Ninja Gaiden originally debuted as a great two-player arcade beat-'em-up back in 1988. But the Nintendo Entertainment System version, which was released about a year later, was completely different--and was even better. It was a very challenging action game in which you'd fight your way through many diverse stages and tough bosses while playing as the vengeful young ninja Ryu Hayabusa. The game spawned a couple of solid sequels, and Ryu Hayabusa has since appeared in Tecmo's Dead or Alive series of fighting games. However, it's been years since a great Ninja Gaiden game has come around. So apparently, Tecmo is making up for lost time, because the new Ninja Gaiden is easily the best in the series. That's no longer a meaningful frame of reference for most people who play games, so let's put it this way: This is one of the best, most challenging action adventure games ever made. Not only does Ninja Gaiden feature bleeding-edge graphics and sound, it boasts simply the best pure action ever seen in such a game.
Don't expect any mercy from the game's variety of fast, ruthless enemies.
The premise of the game is similar to the original NES classic, though the storyline is completely self-contained, so no previous experience is expected from you. When Ryu Hayabusa's village is attacked and the evil Dark Dragon Blade is stolen from its centuries-old resting place, the young master ninja brandishes his family's legendary Dragon Sword and sets off on the trail of the villains responsible. While the story gradually unfolds through some spectacular cutscenes, it never really takes center stage, so you'll spend most of the game just wondering who these mysterious villains really are.
Anyway, a revenge plot is the perfect setup for a game about an expert assassin, and a game of this quality doesn't need a complex story to keep you entertained. Suffice it to say that early on Ryu will stow away aboard an airship headed for the Vigoor Empire, which is a mysterious nation supposedly nestled somewhere in western Asia. It's from here that you'll spend most of the game fighting deeper and deeper into the heart of the Empire. And while the Vigoorian streets may look reminiscent of a quaint European town, rest assured that all sorts of danger is lurking everywhere, and plenty of highly imaginative and visually stunning scenery awaits you. You'll end up facing everything from enemy ninjas to military commandos to the living dead to forces of the occult--each in its own native territory, and beyond.
In short, just about everything about this game is superb or better. If there are any rough edges, they are only slightly noticeable, in light of the game's extraordinary quality overall. The entire game looks beautiful and runs at a perfectly smooth frame rate, despite the amount of dynamic action and detail that's onscreen at any given moment. The controls are highly intuitive; they're as responsive as possible; and they result in gameplay that has a surprising amount of depth. The enemies you'll face throughout Ryu's adventure are quite diverse, great-looking, surprisingly smart, and mostly very dangerous. Yet Ryu himself has such an impressive variety of effective moves that defeating them all, as intimidating as it may seem, never is impossible nor does it seem implausible. The look and feel of the action is outstanding. Ryu's slashes seem to pack a tremendous wallop and leave enemies bloodied or even decapitated, which are effects that are far more stylish than gratuitous. Enemy attacks appear incredibly punishing, and indeed, they'll often bring Ryu to death's door.
Ninja Gaiden is difficult. Make no mistake about it. There are no weak enemies to be found, and you'll usually face several of them at once, or else you'll face one very tough (usually very large) boss opponent of some sort. Pattern recognition alone won't get you through this game, since most enemies don't follow obvious patterns in the first place, which means you'll need good reflexes and clever tactics besides. None of the fighting is unfair. It's just that this game requires and rewards skillful play. It truly feels like it was made in the spirit of its predecessors--classic action games that, above all, were meant to provide a fun challenge.
The action in Ninja Gaiden is very intense and has a great, fluid feel to it.
This is not a pure action game, though. In fact, you may be quite surprised to discover that Ninja Gaiden is a full-fledged action adventure game in which you don't just keep fighting, but you gradually acquire new moves and abilities, constantly find valuable items (many of them cleverly hidden), occasionally shop for useful goods, and slowly gain access to larger and larger portions of the gameworld. While the game is structured as a series of more than 15 chapters, most of the game is completely seamless--you'll encounter only a few very brief loading times between chapters and between large portions of the world--so the further in you get, the more territory you're free to explore. However, the game maintains its focus and keeps you on track. You're never forced to spend much time backtracking across the same old territory. Though you'll occasionally find yourself revisiting some of the game's locations as you fight your way through the twisted city of your enemies, things will be different by the time you retrace your footsteps. For example, at one point, Vigoor's entire military force is deployed to take Ryu down the next time he's forced to make his way through the city.
Judged purely as an adventure game (in which exploration and puzzle solving take precedence over combat), Ninja Gaiden works very well. Another surprise is that it has a lot in common with the recent, superbly made Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, both in concept and in execution. Ryu is an acrobat who's capable of reaching places the average human couldn't. He is so agile that he can run straight up vertical surfaces and can run horizontally along them for a short while. Both techniques are intuitively and automatically performed just by jumping toward a wall from an appropriate angle. While running along a wall, he may even leap toward another wall that's perpendicular to him, thus gaining altitude and momentum to continue his sprint. Using this cool-looking and important technique, he's able to climb up and out of pits as though there were a spiral staircase there to let him walk right on out of it.
Ryu can also triangle-jump off of walls and will often use this technique to bounce his way up through chimney-style openings. He can grab horizontal bars or similar objects and can use them to flip across chasms. He can also swim (while holding his breath for a long time) and fights quite effectively while underwater. Ryu never takes damage from falling, and despite all the acrobatics that take place during the course of Ninja Gaiden, there are very few instances where a missed leap can result in his death. As a result, all the platform jumping shouldn't get frustrating. Additionally, Ryu's adventures will require that he solve a few traditional sorts of action adventure puzzles. For instance, he may have to find certain objects and then place them where they need to go (i.e., hunting for keys), or he may have to pull levers in a particular order, to gain access to new areas. A few timed sequences will also test how precisely you can string together Ryu's various maneuvers to get him through a tricky or dangerous situation within a specific amount of time.
Ryu Hayabusa gains a wide variety of excellent moves during the course of the game.
Meanwhile, Ryu will be gathering 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 can also search for golden scarab statuettes that he can then give to the shopkeeper, who rewards Ryu with special goods after every so many scarabs he receives.
However, while navigating strange streets, spelunking in ancient caverns, and buying potions and things is all well and good, Ninja Gaiden's core 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 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.