The first Ninja Gaiden game for the original X-Box console was one of the best games I played, and that is including the Halo series. Released approximately at the same time as Halo, Ninja Gaiden pushed the mere 700 MHz X-Box to the limit and featured absolutely stunning animation and beautifully rendered backgrounds of an amazing world of a fiend-infested Vigoorian empire. When Ninja Gaiden II for XBox 360 came out, I just had to see what Team Ninja can do with three 3.2 GHz cores.
The very first cut scene, when Sonja visits the Muramasa shop, reminded me very much the scene from Kill Bill Vol.1, when Uma Thurman came to a sword master to pick up Hitori Hanzo - a katana sword. Unlike Uma, however, Sonja gets captured by the Dark Ninja clan and Ryu has to come to her rescue, among other things.
Speaking of other things, the plot in the second game isn't as elaborate and thought-through as in the first one, where the story was being carefully built up as the game went along. This time the story can be summed up with "four greater fiends have escaped, kill them all". Following the script, Ryu finds and kills all of them once, then ends up in Hell and faces same recycled fiends again. Not same species - same exact fiends, as they ended up in Hell after they were killed the first time.
One annoying thing visible almost from the first scenes is really poor camera angles, especially when Ryu is running up or down - it's hard to see what's ahead, as the camera stubbornly shows the slope under Ryu's feet or the railing of the staircase.
The first Ninja Gaiden was probably one of the well-known games for its elevated level of difficulty. Even on Normal, which was originally the lowest level, it took a lot of skill to kill some of the greater fiends, such as Alma or Doku. The Hard and Very Hard levels presented real challenge, to the point that some people couldn't even finish the game on these levels. I spent hours upon hours trying to beat Alma and Doku and get away from those pesky ghost piranha on Very Hard.
Ninja Gaiden II was made a simpler game to play by offering numerous save points scattered around every level, which are doubled as healing stations when they are used for the first time. On top of that, the health bar was divided onto a blue and red parts and health gets restored up to the red line after fighting every group of enemies.
Finally, battles with most boss-like fiends can be replayed immediately, without having to replay the path from the last save point. One exception to that is the underground giant worm, surrounded by those shell-beetles, which are coincidentally are much easier to shake off this time on lower levels.
Having said this, I will add that in order to compensate for these extra conveniences, higher difficulty levels present insane challenge in battles where you do not have room for even one mistake. More on this ahead.
In the first game, Ryu was a tireless, fearless fighting machine without any visible emotions. While he is just as fearless in the second game, he shows a human side in a couple of cut scenes. Two most notable are the scene in the underground cave where Ryu finds a mount of human bones, looks at the hole up high in the cave ceiling, shakes his head and kicks the bones on the ground, being visibly upset. Another movie shows Ryu slowly walking uphill on the slopes of mount Fuji - a brief break between the battles.
In the final cut scene Ryu is at a field with thousands of swords pushed into the ground, which serve as little obelisks for unnamed fallen warriors. Ryu drives Genshin's sword into the barren soil and kneels down to pay his last respects to Genshin, who fought just as hard for his fiendish beliefs.
Team Ninja kept many of the old techniques and added many new ones. Overall, all weapons got equalized and it is possible to wield Lunar and other melee weapons to finish off enemies in about same time it takes with the Dragon Sword.
A new and fairly effective technique, which practically requires no game experience, was added - it is possible now just to press Y repeatedly to unleash a series of slashes. This technique allows an average user to pass the game without even learning multiple and, sometimes, tricky button and thumb stick combinations.
With increased level of gore, as Ryu is chopping off limbs, wings and tails of the enemies standing in his way, an old technique of pressing Y near an injured enemy was given a completely new meaning, which turned it into a powerful way of eliminating opponents more efficiently. Using this technique, it is possible now to use a quick dash, chop off a limb and then press Y to instantly finish off the opponent, instead of having to do two or three more attacks.
Strangely enough, Ninja Gaiden II lost some of the techniques. For example, a new technique called Interception was introduced in one of the Hurricane Packs in the original Ninja Gaiden. Interception worked by blocking an attacking enemy just at the moment before being hit, not a moment earlier, not a moment later, and then pressing Y to unleash an immediate ultimate attack. This technique required much skill, but was very effective.
Team Ninja has changed how buttons are processed. It seems that buttons are polled now, so if you press X in the sequence X X X ➩ X too quickly, one of the X's is lost and X X ➩ X is executed instead. This is very annoying, as in many cases one missed combination costs Ryu a life.
November 25th, 2008
After playing many more days, I think I figured out why Team Ninja changed button handling. In the original Ninja Gaiden, buttons were queued and the entire queue was processed regardless of what was going on, leading sometimes to situations when Ryu would walk into a danger zone while finishing a long sequence of moves. Now, it appears, that buttons are timed, so each button hit is expected to be within a certain scheduled interval, which makes it possible to stop the sequence at any time, as well as it helps to ignore accidental double button hits within the same time slot.
Learning the sequence rhythm is the key to mastering weapon techniques, such as twin swords, in Ninja Gaiden II.
Backgrounds in Ninja Gaiden II fully met my expectations, even on a standard TV screen. The stormy view of the New York Harbor was simply breathtaking, as were many other scenes in Tokyo, Venice and Moscow. In one scene, outside the Hayabusa village, Ryu runs in waist-high grass, which moves naturally and makes it harder to fight, making battles more realistic.
I found fiends of the original Ninja Gaiden designed much better and with more character, compared to the ones in sequel. Fire-breathing tyrannosaur-like monsters, dragons, creepy undead, giant ogres (Hurricane Packs), Alma and Doku looked just so much better than winged Barney look-alike monsters, giant pink hairless monkeys, questioning his sexuality Alexei, and the mentally-challenged overlord fiend with a tongue hanging out.
In one scene Ryu was fighting a giant Armadillo and the collision engine wasn't doing a great job - a few times I could see the mesh and the textured planes of the Armadillo's model from inside. What a mood spoiler!
Having said that, I will say that Team Ninja definitely did a good job designing some of the models, like Elizabeth, Volf and Genshin, who are three main villains in Ninja Gaiden II. At the end of Chapter 10, Elizabeth emerges from a pool of blood, naked and beautiful, until she turns into a hole-for-guts butterfly-looking fiend.
Right out of the box, Ninja Gaiden II offers two levels - easy and normal, called Path of the Acolyte and Path of the Warrior, respectively. The first one doesn't offer much challenge and is mostly there to let people have fun slashing things. Path of the Warrior is a serious game and requires skill to pass some of the challenges.
Once the Path of the Warrior has been conquered, the next level becomes available - Path of the Mentor. After the Path of the Mentor, the Path of the Master Ninja level is unlocked. At the Mentor level Team Ninja throws at Ryu guys with machine guns and rapid-fire rocket launchers right at the start. The former only appeared at the Flying Fortress Daedalus level and Moscow levels on the Path of the Warrior.
Increased difficulty lead many people to use one simple attack repetitively, instead of learning more spectacular and in many cases effective forms of attacks, which I find very sad - being able to learn and use weapon techniques is one of the things that made Ninja Gaiden different from many other games. I watched a couple of dozen movies posted by top-score gamers and saw all of them use Flying Swallow as a primary technique (a jump with a slash), which makes Ninja Cinema look like Dragon Ball Z - lots of yelling, not much to watch.
Ninja Gaiden II is much more linear, compared to its predecessor, where Ryu could go anywhere in Tyron, the capital of the Vigoorian Empire, and the surrounding areas. New levels simply unlocked various doors or teleporters, adding space to the well-designed 3D universe. Ninja Gaiden II, on the other hand, offered beautifully rendered futuristic versions of New York, Tokyo, Venice and Moscow and I find it sad that it is not possible to return to any of these places throughout the game path.
I have finished the original Ninja Gaiden on Very Hard and have beaten both Hurricane Packs. After the last one, defeating Nicchae and Ishtaros, I was around the 250 mark in the Master Ninja Tournament roster. Not best, but far from thousands upon thousands of people who either didn't finish the tournament or were listed after me. What I found interesting in the first game was that difficulty was solely based on knowing and mastering the right technique for each of the enemies. Once the right technique was there, battle outcome was practically guaranteed.
Difficulty in Ninja Gaiden II, however, is elevated by throwing in more enemies with types of attacks that are hard or impossible to block, such as ground fire holes opened by teleporting warlock ninjas or rapid-fire missile launchers wielded by tactical ninjas. This makes every fight somewhat random because a single fire hole pretty much kills Ryu and may appear any time, even if Ryu is in the middle of casting a Ninpo spell or an attack and cannot be controlled by the player.
Controller lag doesn't help the situation either. Sometimes, when there are two many enemies on screen, including dead ones, you hear warlocks chant and realize that a fire hole is about to open, hit the trigger/thumbstick a few times, just to see a few fractions of a second later Ryu die in a fire torch bursting from the ground.
However, those who beat this insanity with great skill, despite all of the game's performance shortcomings, most certainly earn bragging rights of a hardcore player.
December 26, 2008
After countless hours spent playing the game, I finally finished Ninja Gaiden 2 on Mentor and beat all Tests of Valor scattered throughout the game, which moved me from about 11 thousandth position in the leader board to 1552th. I was never happier to see 15 hundred people in front of me!
April 10th, 2009
Three months later, I beat the game on Master Ninja. This level is brutal - many enemy attacks, worm drops, fire holes, suicidal ninjas and dogs, etc, kill Ryu right on the spot. I guess this is somewhat justified, as a Master Ninja is not supposed to make any mistakes, but the kill vs. death ratio of most games reported on Master Ninja in the Ninja Gaiden leaderboards hints that almost everybody needs a bit of luck to be a Master Ninja.
Software quality of Ninja Gaiden II turned out to be lower than I hoped. Unlike PC gaming, where game publishers had to deal with a myriad of devices, XBox offers a well-defined platform and things like lock-ups are something that just shows sloppiness.
In Chapter 10, the game just locks up playing a cut scene, after a software update was installed. I had to go to the HDD options and enter an undocumented sequence X, X, LB, RB, X, X to remove the update, in order to work around this bug.
I already mentioned extremely poor camera work. Many times I found myself fighting blindly because Ryu was covered by a staircase railing or behind a winged fiend or just in a very narrow corridor, with the camera stubbornly pointing the other way. What I find quite strange, however, is that Hurricane Packs in the first Ninja Gaiden actually improved camera angles and made it better. Somehow this improvement got lost when the game was ported to the XBox 360.
I also was disappointed to see that Ninja Gaiden II, running on much faster hardware, comes to a crawl in many places, such as the stairs to Elizabeth's chambers in Chapter 10. At first, I even thought it was a planned effect, Max Payne style, and then I noticed that the running speed is inversely proportional to the number of enemies in the scene and that buttons are not quite responsive. Annoying and numerous half-a-second freezes, where the next scene is loading, scattered throughout the game make things worse.
Once when Ryu attacked Elizabeth, at the very moment when she was casting a spell, Ryu landed right into the spell blood traps on the floor and the game locked up. Ryu remained as if under the spell, still trying to escape the predicament, but Elizabeth disappeared into thin air and there was nobody to finish Ryu off, so he was trapped forever. Trying to free him, I eneded up looking at the mesh behind the great hall.
A couple of times I lost sound effects. Not all at once, but little by little. First I got hit by a light beam of one of the archfiends and even though all other sounds were there, the beam was silent. The second beam right after the first one confirmed that there's something wrong with the sound. I continued playing, as I was not in the mood to fight Dagra Dai again. Eventually, all I had is bits of music, which were gone in about 20 minutes and I finished the game in complete silence.
Handling controller buttons was one of the things in the original Ninja Gaiden that I hoped Team Ninja would fix in the next release, but they didn't. It seems that the game is designed to poll buttons instead of queuing them on interrupts, so that after some attacks, the game ignores the first couple of button events, so you end up with the wrong type of attack at a critical time.
A game of this difficulty does inspire people to talk about their achievements. Introduction of recordable movies was a very welcome feature in Ninja Gaiden II. Problem is, however, only a couple of thousand people at the top of the leaderboad can publish their movies. The rest of the gamers just have to enjoy their glory replaying their movies in the darkness of their basements, as there is no way to export movies to any standard format or even save screen shots. This strongly hints that the online infrastructure was not prepared to handle large number of movies and was masqueraded as an achievement bonus feature.
Compared to Halo movies, Ninja Cinema is extremely poorly done. Halo movies record the entire 3D world, so it is possible to pause and rotate the camera any way you want to see the scene under a variety of angles. Ninja Cinema offers a movie that cannot be even paused in a way that would allow you to take a snapshot off the TV screen, never mind camera angles or any other movie-related capabilities.
I'm sure Ninja Gaiden II was conceived as a great sequel to the first game that became such a great hit. However, something didn't quite work out with this release - may be Tomonobu Itagaki was too frustrated over unpaid wages or the sexual harassment lawsuit, may be Team Ninja team members burned out working overtime, may be things got hectic in the corporate world. Hard to say. The net effect of this something, however, Ninja Gaiden II is a game that shows a great potential, but lacks that final touch of a master that allowed the original Ninja Gaiden annihilate the competition.