When Ninja Gaiden first hit the Xbox, it left us all realizing just how much more we should be demanding from the action genre. Here was a game that looked just as good as it played and was as deep and as challenging as you could hope for. Plus, it reminded us that ninjas don't always have to slip in under the cover of shadows and pretend they're spies. Sometimes, ninjas get to leap out of a zeppelin with their sword drawn, do a flip off of the wall for show, and then chop the heads off several poor slobs before continuing on to more general ass kicking.
Ninja Gaiden Black is not a sequel to Ninja Gaiden by any means. Rather, it is a repackaging of the original with material from the two downloadable Xbox Live Hurricane Pack expansions, an expanded story, more costumes, a port of the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, extra levels of difficulty, and a whole new mode of play focused on scripted missions. If that sounds like a lot, it's because it is. Those who think this is just a way to cash in on the franchise need to think again. There's enough new content here to warrant another look at the game, even if you've already played through it several times and downloaded both Hurricane Packs. Even better, everything that has been added is a blast to play.
We're on a Mission from Itagaki
For many, the new Mission Mode will be the selling point of this game. The idea behind these missions is a simple one; put the player in a room filled with enemies and see if they can survive. As straightforward as that may be, it is one of the most exhilarating gaming experiences around. The action is nonstop and you constantly have the feeling in the back of your head that one mistake will be the end of you. The adrenaline rush is so great that no matter how sore your hands get, you can't stop. It's that much fun.
Essentially, the Mission Mode is an expansion of the Hurricane Pack 2 download. Team Ninja went ahead and included this download for those without Xbox Live, and then they expanded it from a single, five-stage challenge into 45 additional arena battles for a total of 50, enabling you to learn the meaning of humility. It takes a certain amount of manic determination to be able to play these without experiencing the unhealthy side effects of severely high blood pressure.
Yes, these missions are tough as nails, and those new to the series won't be able to play them until they are at least proficient in the mechanics of the game. Without having a save file with the proper clear data on your hard drive (saves from Ninja Gaiden or the Hurricane Pack 1 will work), you won't be able to access this portion of the game. Even then, you'll have to work your way up to the truly difficult challenges. Before you get all huffy and puffy about wanting to play this sweet mode out of the box, remember that these missions are very challenging. Even the best ninjas will have to be on their A-game if they hope to win. While watching people new to the game attempt to take on these missions, I could see the frustration and disgust setting in as they repetitively died in the first 10-15 seconds of the match without even hurting their target.
The missions included in Ninja Gaiden Black were designed with the hardcore fan in mind. They include the full range of fantasies that us ninja-elite have been playing through our heads for over a year now. Now you can see first hand what it would be like to take on a roided-out Ryu Hayabusa. He's just as fast as you, but his attacks do more damage. If you thought Alma was easy before, try the challenge of fighting against her on crack surrounded by her small army of lesser fiends. These babies are so tough that you'll surely be doing a little victory dance when you finally do win, but they always leave you with the feeling that if you just keep trying you'll get the job done.
Each mission places you in a different scenario with limited health giving elixirs, predetermined Ninpo, and a set choice of weapons. The starting equipment varies with each mission, but it always gives you just enough to win, as well as enabling you to challenge yourself to try completing the task with several different weapons and items.
Lamentably, no new combat areas are introduced in this game. It all takes place in environments snatched out of the main game. What's more, outside of those given to us in the two Hurricane Packs, the only new enemies are some fire tossing red ninjas. Many of the missions consist of either fighting swarms of enemies, or matching you up against a boss, or two, from the Story Mode/Hurricane Packs alongside a number of the more common fiends. Although you've seen all of this before, the new context changes everything. The addition of these smaller combatants on the field does more than just increase the difficulty; it also adds a whole new level to the strategy of the game. Do you kill them and use their essence for an Ultimate Technique or leave them on the field because you know more difficult enemies will only replace them? That blue essence floating in the corner would be great for a power up, but you probably are short on health. It really makes the old boss battles seem fresh, which is good because otherwise these missions would play like bits of the main game had just been ripped out and called a new mode.
Just like the Hurricane Packs, your Karma scores can be uploaded to Xbox Live, allowing you to compare yourself to the rest of the world. As if there weren't enough incentives already to keep playing this game, now you have to worry about beating some person from Idaho who you've never met. As before, your Karma scores are based upon both how quickly you win as well the methods you employ, which adds to the overall depth and style of the game.
Hard, Harder, Hardest...Easy?
In my younger days, I used to believe that nothing could beat a ninja in a fight, save for another ninja or perhaps a robot ninja. The thought process being that a ninja is so swift, agile, and silent that any opponent would have a katana slicing through their neck before they knew what they were up against. When Ninja Gaiden came out last year, it only reinforced this perception. There I was, young Ryu Hyabusa, making an entire army feel my pain. Ninja Gaiden Black has made me rethink this position. More than just the title of 'ninja' is required to transform a common man into a death machine. You also need perseverance, inner strength, and thumbs that won't tire after hours of seeing the Game Over screen. Or, maybe you just need the option to adjust the difficulty.
Along with the new Mission Mode, Team Ninja also added two new levels of difficulty to the Story Mode, bringing the total number to five. The addition of these two new difficulties is more than welcome, especially to the gamers who don't have time to sit around mastering a game. The original Ninja Gaiden was no cup of tea, leaving many with a bad taste in their mouths when they couldn't beat it or had to resort to doing the same move over and over again just to get by. Each successive Hurricane Pack download only increased the amount of skill required, doing nothing to appease those who needed help. Enter Ninja Dog. If Ninja Gaiden made you throw your controller down in disgust, it's time to pick it back up and try again.
The Ninja Dog difficulty can't be selected from the main menu. The only way to get there is to start up a game on Normal and then die three successive times on the first level. Afterward, Ayane will come to your rescue, but not before mocking your skills and making you beg for it. Ninja Dog is basically the same as the Normal setting. However, now when you collect Ayane's Kunai Scrolls, you get more than just tips. She'll also provide rice balls that heal you and ribbons that have the same effect as armlets, pumping Ryu up well past the ability he should have early in the game. Equipping a pink armband for all to see may not be your idea of what a self-respecting ninja should do, but nobody ever said being Ayane's dog would be pleasant.
The ribbons that Ayane gives you save your essence that you would have spent on armlets to purchase extra healing elixirs or to upgrade your weapons. Getting these arm bands early in the game makes everything just a tad easier. So casual gamers can rejoice; now you'll be able to work your way through this game without any problems. It's even fun for the more focused gamer. Now you can waltz your way through the game on a joy ride and perfect your combos along the way.
And then we have the Master Ninja difficulty. With all the talk of how hard the Mission Mode is, it's nothing compared to Master Ninja. This is one of the most difficult game settings of all time. Only the hardest of hardcore players need apply. We're talking diamond hard here, folks. Never before have I put so many hours into a game only to turn up the difficulty and die on the first set of beginner enemies. If you can get through this, you deserve the praise of gamers everywhere. Also, you probably need to get outside a little more often. The word is that only one tester at Team Ninja could beat it, thus bringing the total number of people in the world who can beat it to one.
Change is Good
Many people have been speculating as to what changes have been made to the Story Mode. How different does it play from the original Xbox release? The answer is that it is largely the same. You won't see any new enemies without playing on a harder setting than Normal, and even those will be familiar to people who have played the Hurricane Packs. Likewise, the Scarabs haven't been moved, which is something that I was hoping for, although the rewards for finding them have been slightly altered. There are several new cutscenes, which use the in-game engine. They don't do anything to change the quirky story but they do add to the limited depth that the story has. These little vignettes are a nice touch and will bring a smile to any fan playing through the game again.
If you haven't played the Hurricane Packs, you'll be happy to know that the Lunar, a lethal bamboo staff, has been included and can be found early in the game. You will also quickly notice that several new items have made their way into the mix. Among these are the useless Smoke Bombs and the very handy Armlet of Celerity, an accessory that decreases the amount of time required to charge up an Ultimate Technique. All in all, these additions are nice, but if it weren't for the new levels of difficulty, there wouldn't be a great incentive to work your way through the main game a second or third time.
Who Moved My Intercept?
Those who downloaded the Hurricane Pack 1 quickly fell in love with a new scroll that could be found early in the game called the Intercept. Similar to most modern fighting games, it allowed you to block an attack and quickly launch a counter by hitting both the block and attack buttons at the right moment. Even better, it increased the essence you received which meant higher scores. Well, you won't see it on any of the weak difficulty levels of the Story Mode. Without an upcoming tournament scheduled, the lower scores won't be horribly missed, but having the Intercept would have been nice.
One of the features of the Hurricane Pack 1 that has also made it into Ninja Gaiden Black is an improved camera. Ninja Gaiden had a terrible tendency to allow the camera to swing behind walls and pillars that would block your view of Ryu, leading most often to a plethora of imaginative curse words and a good chunk of your health disappearing. Team Ninja claimed that the improved camera from the Hurricane Pack fixed this by giving you manual control of it, done so pressing the right thumbstick. The problem there is that the action in Ninja Gaiden is so furious that you really don't have time to swing the camera around in the middle of a battle and most will still rely on the right trigger to center the camera behind you. As it is, the camera has been improved significantly, but it still ends up being one of the biggest annoyances in the game.
Luckily, the camera isn't such a terrible distraction in the Mission Mode, because a good number of the trials take place in the Fiend Realm arena popularized in the Hurricane Pack 2. Here, all of the walls are invisible, giving you full freedom to run and leap off of them without worrying about losing yourself. However, I still had more than my fair share of frustrating moments, especially given the fact that in Master Ninja difficulty and in the missions, you can easily lose half of your life in a heartbeat.
Still Not Showing its Age
With the next generation of consoles around the corner, many of us are regularly clustering around computers to ooh and ahh over the latest screenshots and movies. Ninja Gaiden Black does an excellent job at bridging the generation gap. The game is simply stunning, which is no big surprise given that Ninja Gaiden was such a looker. Whether you like the art direction or not, it is impossible to deny that this game is visually astounding. However, if you're looking for a graphical overhaul from the first version, you won't find it here. It's pretty, but only because it is a re-release of a game that was gorgeous.
All of the praise about the graphics is well deserved, but to be fair, there is a small amount of slowdown when the screen gets swamped with enemies. This mostly happens when you try to use your Ninpo magic during a mission that has the screen filled with enemies. This slowdown is so minor that it wouldn't even be noticed in most games, except that everything on the screen is moving so fast that any slowdown stands out as an anomaly. This really is a small problem though and is not enough to say that the graphics in this game need work.
Master of Unlocking
Those who haven't played the game before are in for quite a task to unlock every aspect of the game. The harder difficulties, Mission Mode, new bonus costumes, and the arcade Ninja Gaiden all require you to meet various requirements before you can gain access to them. This is pretty standard in the gaming world, but it means that if you aren't good, then you won't even be able to experience some of the additions.
In a nice move, Team Ninja made Ninja Gaiden Black able to read your clear data from the previous version of the game. That means that if you've beaten the game or completed the Hurricane Pack 1, you'll find that much of the bonus material is already unlocked for you. If you've played through the game before and didn't delete your save, you'll find something new immediately. And don't worry about hanging on to that old copy of Ninja Gaiden, you can still collect enough Scarabs to unlock the Ninja Gaiden NES cartridge in the main game.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved