Bit-History: Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)

I’m not here to discuss the original NES classic or any of the sequels that followed.  No, I’m talking about the third-person ninja platformer that appeared on the original Xbox, and if you’ve played this game, you’ll understand when I say that I have a love/hate relationship with it.

I’ve always been drawn to difficult games.  I know that a majority of gamers out there, who are mostly casual, have no patience for games that are deemed as punishing, but I freakin’ love ‘em.  Sure, it isn’t fun to have your ass handed to you on a regular basis, but there’s a sense of pride and satisfaction like no other when you’re able to progress.  This is what ultimately propels me to move forward, as opposed to stomping my controller into a million pieces while I unleash a string of expletives.  That being said, Ninja Gaiden was exposed to the world long before the likes of Demon’s Souls, so for years, Ninja Gaiden was the game that almost broke me.

Actually, let me rephrase that – Ninja Gaiden DID break me, and on more than one occasion.  It wasn’t until my third time around that I beat the game, but why did it take so long?  Because I got incredibly frustrated, obviously… perhaps more so than my days playing the punishing titles NES had to offer.  I kept going back however, because I’m an accomplished gamer gawdamnit, and I refuse to let a game beat me into submission.  So, because third time’s a charm, I played with one goal in mind – vengeance, and I finally emerged victorious.  At the sake of making it sound like I have no life – which couldn’t be further from the truth, as I’m a freelance writer for a popular DVD/Blu-ray review site, work full time and have a family at home – watching the end-credits roll produced an incomparable sense of pride.  Certainly not the highlight of my life or anything, but as a gamer, I’m not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing THAT much satisfaction before.

For how difficult I’m claiming the game is (and really, how difficult anyone would tell you it is), let me be clear – Dark Souls makes Ninja Gaiden look like child’s play in comparison, but there’s no denying that Ninja Gaiden is still one of the most daunting trials of patience and endurance the gaming world has ever seen… and not always for the right reasons.  For starters, the camera often played a role in my demise.  It’s not as bad as some of the early N64 games (Super Mario 64, I’m looking at you), but for a game that requires lightning quick response time, it proved to be more than just a mere annoyance.

My biggest complaint however, is that the developer didn’t just craft a difficult game.  No, that would be too kind – Ninja Gaiden looks at the line between ‘hard’ and ‘evil’, and decidedly, like an a-hole, lunges to the evil side with a shit-eating grin on its face.  What exactly am I talking about here?  What single gameplay component was so bad, it actually took me out of the world the developers worked so hard to build?  I’ve got one word for you – ‘Waves’.  The easiest foes in the game have the potential to take you down if you’re not careful enough, and dealing with a few at once can be tricky… but there are PLENTY of moments where you’re trapped in a small area, with no means of escape… that is, until you defeat about 18 bajillion waves of bad guys.  I have no problem with endurance runs like this in any given game, but Ninja Gaiden almost made me feel like the game was broken, or like the enemies would respawn infinitely until I figured out some environmental puzzle.  Nah, that would have made too much sense.  The devs just wanted to make a hard game that much more difficult, and although they accomplish that with this gameplay mechanic and then some, it’s not for the better.  You just get bored and frustrated, and each of these ‘room traps’ just feel unbalanced from the rest of the game.  Ninja Gaiden is hard as fahk, but these endurance runs actually felt unfair.  All I could think about were the devs laughing their asses off… and I’m annoyed that they did something that was so unenjoyably underhanded.  They KNEW what they were doing.  You want proof?  Look no further than PS3’s Ninja Gaiden Sigma – The studio polished off the game for an HD remake/reimagining combo, and guess what?  They removed the frustratingly endless supply of enemy waves.  Thank gawd.

This introduces a larger issue than mere boredom however.  You see, the relationship between a developer and their games should be similar to that of Dr. Frankenstein and his ‘monster’ – The developers put their heart and soul into creating something, but once they’ve brought their project to life, it’s going to live and breathe on its own after the fact.  The gameplay should speak for itself, the locations, plot and characters should make you feel fully immersed.  What these ‘waves’ ended up doing instead, was make me feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz – At first I was intimidated by the challenge, practically to the point of tears… but eventually found the truth hiding behind a little green curtain.  I was distracted from the experience the devs aimed to provide, and that’s never a good thing.

Now, I know my long rant makes it sound like I hate the game, but I actually feel the opposite.  I LOVE Ninja Gaiden, and mostly because everything the game does right completely overshadows the awful ‘wave trials’.  For the most part, the controls actually make you feel like an exacting ninja.  It takes a little practice to nail the timing, but you’ll soon find yourself doing parkour up walls, running circles around bad guys, and slicing them all with calculated precision.  Since each enemy actually provides a challenge, you feel like the bad-ass you’re meant to be as you stand over their defeat, because you actually have to work to come out on top.  The secret, is that like a true ninja (I would imagine), you have to keep moving.  Constantly.  Stay in one place too long, and there’s only one of two things that will happen – You’ll either get taken out, or you’ll find yourself hopelessly stuck in ‘block’.  Because you’re a ninja, you’re inherently quick… unlike your lumbering armored slowpoke in Dark Souls.  So, you can become rather efficient at being able to attack without getting hit on a regular basis, and there’s nothing more satisfying than finding that groove.  The combat may be one of the most challenging that gaming has ever offered, but again, it’s definitely one of the most rewarding.

Which pretty much blends into the main reason why I love Ninja Gaiden so much – Although it may look like it at first glance, this action slasher is NOT a button-masher.  The action is far more demanding than that, and perhaps even more impressive, is that the combat is actually sort of a puzzle in and of itself.  The game does offer a couple of legitimate puzzles, but it’s always fun to figure out the best way to take out each specific enemy.  Such a combination is rare nowadays, but I’m glad there are certain games out there that have embraced this gameplay style (again, Dark Souls, you make my heart aflutter).

Never played Ninja Gaiden?  It’s a shame.  It was probably one of the best games from the Xbox/PS2 era, but if you own a 360, you can still play it today, as it’s one of the few titles that had been backwards compatible.  If you want a difficult experience that actually feels more fair, then you should definitely pick up Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3.  Besides, despite the fact that Ninja Gaiden was made years and years ago, the HD remake is actually rather gorgeous.  Don’t like difficult games?  Well, man up.  Some of the best games ever made are horrid beasts that aim to make you feel like their bizotch, so get crackin’!  Are you really going to let a game such as this go unchallenged?  NEVAHHHHHH!

 

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