arrived and while there were some improvements to the core combat system, the game had become completely linear, lacking the original hub system, while many areas just felt unfinished. One moment you were exploring a beautiful city while 30 minutes later, you'd find yourself in an ugly, featureless tunnel. Some sections were brilliant, others were filled with rocket spamming soldiers. It was good but unbalanced, lacking the refinement and perfection the original attained four years prior.
Beyond this, the technical side of things took a dive. The 2004 entry was a state of the art achievement on Xbox with a non-wavering 60fps frame-rate and gorgeous worlds to explore. In 2008, however, Ninja Gaiden 2 exhibited severe performance and screen-tearing issues alongside one of the lowest rendering resolutions on Xbox 360 - which is where the X-enhanced Xbox One X version comes into play. The original runs at just 1120x585 but on Microsoft's enhanced console, the resolution sees a 9x boost to 3360x1755. Thankfully, while the original resolution was very low, 2x MSAA was also utilised and applies to Xbox One X too, embellishing image quality still further.
Curiously, the game's visual style is well suited to higher resolutions. Rather than pushing then next-gen effects and post-processing, Ninja Gaiden 2 evolves the simple and clean style Team Ninja had become known for. As a result, at 1755p, the game is now a sight to behold. Texture filtering is massively improved, aliasing is nearly erased and character models are super clean. It just looks excellent in a way that the original on Xbox 360 does not. While it's not cutting edge, I feel the visual style works well enough that this could exist as a native Xbox One title. Of course, users of the standard Xbox One and the S model don't get these additional back-compat refinements, but there is still a good bump to performance and the complete elimination of screen-tearing.
With Xbox One X, I feel it's finally possible to appreciate the improvements implemented in building Ninja Gaiden 2 for Xbox 360. This is a game designed around huge polygon counts and lots of alpha transparency. It takes advantage of the super-fast eDRAM connected directly to the GPU allowing for lots of these effects, in fact. There's also a focus on dismemberment - limbs can be severed in combat and you'll find yourself ripping enemies to literal shreds during gameplay. Not only is the effect impressive, but blood decals remain all around the stage after a long battle, lending to the sense of surviving a massive battle. The Xbox 360 also pushes huge enemy counts, flooding the scene with foes at every turn. It's this ratcheting up of enemy density, the increased level of detail in general and the dismemberment system that results in the greatest enhancements over the original Xbox game.
Perhaps predictably though, the cost comes in terms of performance. The battle on the stairs in Chapter 10 is especially well known for this - while making your way to the top, the game floods the screen with enemies in huge numbers. It's a showpiece battle that original hardware couldn't handle - but Xbox One X pulls it all off flawlessly. Performance is now basically locked to 60 frames per second throughout this entire scene and no matter how many enemies appear throughout the game, the Xbox One X never seems to struggle.
The reason that this is so important comes down to the game speed. Like many titles in the past, the actual game speed is tied to frame-rate - drop below 60fps and everything starts moving at a slower rate. So on Xbox 360, this scene plays out in slow motion while Xbox One X delivers the proper full-speed experience instead. With this being one of the heaviest scenes in the game, it should come as no surprise that the rest of Ninja Gaiden 2 fares equally as well - performance is locked to 60fps at all times during gameplay and never lets up. Of course, some cut-scenes employ a 30fps cap, but that's by design and the back-compat system cannot overcome this.
Struggling on the very system it was designed to exploit, Team Ninja wisely adjusted its focus for the PlayStation 3 version of the game. In many ways, this is one of the most fascinating ports of the last decade in that it's nearly a different game. New content was created for the game while other elements were removed, while level designs were tweaked and visuals updated. From a gameplay perspective, the PS3 version sees a massive reduction in overall enemy count - the world feels a lot emptier on Sony's machine and enemies that do appear sometimes take more damage than they normally would, likely to make up for the reduction in enemy density. This has a significant impact on the overall flow of the game and I feel it's for the worst - while the added content is a mixed bag, to say the least.
While many elements were cut or changed, it's the approach to visuals that fascinates the most. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 runs at a higher resolution than on Xbox 360, hitting 1280x718 - the top rows are blacked out so it falls just below the full 720p but users would've been unlikely to notice. It looks cleaner than Xbox 360 in this sense but if we compare it to the new upgraded Xbox One X edition, it falls far behind - as you would expect. But this isn't just about rendering resolution - Ryu's character model has received a subtle boost in polygonal detail during cutscenes while lighting has been modified and bloom added. The changes are fascinating in that it's difficult to say whether it looks better or not. It's really a matter of opinion and I think both have strong points but obviously, there is no way to play Sigma 2 at high resolutions right now in the way you can with Xbox One X.
Curiously, the violence level changed too - which seems to have been a technical decision rather than a change in content direction. The dismemberment system and blood spray has been ripped out and replaced on PS3 with a more ethereal solution. I suspect this change is the result of optimisation decisions for Sony's machine - the extra alpha effects and limb removal would tax the RSX resulting in more significant slowdown. Then there's the infamous battle on the stairs which runs a touch better on PS3 compared to the Xbox 360 original, but only because the number of enemies has been reduced significantly. The battle now feels somewhat empty and less intense as a result of this change and yes, there is still plenty of screen-tearing.
Regardless, Sigma 2 is a fascinating conversion. Gameplay tweaks, modified content and huge changes to the presentation result in a game that feels decidedly different to its older sibling. After playing them both again, I definitely prefer the Xbox 360 original, especially on Xbox One X - but I do appreciate Sigma 2 and the ways in which the development team adapted the game to work well on very different hardware. In an even more bizarre twist, Sigma 2 received its own port - this time to PlayStation Vita and, well, perhaps some things just shouldn't be. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2+ on Vita is a scaled down adaptation of the PS3 game and it doesn't work very well at all.
The first major change involves cutscenes - unlike the other versions of the game, the Vita version relies on full-motion video clips captured from the PS3 version. It looks OK on a real Vita screen, though to be fair but it's not optimal. In-game, a lot of cuts have been made as well, starting with resolution which is now dynamic. From what I can tell, it often drops as low as 408p during busy scenes. Detail in general takes a hit - textures are reduced, models appear simplified and the game looks washed out and blurry. That said, for a handheld system released so many years ago, it's really not that bad and the drop in detail would be acceptable if it ran smoother - but the Vita delivers a 30fps game with plenty of performance drops below the target. Ultimately, it's a huge step down but it's also kind of impressive that it exists at all. The PS Vita is nowhere near as capable as Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 in terms of raw processing power and it certainly isn't well suited to a game like this - yet there it is.
The sub-par Vita experience was the final release for Ninja Gaiden 2 - at least until its recent reappearance, enhanced for Xbox One X, which is exactly where you should be replaying the game if you're interested in checking it out. Personally, I consider Ninja Gaiden 2 as something of a flawed gem. It's not the perfectly refined action game that the original was but it's still a great game to play and it feels so much improved with all of its visual flaws eliminated. The frame-rate is now perfect, image quality is completely cleaned up and the in-game loading is even faster. Of course, it can't solve any of the level design issues that pop up later in the game but that's OK, it's still worth checking out.
I can say that I've had a lot of fun revisiting the game this week and its flaws are less bothersome today than they were back in 2008. In fact, I think I prefer the level design here to something like Devil May Cry 5: while Capcom's latest was an excellent game in terms of combat, it was lacking when it came to environments to explore. It's just a shame that the Ninja Gaiden series is unlikely to receive any further instalments. Ninja Gaiden 3 was a step down and Razor's Edge couldn't fully solve that. It's unlikely we'll see Ninja Gaiden return anytime soon and even if we do, will it even be the same? That said, it's always been an uneven series - even going back to the arcade original and NES titles. Some conversions were great, others less so, but the series was always memorable - and with both major series entries now available in X-enhanced editions, it's well worth revisiting. And who knows? The Ninja Gaiden series has prestige, it has heritage and a reputation for pushing hardware - perhaps we'll see another series reboot at some point in the future.
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