As he fights, Ryu will gather shiny yellow essence orbs from slain enemies. Consider these orbs gold because he can use them to purchase upgrades for his weapons, or he can purchase useful potions and other things from various storefronts that are found throughout the game (all of which belong to the same shopkeeper). Though the shopping portion of the game isn't very fleshed out, insofar as there aren't too many different kinds of things to buy, it does give you a good incentive to keep taking out enemies and to keep racking up more money, since you'll always want to have enough yellow essence on hand to stock up on spiritual elixirs (also known as healing potions). Ryu will also be able to go out of his way to find numerous hidden items, such as ones that increase his maximum health or ones that increase the maximum number of times he can use his powerful ninja magic. Ryu should be on the lookout for golden scarab statuettes as well. He can give these to the shopkeeper, who rewards Ryu with special goods after every so many scarabs he receives.
While navigating strange streets, spelunking in ancient caverns, and buying potions and things is all well and good, Ninja Gaiden's action and fighting mechanics lie at the heart of its exceptionally good gameplay. In general, you're able to move Ryu with a remarkable fluidity and precision, the likes of which are unmatched by most other games. Tecmo's internal development group, Team Ninja, obviously brought its considerable experience in making fighting games to bear while making Ninja Gaiden, as this game not only features a remarkably extensive variety of combat moves and abilities for its main character, but also it lets you perform them intuitively so that the results are incredibly satisfying.
In other words, Ryu Hayabusa is a total badass. Consider just about everything cool you've ever seen a ninja character do in a video game, in an anime, or in a movie. Now, try to understand that Ryu probably has all these moves in his repertoire--and then some.
Granted, he starts off with just a few basic but effective slashing combos--one of which sends his opponent flying into the air so that Ryu can continue his assault while off of the ground. However, Ryu will gradually learn a few new abilities; he'll unlock others by upgrading his weapon; and he'll gain access to plenty more by finding completely different weapons to use. Toward the end of the game, you'll literally have access to more weapons and moves than you'll know what to do with. The good news is that you'll have long since discovered combos and special techniques that you'll find to be extremely effective. And then there's plenty of room left over to practice all the other moves on the game's harder difficulty levels.
The key to the dynamic nature of the action is that Ryu is so mobile. When in doubt, you can always make him leap away from a combat situation, or you can make him leap straight into one. Plus, Ryu's defenses are surprisingly good, so even when he's being mobbed by several enemies, you'll often be able to block all of their attacks just by pressing and holding the left shoulder button. Better yet, you can tumble out of the way by moving the left thumbstick while holding the block button. Beware, though, because if you spend too much time defending, you'll likely end up on the receiving end of a powerful unblockable attack of some sort, so you really need to stay on your toes. Ultimately, the basic key to survival in Ninja Gaiden is to balance your offense and defense, which sounds simple enough but ends up being a constantly intriguing challenge when squaring off against the game's tough bad guys.
Camera controls in the game, like all aspects of Ninja Gaiden, are very slick. At any time, you can tap the right shoulder button to reset the perspective behind Ryu's back. The camera generally does a good job of keeping pace with Ryu's fast motions while giving you a useful vantage point of the situation. With the default camera setting, moving the right analog stick automatically switches to a first-person-perspective view mode, which is used for looking around and becomes particularly useful when a lot of vertical maneuvering is required. It's true that sometimes the camera will move in such a way that you won't see some of the enemies in the vicinity. Even in these cases, though, the game offers a useful option. There's a special kind of jump, performed by pressing two buttons simultaneously, which makes Ryu home in on his nearest enemy. There is no clunky lock-on targeting system in Ninja Gaiden (or any targeting system), because it's unnecessary to have one. Ryu automatically attacks the enemy who's closest to where you happen to be guiding him, and this system works flawlessly.
For what it's worth, there are a few ways in which the story mode could have been a bit better. The story isn't that great (though a few new cutscenes in Black help move it along), and the pacing of some of Ryu's adventures is a little off. This is a lengthy game that will take a good 20 hours your first time through, and it features a considerable amount of variety. But some sequences, such as a rather difficult level set in the aqueducts beneath the city, seem to drag when compared to others. You'll also fight several of the game's bosses more than once, probably much to the delight of old-school gamers who are accustomed to seeing repeats of tough battles in games. Yet this boss-battle dÂ¥jÂ¥ vu will probably come much to the chagrin of those who are expecting the game to just keep throwing more and more new stuff at them. And, along the same lines, the game's difficulty is a bit haphazard. As mentioned, Ninja Gaiden Black is generally tough-but-fair. However, certain sequences and boss battles are substantially harder than others--seemingly at random rather than at a gradual pace. For instance, some of the later bosses are complete pushovers compared to some of the earlier ones, and in fact, the early goings-on in Black are generally tougher than a lot of the latter goings-on. Still, these types of issues mostly just add flavor to the game rather than detract from it in any meaningful way.
Ninja Gaiden Black is an extremely good-looking game. It's easily one of the best looking Xbox games, and by extension, it's one of the best-looking games ever. You could spot a few weaknesses in the visuals if you tried. Maybe a couple of Ryu's animations, such as when he shimmies across a ledge, don't look as good as when he does everything else. Also, the environments generally aren't very interactive, so don't expect to leave destruction in your wake, in addition to death. Enemies only appear in groups of about three or four at a time, and their corpses all vanish in pools of blood rather than pile up. The perfectly smooth frame rate, on extremely rare occasion, drops to just plain smooth. These are nitpicky issues about a gorgeous-looking game, which supports widescreen progressive-scan displays for the best possible visual fidelity. Ninja Gaiden boasts imaginative scenery and great-looking character design, as well as a few of Team Ninja's signature graphical touches--if you know what we mean.
The game sounds wonderful, too. Options for English or Japanese voice-over are available. The English dialogue may seem a bit corny at times, but it actually fits very well in the context of a comic-book-style, over-the-top game. The sounds of combat in Ninja Gaiden are terrific, especially Ryu's ferocious battle cries--which make him sound about as strong as he is--and the anime-style sound of steel cleaving flesh. Sure enough, the game features a fantastic soundtrack too, with unique music for all the different chapters and many of the boss battles. Some of the tracks loop fairly frequently, but the compositions are catchy and generally excellent, thus effectively fitting the overall tone of both the gameplay sequence in particular and the entire game in general. Those with Dolby Digital 5.1-equipped home-theater setups will relish the audio experience all the better. It bears mention that the sound presentation in Ninja Gaiden Black hasn't aged quite as well as the rest of the game, and you'll inevitably hear the same sound effects over and over and over as you fight. But as a whole, this game has great audio.
Ninja Gaiden Black fulfills the last bits of untapped potential in what already was a truly extraordinary game and an instant classic. Though the underlying gameplay is mostly unchanged, by presenting so many more modes and options, Ninja Gaiden Black unleashes the absolute best this gameplay has to offer. With the launch of the Xbox 360 now just weeks away, you have to wonder exactly how the next generation of games could possibly improve on something like this.
Editor's note 09/26/05: The original review incorrectly stated that the three NES games in the series were included as unlockables. GameSpot regrets the error.