Ninja Gaiden (Xbox) review
"Ninja Gaiden is a superior piece of software. It resembles nothing so much as an exquisitely engineered piece of machinery, and that's both Ninja Gaiden's majesty and its weakness: it works so exquisitely, but it often feels more like a collection of well-oiled parts than a videogame. "
Ninja Gaiden is a superior piece of software. It resembles nothing so much as an exquisitely engineered piece of machinery, and that's both Ninja Gaiden's majesty and its weakness: it works so exquisitely, but it often feels more like a collection of well-oiled parts than a videogame.
My best friend's father owns a luxury sedan with all the amenities—the navigation system, the palatial leather interior, the powerhouse V12. One day he came home as we were eating dinner and announced, "You know, my car has no soul." He's a capricious fellow, but then I guess I am too, because I feel the same way about Ninja Gaiden. In a style-over-substance world, it's the rare breed that achieves just the opposite.
I see the improbably smooth visuals, feel the magnificently responsive controls, and realize that this is an epic mission spanning several continents and more hours of meaty playtime than most action games care to offer these days. And yet I come to the same conclusion: Ninja Gaiden has no style to call its own, no spark, no soul.
I don't mean to say that Ninja Gaiden isn't fun to play, because holy shit this might be the most refined combat I've ever seen. It's not revolutionary—expect some heavy borrowing from the Onimusha and Devil May Cry playbooks—but it has been polished and executed with unmatched technical skill. In fact, fun might not be the best word to use: satisfying seems much more appropriate. If you die, it is always completely and utterly your own damn fault; the sophistication of the fighting system is such that you realize this, see your mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. The learning curve is beautiful, steep but ultimately gratifying. If you take on a small army of or demons and emerge without a scratch, you can feel damn proud of your achievement.
The difficulty is immense, but you have the tools to eviscerate any opponent. You are a ninja after all. You're Ryu Hayabusa, a fierce warrior who wants revenge on the nefarious Vigoorian Empire for destroying his village. The story is a paper-thin yarn of demon slaying and artifact recovering (my groan was long and loud when the obligatory huge-breasted heroine came on the scene), but it’s clear a minimal amount of effort was invested there. The depth is in the fighting. You can parry an attack from an enemy ninja with your sword and unleash a furious array of kicks and acrobatic slashes, incapacitate two more with a magical lightning storm, and finish the job with an explosive shuriken or two. Or you could get a little nunchaku action going, maybe rip out a bigger sword or your fearsome War Hammer, mix things up with other devastating magical attacks. Or you could easily end up a bloody heap. Each battle has the potential to rapidly spiral into disaster or gradually culminate in triumph, and I've rarely, if ever, felt more strongly that the outcome depended on my ability and my ability alone. Remember, Ninja Gaiden is, to my mind, the gaming equivalent of a luxury vehicle. It's not cheap.
I don't know whether the designers assumed that this magnificent, rewarding action was enough--maybe it's a simple lack of creative know-how--but Ninja Gaiden is suffused with an aesthetic blandness and sterility that borders on suffocating. The visuals are, of course, pristine. This is Team Ninja, the group behind the sleek, lustrous Dead or Alive games, and every inch of Ninja Gaiden is appropriately glossy. Almost every inch is also about as nondescript and desolate. The opening few stages in a Japanese village are gorgeous...in fact, it's all gorgeous, but beautifully-rendered gray walls are captivating for only so long. When you arrive in the capital of the Vigoorian Empire, you meet a deserted cityscape, the streets lined with identical apartments and storefronts. Although Ryu's quest is sprawling, his destinations are mostly uninspiring: caves and sewers and labyrinthine stone complexes.
The enemy selection is about as weak, offering up a full serving of different demons that fail to strike any fear or awe into the hearts of anyone who's played the good action games of the last few years. The score that alternates between sweeping string flourishes, pulsating electronic beats, and fast guitar licks is similarly unmemorable—solid, but unmemorable. Even Ninja Gaiden's substantial length works against it when you are forced to do the obligatory asinine swimming level (designers everywhere, stop the madness!) or revisit the same areas and see recycled character models with different skin colors.
And that's really the key to where, why, and how Ninja Gaiden fails. It's a mathematical, mechanical masterpiece, but creatively? Absolutely underwhelming. The hype promised a revolution, but this is ultimately a cautious, overly calculated refinement of previous entries in the genre. Demons and tanks and generic orchestral ornamentation are all cool, but they've been done before. Even the action, which is clearly a cut above of its predecessors, doesn't have any original tricks—it's a virtually flawless construction that uses the shoulders of giants as its foundation. I have perhaps been unduly harsh in an attempt to prove my point, and I really to reiterate what a powerhouse Ninja Gaiden is across the board. All you action hardasses out there have a most worthy opponent. If you’re not talking about the creative aspects, Ninja Gaiden is impregnable. This may be the perfect game. Technically speaking, of course.
Featured community review by careless_whisper (May 26, 2005)
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