Jun
10
2021
0

Ninja Gaiden Master Collection

The Ninja Gaiden Master Collection is hard to talk about in isolation. In many ways, you need a dramatic, long-winded cut scene to get the context for the release. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to spin the tale as best I can…

For a certain vintage of gamer, Ninja Gaiden is a name that carries a certain amount of fear.

Back in the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, platformers were certainly a common sight. Super Mario Brothers is synonymous with the platform, and many other titles followed suit. One of those titles was Ninja Gaiden, and though few platformers could be truly described as easy, Ninja Gaiden stood apart for its particular difficulty. This was not the series’ first incarnation—there was a beat ’em up side-scrolling arcade game prior to this—but for many the NES version remains the first entry point for the franchise. As a young child I was eager to play as a cool 8-bit ninja fighting only to have my hopes ruthlessly dashed by exacting platforming and unforgiving enemies. Yet in spite of never getting all that far into the title and its similarity to Mario, Castlevania, and many other games, its anime-style cutscenes, cool ninja protagonist, and unrelenting difficulty made it one that stuck with me through the years. It was followed by two sequels, creating a trilogy of platforming hits that cemented it as one of the definitive franchises of the 8-bit era.

Fast forward to the year 2004 and the name Ninja Gaiden was a retro title. There had been ports of the original games to SNES and the Sega Genesis, but the franchise had largely remained dormant. This is when a new release—simply titled Ninja Gaiden once again—for the XBox. It hit the scene with much the same aplomb at its predecessors, but now in the 3d hack and slash space. Developed my Team Ninja, this 2004 reboot was received with a great deal of acclaim. It was a fresh, invigorating reboot to a beloved franchise that came with high expectations and in many ways met or exceeded them.

At the time I was a young college student. I was busy during the day with classes and my job, and at night—in no small part to being painfully single at the time—I was either hanging out at a friend’s house watching movies or at home playing video games. It was at this time in my life that Ninja Gaiden hit, and I became obsessed with it. I was a young man with a lot of time on my hands, and at the time considered Ryūhei Kitamura’s Versus to be the height of cinema (an opinion I… still kind of hold, but in a different way—a story for another time). It had a paper thin story, but I was running through Hong Kong action, chanbara, and jidaigeki films with abandon at this time, and all I cared about was doing sick ninja flips and chucking fistfuls of shuriken at demonic warriors. I loved it.

Revisiting the 2004 Ninja Gaiden in 2021 makes it easy to see why. At face value it does not seem all that unique in its setup, much like its predecessors. It is a third person hack and slash game with light and heavy melee attacks, ranged options, magic attacks in the form of ninpo, and general freedom of movement in 3D combat arenas of various size. You travel through levels encountering enemies in set piece fights—whether its ninjas in wind-swept canyons, soldiers in flying airships, or fiendish creatures in darkened alcoves—slaying them using the tools at your disposal. They drop various colored orbs that can recharge health, give you currency to buy items and upgrades, or refill your ninpo charge. If you have played games like Devil May Cry, God of War, or Bayonetta, you probably already have a good idea for the tempo of the game.

But what set it apart was a triple threat: speed, violence, and difficulty. This new Ninja Gaiden was as ruthless as the earlier titles, but in a way that felt… fair in how unkind it was. Each encounter taught you more about the enemies, their patterns, their subtle and not-so-subtle tells before using certain attacks. The first few tries at an area might involve stumbling, making mistakes, and getting caught off guard. By the third run through it’s a great deal easier. By the fifth, you’re exiting untouched save for the blood of your enemies on your blade.

The game was hard, but the action was fact and the controls were responsive. The way the game leveraged memorization of combos, spatial awareness, and enemy patterns activated the same space in my brain as a fighting game would. Survival was part intimate game knowledge, part lightning-fast instinct. It was exhilarating, even in loss.

Much of Team Ninja’s success in bringing a new energy to Ninja Gaiden was due to Tomonobu Itagaki. As a developer, Tomonobu Itagaki had a similar air that an auteur film-maker might. Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive are both titles intrinsically linked with his unique self-branding, and it can be hard to talk about the titles without discussing him and vice versa. For better or for worse, Itagaki is a man with a vision that is sharpened to a razor’s edge—and these games reflect his specific tastes.

Ninja Gaiden was followed by Ninja Gaiden Black, a remaster of sorts. It brought more difficulty options (some harder, some easier, all punishing in their own ways for Ninja Dogs out there), and a new mission mode. Ninja Gaiden Black was a game I felt was the superior experience at the time, and gladly replayed all over again, relearning weapons and pushing myself to harder and harder challenges. The only thing that got me to hang up the shuriken was meeting this really nice, cute lady friends who I ended up spending more and more time with…

Fast forward to 2008 and the game was finally graced with a full sequel in Ninja Gaiden 2 for the XBox 360. The first game’s story—or what was there—was continued. Now there were more missions, more weapons, more enemies on screen—even a co-op mode!—it was more more more more. Things were a bit different for me this time around though, as that nice, cute lady and I had gotten married, and my time for digging in to brutally challenging games that took up hours of my time. So I played it, certainly enjoyed it, but the experience felt more uneven. Perhaps I had changed, or perhaps the first game was just a tighter package overall, in spite of having less content.

It is here where Ninja Gaiden and I parted ways, but then that was also mirrored within Team Ninja itself. Tomonobu Itagaki and Tecmo had parted ways, and not necessarily on the best of terms. Soon new versions of the 2004 and 2008 games were released—Ninja Gaiden Sigma and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, respectively— that were substantial departures from the original releases. In many instances content had been tweaked, or entirely new experiences added—such as playable story paths for side characters that were only hinted at in the originals—as well as new training and combat missions. The original was not changed as much as the second installment was, and though both experiences remained largely the same, it was clear that there was a new direction for the series without Itagaki at the helm.

The new directors Fumihiko Yasuda and Yosuke Hayashi made it clear that they were going to try and push the franchise into new territory with the third entry in the series. Ninja Gaiden 3 released in 2012, and it too received a remix/follow up in the form of Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge the following year. My wife and I were particularly strapped for cash at the time of its release back then, so I had to be more judicious in my entertainment purchases. Without Itagaki at the helm and the promotional material indicating that they were trying to move in a different direction, I decided to skip out on this entry, so I had no nostalgia for it going into this review.

If that build up sounds kind of messy… well, welcome to Ninja Gaiden.

It is hard to separate the Ninja Gaiden Master Collection either from my own experiences or its own messy history. This collection includes Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge. Not the original releases, but instead the remakes—which is in and of itself an interesting choice. You are not getting the “original” experiences here, but whether the versions you are purchasing have been “updated” or “tampered with” depends on your perspective. Going into this collection, my gut told me that Ninja Gaiden Black was still a peerless experience that no following release ever quite measured up to, but I also wondered if that was just a feature of nostalgia and how much more free time I had back then. Maybe the years had been kinder to the follow ups and harsher to the first entry.

I was… sort of right.

At the end of the day, I think Ninja Gaiden Sigma is worth the sticker price alone. Even if it is altered, the moment to moment gameplay still feels exactly as I remember it. It’s brutal and fast-paced, a kind of thrilling third person action experience that is hard to quantify. Obviously there are hack and slash action games with orb-dropping enemies and style to spare—the aforementioned Devil May Cry and Bayonetta are prime examples of that—but Ninja Gaiden’s vibe is different. Even in the most absurd scenarios, spectacle never overtakes the quiet ruthless efficiency of survival. I think in many ways it is a predecessor to games like Dark Souls. The various FromSoftware games also ask much of the player, but give a great deal in return—you rise to the challenge, but the challenge is surmountable given time and application.

When compared to the Souls-like titles, Ninja Gaiden makes a lot more sense. Whereas Dark Souls and its family of titles have a rather methodical approach, Ninja Gaiden bandies in pure speed and adrenaline. You will be tested, and you will have to act on instinct but with a high level of input fidelity. Miss a block or drop a combo? That’s on you, champ. Obviously, the high speed makes some battles have a bit more of a hectic, random feeling, but the sense of reward and intensity is very similar.

Thankfully, there are adjustable difficulty settings for those who would rather look cool rather than get fresh blisters on their fingers. The Hero mode setting does a lot to assist the player and, honestly, makes you feel like the producer on a film set. The spectacle is still terrific, and the other titles have similar lower difficulty options as well.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is also still a great game, though it is lacking in some of the first game’s polish. Much like at a buffet, sometimes more is not always more, and while there are certainly some amazing additions to the formula, I don’t feel that the level design or difficulty is quite as natural as in the first title. It’s still a thrilling ride don’t get me wrong, but there are sections that feel a bit more undercooked compared to first game’s carefully crafted excellence. It also seems to show the most differences in my mind compared to the original release—some sections have changed enemy totals and health, which can alter the feel substantially.

Lastly, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge… folks I have to be blunt, I could not finish this one. The story has gone from window dressing to center stage goofballery, and it takes what should be a shallow rule of cool experience and tries to make it—I don’t even know what to call it, honestly. It feels like a parody at times, and not in a good way. The mechanical changes left me cold pretty quick, and the existence of quick time events feel like sacrilege to my mind. I tried multiple times to sit down and dedicate myself to finishing it for the review, but each time I suddenly found an excuse to do something else (“Oh, does the litter box need to be cleaned? Here let me…”). This apparently had a multiplayer component once upon a time, but it is no longer present—though to my knowledge more challenge missions have been added.

The Ninja Gaiden Master Collection is undoubtedly one that is marred both by the franchise‘s messy history and my own personal experience with it. I did not come to this one fresh, and neither did the titles for sale here. But I think the collection is more than worth your time and money, and given that it is (at the time of this writing) $39,99 for two amazing action titles (and also Ninja Gaiden 3 I guess), that seems more than reasonable given that similar collections are priced in that range. I payed full price for Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black on my original XBox (easily $100 right there), and while this ps4 review copy came to me free of charge I still find myself eyeing the Steam release to support the developers and perhaps get access to mod support. That means I’ve owned the first game three times and the second game once, and I’m still thinking of buying this collecting—I don’t know what higher praise I can give it.

The Ninja Gaiden Master Collection may not be these games in their original form, but don’t let that hold you back from purchasing it. If you have interest in 3D action games, particularly if you enjoy a challenge that rewards your patience, I think you will find Ninja Gaiden Sigma and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 uniquely riveting experiences.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my wife just nodded off to sleep and I think I can sneak in a quick level without waking her…


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