There’s a common practice in media of looking back to what once was in search of what can be made fresh once again. It’s become such a widespread phenomenon in this day and age that seeing movie franchise reboots and film remakes, HD rereleases and reimaginings of classic series has become commonplace. Ho-hum. Repetitive, even.
A lot of the time, this is done to cash in on nostalgia, and the final product can vary wildly from what inspired it as it stretches to appeal to both the individual who remembers that inspiration and the new blood who want something that better caters to their modern sensibilities. This balance is rarely achieved, often serving neither demographic, leaving them to instead bemoan what could have been. Ninja Gaiden, on the Xbox, was one of the rare cases in which a developer succeeded.
Ninja Gaiden drew upon the tough-as-nails reputation of its progenitor, but delivered an experience that benefited from modern perspectives on difficulty and gameplay flow. While the narrative may have been lousy, the action was deep and satisfying, fast without being overly frenetic and, in the end, “fair.” No, not everyone to pick up the game would finish it, but those who did would do so because they had learned how to play, not because they’d gotten lucky button-mashing their way to success.
With three games under their belt, though, Team Ninja seems to have hit upon a quandary. Where can they take the series from here that doesn’t merely rehash what has already worked? What happens when fans are no longer buying the game on name alone to relive shades of the experience they once found so compelling? In the wake of Tomonobu Itagaki’s departure, they did try with Ninja Gaiden 3, crafting an experience that perhaps strayed too far toward the pedestrian, but it was at least an attempt at shaking things up. Their answer, now, appears to be three-fold.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus
The first of the modern Ninja Gaiden games, often heralded as the best of the trio, has seen a slew of rereleases, the lot of which began on its home console—the original Xbox—stretched to the PlayStation 3 with the Sigma update and, at launch, hopped to the Vita with the questionably-thought-out Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus. The problems the portable rendition encountered were largely technical, rehashing the same experience as its console forebears with a lower-than-acceptable frame rate that did little to accommodate the game’s fast-paced combat. Thinking I must have misjudged it, I’ve been sporadically going back to it during the outage following hurricane Sandy, hoping to be proven wrong. If it indicates anything, I find that I’d rather sit in the dark than touch this one.
Now the sequel is on the way.
Where Ninja Gaiden Black/Sigma was fast, Ninja Gaiden (Sigma) 2 was greased lightning. Enemies are more aggressive, swarming the player with greater numbers and doing increased damage. Ninja Gaiden demanded pinpoint input, but Ninja Gaiden 2 wants it accompanied by superhuman reflexes and Zen-like awareness. Will the graphics take a hit to preserve its wholly necessary 60 frames-per-second pace, or will the game be pumped out as a minimalist port, similar to the first? I’m hoping for the former, but assuming the latter until proven wrong.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge
With the launch of the Wii U comes a port of Ninja Gaiden 3. “Port” might be understating it a bit, though. The changes that have been made to this edition of the game are far-reaching, affecting the very core of the game’s design in a way that is at once both relieving and depressing. Yes, much of what was wrong with Ninja Gaiden 3 was due to changes made to the core gameplay that reduced its complexity, such as the paring down of Ryu’s weapons to one (later three by way of DLC) and his Ninpo to a single spell. QTEs were prevalent and the “Steel on Bone” system was disorienting. It was an oddly limited experience, though, pulling from the Call of Duty school of game design. That said, it had a stronger focus on story than its forebears and set the stage for the idea that Ryu might not be a bona fide hero.
The Wii U version of the game is, as far as we know, keeping the story elements, and the “Steel on Bone” mechanic is still present, but combat has been kicked up a notch with a smoother frame rate and faster, more aggressive enemies. They also seem to take less punishment, die more violently (dismemberment has returned), and the ways in which Ryu can kill them have been expanded to a grand total of six distinct weapons and three Ninpo.
On the one hand, this addresses much of what made the original version of Ninja Gaiden 3 a repetitive grind. On the other, it essentially turns it into Ninja Gaiden 2 from a gameplay perspective, all without addressing the level design elements that made the third game less compelling (levels, for example, that don’t facilitate Ryu’s combat acrobatics).
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge will doubtless be more readily embraced by spurned fans of the first two games, but it doesn’t seem poised to do anything to address the series’ stagnating formula.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z
Which brings us to perhaps the most exciting thing to happen to the Ninja Gaiden brand since Ninja Gaiden Black. Yaiba is what happens when Team Ninja pairs up with former Mega Man lead Keiji Inafune and, together, the two cultivate a zombie apocalypse. Named for its new (anti)hero, Yaiba hasn’t yet graced us with many details, but what we do know so far is game-changing stuff.
In addition to a new protagonist and a zombie horde, Yaiba will see its lead seeking series mainstay Ryu Hayabusa, ostensibly the antagonist of this entry. On the path, of course, there will be much in the way of zombie-slaying mayhem, by blade or by the cybernetically enhanced Yaiba’s body. Why does he want to find Ryu Hayabusa? Has the series’ most recognizable character fallen from grace? From the trailer, it’s apparent that it will be gorgeously violent, with what appears to be a dark, cel-shaded art style. It’s also been noted that the game is targeting the next generation of console hardware (whether this indicates the Wii U or the successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 has yet to be confirmed).
Keiji Inafune’s most famous horror property, though, was Dead Rising, which presented the player with sandbox worlds and nigh-infinite means by which to rend the shambling hordes within them limb from limb. It’s not a given, but I’m anticipating an open world action game, mixing Dead Rising-esque exploration with Ninja Gaiden’s fast-paced action and a few new twists along the way, all tied to a gorgeous and unsettling new art style.
With such a departure from the original games, though, it risks alienating die-hard fans. Ryu Hayabusa and the Dragon Sword have long been the symbol of Ninja Gaiden, stretching back to the NES days, and pulling a Devil May Cry 4 on the whole situation by introducing a new hero and vilifying the old one (if temporarily) could generate negative fan response. That said, there’s precedent in the series for Ryu having a dark, even a demonic, side. The first game touched upon and demonstrated his Fiend blood, blood that was enough to awaken the Arch-Fiend’s final form in Ninja Gaiden 2. In Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, could he have succumbed to his lineage’s curse?
The future of the Ninja Gaiden series is something of a mixed bag, with both innovation and stagnation on prominent display. It’s always difficult to take a franchise with such a specific appeal, though, and move it in any sort of new or different direction, but bringing in a developer with a tremendous legacy is certainly one way to do it. Here’s hoping it pans out.
Date: November 15, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*