Check out our video review:
Ninja Gaiden is a series known for it’s action-adventure gameplay and that includes the original trilogy for NES. The series was, I’ll use the word “revitalized” in 2004 with the release of Ninja Gaiden, referred to as Ninja Gaiden (2004). It’s a game known for being challenging. Developed by Team Ninja and published by Tecmo, Ninja Gaiden was released for Xbox in March, 2004. Downloadable content was made available and was included in a reworked version titled Ninja Gaiden Black. In 2007, the game was released for PlayStation 3 as Ninja Gaiden Sigma, with extra content and improved visuals, and Sigma was released for the Vita as Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus in 2012. Sigma was also released for PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in June 2021, as part of the Ninja Gaiden Master Collection. For this review, I played Ninja Gaiden Black on a Series X.
Ninja Gaiden is set in the same universe as the Dead or Alive series of fighting games and players take on the role of ninja Ryu Hayabusa. The story opens with him infiltrating the Shadow clan fortress to visit his uncle. During his visit, the Hayabusa village is raided by Doku, Lord of the Greater Fiends of the Vigoor Empire. He steals the Dark Dragon Blade, an extremely dangerous weapon that grows in power from death and destruction, and uses it to slay Ryu. Afterward, Ryu is brought back to life and then sets out on a quest to Vigoor to punish those responsible and retrieve the blade. I can’t say I found the plot all that compelling but the cut scenes are slick and stylish and the entire game conveys a somewhat edgy attitude.
Ninja Gaiden is a challenging action game. It is not a game for those that are impatient or get frustrated easily. It is not the kind of game you win by mashing random buttons. It’s a trial-and-error experience. Every death should be a lesson. And every single enemy poses a threat. Practice and skill are required to survive encounters. Ninja Gaiden is a game that places an emphasis on the technical aspects of combat. Precision, timing, and patience are extremely important.
Ninja Gaiden is a game packed with content and much of it is spread across the numerous difficulty modes. The story plays out in chapters and you are ranked at the end of each one based on your performance and the game did support online rankings when it was in its prime. In addition to the story is the unlockable Missions Mode consisting of fifty missions. Each one gives you an objective to complete and they do become more challenging as you progress through them.
When you first start the story, you’ll begin on Normal but if you die three times during the first chapter, you’re given the option to lower the difficulty to Ninja Dog which is easier. Beating the game on Normal unlocks Hard, beating that unlocks Very Hard and beating that unlocks the Master Ninja difficulty. To really master the game, you want to beat it on each difficulty and each one above Normal introduces new enemies and mixes things up to make the experience more challenging.
So now let’s get into the nitty gritty. The combat in Ninja Gaiden looks flashy and there’s a lot of substance to it. If you don’t understand or utilize even the most basic mechanics, enemies can and will wipe the floor with you. It’s violent and gory but also challenging and rewarding. You’ll acquire numerous weapons throughout your journey and several do feel way too similar in their move set. Some weapons are better for certain situations and threats and I, personally, prefer swapping between the Dragon Sword and Lunar Staff which is great for crowd control. Although, other weapons can prove to be useful like the Flail which is great against enemies like the Ghost Fish and the Wooden Sword becomes extremely powerful when fully upgraded. Ryu can equip artifacts and armlets which provide bonuses and utilize throwable items like smoke bombs and ranged weapons like shurikens and bows which do require ammo.
Defeated enemies release essence which resemble orbs that disappear after about ten seconds. Yellow orbs act as currency, blue orbs replenish health, and red orbs replenishes ninpo. The ninpo spells work best as support attacks but if you try to rely on them to get passed certain enemies or encounters, it usually won’t end well. I found that it was best to use them on bosses or whenever I was in a pinch. The spells can be great for crowd control and avoiding certain attacks.
The combat is very risk vs reward and there is depth to it. For one thing, every enemy poses a threat and it’s wise to block and roll often to avoid taking damage. In fact, if you’re not attacking during a fight, you should probably be holding the block button but be aware that it doesn’t make you invulnerable and sometimes you’ll need to jump or roll out of the way to avoid attacks. Knowing when to strike is important and can be risky if you’re not familiar with the enemy or enemies you’re up against. You need to learn their attacks and patterns.
You want to focus on racking up combos. You can chain attacks together and pulling off combos will increase the amount of yellow essence that’s released. And you can charge up attacks for Essence techniques and Ultimate techniques which typically result in a flashy combo and inflict a lot of damage. You absorb any essence dropped if you’re within a certain range of it, however you will not absorb it if you’re blocking. So one risk you need to consider is making yourself vulnerable during combat to absorb essence. And, remember, essence disappears after about ten seconds. However, you can also utilize essence to charge up Essence and Ultimate techniques faster and the risk there is you are vulnerable during the charging state. No matter where you are, if you charge up an attack, you will automatically absorb the essence in the area to charge up the techniques but you don’t gain the benefits from blue or red essence and you’ll only gain a small percentage of yellow essence that way.
Simply waiting for the techniques to charge can take time and you’re always vulnerable during the charge and getting hit takes you out of the charge state. So successfully pulling it off results in a lot of Yellow essence and the risk is getting hit and wasting the essence you absorbed. If you really take the time to master the mechanics, you can learn a lot of little tricks and techniques like on-landing for example. Whenever Ryu lands from a jump or fall, he enters the on-landing state and if you hold down the attack button during this period, you can immediately skip the animation and start charging Essence and Ultimate techniques and it can be a very helpful trick on higher difficulties.
The ultimate idea is to chain techniques together for the best possible payoff. If you’re a beginner, you’re probably going to get hit and die numerous times. It’s all part of the learning experience. Every encounter might feel like a gamble at first. You could be in the middle of a fight and need health so you’ll have to decide if you want to replenish it via essence or elixirs assuming you have any. This can be risky on multiple levels. You might want to save the elixirs for a tougher battle later on. You might want to wait for an enemy to drop blue essence. Or you can take the risk of absorbing any essence dropped to charge up techniques and just hope you don’t die before reaching a save statue. That said, if you do die, you will respawn at the statue where you last saved the game.
Yellow essence can be spent at the shop and shop statues on various things, including to strengthen or upgrade weapons. Some of the items you can buy can also be found in the environments. You can find special items like the Jewel of the Demon Seal that can be used to upgrade a Ninpo spell. You want to be on the lookout for the Lives of the Thousand Gods which instantly increases your maximum health, Spirit of the Devils which increases your maximum ninpo limit, and the Talisman of Rebirth which allows you to respawn immediately after death.
On the surface, Ninja Gaiden is a very violent and bloody game. You can stab, slice, and decapitate foes and blood will spew and splatter. Whether you survive an encounter or not, just slicing your way through foes can be a lot of fun and looks really cool. The combat can be very fast-paced, especially once you master all the techniques and know what you’re doing. You can run on walls, jump and zip around as you fight your way to victory. Or at least die trying. The enemy variety is excellent ranging from Ninjas to fiends and demons. Some foes are quick, others slow, many utilize melee attacks and weapons, and some wield firearms. Ninjas Gaiden is a game that is frequently throwing something new at you.
As far as combat and encounters go, I would say battles always feel more fair than cheap. Every enemy can be taken down with certain attacks and strategies. You just need to know what they’re capable of and what tools and moves to utilize and when. Experimentation is all part of the fun. However, that’s not to say I think every single enemy is fun to engage because some are downright fucking awful like the flying Laser Drones that appear in numbers and unleash sweeping lasers that can result in significant knockback. And if there’s one enemy I truly despise, it’s the Ghost Fish. They, too, appear in numbers, can’t be blocked and will swarm Ryu and pull him to the ground, inflicting a mass amount of damage. However, they die in one strike and with the right moves, weapons, and/or ninpo, you can easily get passed them.
I know on my first playthrough of this game years ago, I thought some bosses felt cheap but playing through it again for this review, some of the bosses I thought were tough aren’t actually that bad like the worms for example. In fact, on the Normal and Ninja Dog difficulties, several bosses make up some of the easiest encounters in the game once you know what you’re doing. This is because they’re one-on-one fights and once you find their weakness, you simply attack when the time is right, then rinse and repeat. On harder difficulties, additional enemies are thrown in. Every boss has attacks that can be avoided if you pay attention and remain focused. Some bosses can even be exploited. You just need to practice, experiment, and have patience.
No matter how many times you increase your maximum health, enemies can inflict a lot of damage very quickly. Even lower tier threats can take you down easily if you’re not careful. And some boss attacks can drain through large chunks of health. Knowing when to block, jump, roll, and strike is extremely important. It’s important to play not just offensively but also defensively. Ryu can be grabbed and tossed around, his block can be broken, and most of the time, he’s outnumbered. Every single encounter should be treated with thoughtful execution. Typical enemy encounters include numerous foes so you’re always up against multiple threats and have to adapt to situations on-the-fly.
As fun and rewarding as Ninja Gaiden is, it is far from perfect. Some of the negative aspects are simply due to the fact that the game is product of its time but others were terrible at release and have only gotten worse with age. For one thing, you have to enter a menu to switch between weapons and items which can be tedious. The game’s worst problem is easily the camera which is disgustingly horrible. It always seemed like it was working against me and some angles made it hard to judge depth perception. It’s really bad because distance and positioning are really important aspects of the combat and if you can’t properly see what the fuck is going on, the result can be death. The camera is worse when you’re in tight spaces and it’s not uncommon to get attacked by enemies from off-screen which is frustrating. Even if you press the appropriate button to snap the camera behind Ryu, it doesn’t always help.
Another problem I have is with the platforming. Ninja Gaiden features a decent amount of platforming which can be a pain in the ass for two reason. The first is the camera. The second is the fact that Ryu cannot move in eight directions from a standing position. If you walk or run, you can move in any direction you want. But if you’re just standing still and try to turn, you can only turn in four directions. This becomes a problem when on certain platforms and/or need to make precise jumps at certain angles. It’s very easy to jump way off the mark and it makes the platforming more frustrating than it needs to be.
Now I’ll talk about the bows which are my least favorite weapons in the game. Using them sucks because they are terribly implemented and clunky. You can use the bows in third-person but it’s not ideal. The best way to aim accurately is to enter the first-person view. However, there is no crosshair and you’re completely vulnerable in this view and when you’re outnumbered or have a bunch of projectiles coming at you and you need to use the bow to shoot specific things, it becomes a frustrating test in patience.
The story will take you to various locations including the Hayabusa village, airship, city of Tairon, monastery, aquaduct, caverns, military supply base, and a palace. Each chapter usually takes you somewhere new and many areas are kind of interconnected. You will backtrack through previously explored areas from time to time but it never becomes excessive. Most environments consist of numerous paths with more open-ended areas that appear for specific encounters. You’ll navigate around a good variety of tight, open, and vertical spaces. Exploration will typically lead you to items so it’s always in your best interest to take the time to look around.
Ninja Gaiden was not a bad looking game for it’s time and I would say the presentation still holds up rather well. In fact, I think parts of it look better than the Sigma release. Black is a game enhanced for Xbox One X so it can be enjoyed in 4K. My only gripes with the presentation is that some of the enemy models look “plastic” for lack of a better word and the pre-rendered cut scenes do appear blurry. But if playing on an Xbox One X or Series X or S, during gameplay, everything looks crisp and slick. The soundtrack is comprised of a good variety of tunes ranging from some rocking jams to more dramatic orchestral stuff. I felt that several songs add to the somewhat edgy attitude of the game making for a cool atmosphere. For example, songs like Airship and Monastery Destroyed, and I did find these names in a YouTube playlist so hopefully the names are correct. On the technical side, the game ran smooth and I did not encounter any major bugs or issues.
I had a great time with Ninja Gaiden. It truly is incredible but also has some problems. The camera being the biggest and in a game where the action always requires your full attention, not being able to easily see your surroundings can prove to be extremely frustrating. However, I would say Ninja Gaiden’s combat is so good that I was able to somewhat ignore the problematic camera. I don’t want to say “forgive” because it actually can cause issues. That said, Ninja Gaiden can be a test in patience. Not just because of the negative elements but in general.
What makes the game hard is that it doesn’t hold your hand and you can’t just mash buttons to win. Ninja Gaiden makes you earn victories. And unless you’ve played it before and mastered everything, the story mode will probably take you a little while to complete. I’ve beaten this before years ago and it took me around twelve hours to beat on Normal for this review. And that’s not even all the game has to offer. Higher difficulties change things up and the Mission mode is just another extension, another reason to keep coming back. If you can get into it and have the patience, you can invest hundreds of hours into Ninja Gaiden.
I would absolutely recommend Ninja Gaiden Black to fans of action games. Personally, I think it’s one of the best action games ever made. It’s got style, substance, and a cool factor. It’s just a very cool game. The combat remains as some of the best the genre has to offer and, in my opinion, it’s what really carries the game. Ninja Gaiden can be a very a rewarding experience if you actually take the time to learn its mechanics and systems. Definitely check it out.