"Ninja Gaiden 2 was as beautiful as NES platformers come! Well, understandably, Ryu hasn’t changed - his sprite is virtually identical in all three games. Most of the enemies are different naturally, and they’re a decent bunch, the mostly mindless menagerie comprised mainly of zombie types and robots. Sadly, there are no high-kicking Karatekas knocking you off cliffs, or afro wearing boxers doing the same. The game has a decidedly futuristic tilt, and as such, it's robots, robots, robots, with a good deal of alien weirdness thrown in for good measure. "
It’s a sad thing when a once proud franchise descends to the level of recycling itself, playing all the notes but misplacing the score, manifesting self-parody. Ninja Gaiden 3 has done that. Tecmo’s first two games chronicling the troubled life of Ninja Ryu Hayabusa were exceedingly exciting, featuring menacing bad guys with insane yet plausible plots (insofar as a cosmic ninja game can be plausible). This third installment has none of the energy of the first, and has shaken off the refinement of the second, presenting itself as a sad rehash of both with half-baked ideas driving it.
Probably a quick account of what Ninja Gaiden is all about is in order. Ryu, wielder of the mighty Dragon Sword, was recruited early in his career by one Foster to help extinguish the thread of a madman named Jaquio, who planned to raise up a mysterious, all powerful Demon to unleash upon the world. He 'killed' Ryu’s father, and tried to do the same to Irene, one of Foster’s operatives who eventually grew close to Ryu. Upon stamping out this threat, Ryu witnessed another arise, years later: the threat of Ashtar, and his Dark Sword of Chaos, the evil counterpart to Ryu’s own Dragon Sword. The young ninja handled his business.
Presently, it seems as if our sword-slashing, ninja magic using young protagonist is a murderer. In the opening scene, he appears to coax former friend Irene Lew into an untimely death. But that wasn’t really Ryu, was it? As the real Ryu, we must enter the weird facility that Irene was investigating at the time of her demise so that we may discover the truth, and punish the evildoers at fault. A corny character named Clancy appears, and if Ryu’s reactions to folks was bright-eyed and naïve in the first two adventures, now he’s downright dumb. He stumbles from seemingly random location to location, encountering people and learning too late in each instance what things mean.
Gone are the spirits or friendly doppelgangers from the second game, so we’ll have to make do with the sword and the ninja magic. As always, different types of magic can be earned by chopping icons down as you go, and power ups are needed to fuel them. Now that we’re all caught up, we press Start and begin our mission to learn about Irene’s fate and about the Ancient Ship of Doom.
Right away, our ears tell us that something is amiss. Music was always a great strength in the series. Ninja Gaiden 3's programmers have managed to emulate the same sort of sound, but have managed to create absolutely no memorable tunes. Every tune sounds like an amateur remix of a much better track from a previous game. Worse yet, the tracks actually repeat themselves within the duration of the adventure.
But surely the game looks good? Ninja Gaiden 2 was as beautiful as NES platformers come! Well, understandably, Ryu hasn’t changed - his sprite is virtually identical in all three games. Most of the enemies are different naturally, and they’re a decent bunch, the mostly mindless menagerie comprised mainly of zombie types and robots. Sadly, there are no high-kicking Karatekas knocking you off cliffs, or afro wearing boxers doing the same. The game has a decidedly futuristic tilt, and as such, it's robots, robots, robots, with a good deal of alien weirdness thrown in for good measure.
The backdrops are consistent with the switch to this cold, mechanical theme, and while the majority are well drawn, they are rarely worth mentioning. Moments taking place outdoors are the best in the game, which isn’t so remarkable, but the previous games managed to make us feel the evil beauty of the indoor facilities as well. Not here. A lot of same-looking purplish factories and such serve as the place for our swash-buckling.
But as presentation goes, the title of worst drop in quality goes to the once revolutionary cut scenes between levels. They used to tell the absolutely compelling tales of Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 with a surprising deftness. Those games seemed to succeed wildly in the face of system limitations. Ninja Gaiden 3 seems to bow to those limitations, seemingly saying ''I’m only an 8-bit game, what more do you want from me?''
We want polish. The rapport between Ryu and his allies and adversaries wasn’t Shakespeare before, but it was cleverer than the average action movie. Here, the conversations are poorly translated, and I can imagine a typically stilted Jean Claude Van Damme playing the role of Ryu choking out his lame lines beneath a heavy, delivery-obscuring accent. That’s not a good thing.
Where this game managed to improve upon its predecessors is in the gameplay. Gone are the days when you’d fight your way forward, getting knocked back by a team of malevolent birds, only to press on again and face those same evilly reappearing birds. Admirably, Ninja Gaiden 3 removes almost all instances of this unwelcome deja vu, and as such, the game plays much, much easier. More to this end, the game introduces more magic powers for Ryu to use. The diagonally firing Art of the Fire Wheel is back, as are the Windmill Throwing Stars, and of course, the Invincible Fire Wheel. But a nice addition exists in the Up and Down weapon. A pair of blades tear from Ryu’s body, one aimed upwards, one aimed directly downward. You’ll likely find this technique indispensable in taking out swarming foes.
The Dragon Sword has even gotten an upgrade. Cut down a sword power up (ooh - another improvement: you can now see what the power ups are before you cut them down, allowing you to avoid ones you don’t want), and watch your ancient weapon cut a crescent swath reminiscent of the one Hiryu employs in Strider. The upgrade imbues the sword with greater power and range, and so Ninja Gaiden 3 becomes even more approachable.
Want things to be even easier? Bosses were always big and nasty in the previous games. From Kelbeross to Ashtar to Jaquio, you were in for a spell of trouble once that cool boss music started up. While the end of level guardians are still fairly large and still strive to cause you grief, they can’t quite pull it off. Their attack patterns seem overly simplistic, and although they’re still… odd, they’re not as menacing as their forerunners. Sure, the final boss is the usual triple threat culminating in gargantuan fashion, but bosses leading up to him are ho-hum. Even the evil Ryu battle is boring when it shouldn’t be; he looks nothing like the hero really, and he’s extremely easy to beat.
Further, playing against this set of bosses gives you that Mega Man feeling; remember how after the third or fourth set of eight 'unique' robots, the magic started to disappear? Well, similarly, even after taking a short stab at Ninja Gaiden 3 and its bosses, will make the whole thing seem 'played out.' Perhaps the cut scenes in the earlier games were more effective as vehicles for the bosses to strut their stuff, sell their personalities, and create a feeling of awe and dread. You cared that you were about to fight Ashtar, or that you just defeated Baron Spider. Not here.
What I’ve described is a lackluster Ninja Gaiden adventure with far easier gameplay than we're accustomed to. That’s about right, except for the last bit, which isn't wholly accurate. See, while the actual platforming aspects in this installment are simpler and more manageable, the game takes a revolting page from Super R-Type’s book to all but nullify this. As you proceed through the seven acts - each act comprised of several stages - dying will surely hurt you almost as much as it hurts Ryu. Ninja Gaiden 3 has earned a reputation for being difficult, but really it’s just stupid: it takes your dying soul and boorishly displaces you minutes and minutes back along the paths you’ve already traveled. There. Instant artificial difficulty curve.
We all know what ensues when games are made harder by forcing upon the gamer heaps of inane repetition - boredom, frustration, and finally, resentment. Why should we need to repeat screens of hard earned ground only to get to an easy boss with so little vitality on our energy bar that we can’t hang with him long enough to learn how to win? This isn’t fun. For all the advancements: the non-reappearing enemies, the cool new magic attacks, the new super Dragon Sword - the gameplay ultimately takes a step backward, because this checkpoint massacre compromises all the good that Tecmo has done with the fighting system.
The crippling of the gameplay, combined with the presentation, already established as lackluster, makes for a substandard outing starring our now red-faced, favourite blue-clad ninja. Average platformer fans with average skills need not apply. If you’re die-hard, and really lust more frantic ninja action from the holder of the Dragon Sword, then pick up Ninja Gaiden 3 - it should be fairly inexpensive by now. Expect to be frustrated however, and expect that wistful look on your face to be replaced by a look of disgust as you, or rather, if you advance further into the adventure. The story is silly enough to make you laugh scornfully as you remember the stories of the games past, but you’ll be likely too busy cursing the hell that death brings.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 07, 2004)
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