The XBox exclusive Ninja Gaiden is what happens when you take an old school gaming franchise -- at this stage, so old school that we're quite sure there's a small legion of gamers out there who've never played the originals at all -- and apply old school gaming methodologies to it. Most notably, the methodology in a lot of older, arcade inspired titles, that said "Make the buggers suffer for their play. Make the games hard. No, strike that, make them harder again."
That's exactly what you get with Ninja Gaiden, arguably one of the hardest XBox titles to date, and, as long as you're equal to its stiff challenge, one of the best. We do worry, however, that with the rather large size of the XBox controller -- not to mention the not-in-the-least-lamented-by-us 'Duke' controller -- whether or not somebody's family pet is going to suffer a rather permanent concussion on account of gamer frustration. Yeah, Ninja Gaiden is that hard. We think we've made our point.
Ninja Gaiden's plot could well have fallen out of the rusty typewriter of the worst Hong Kong action flick hack, but it's mostly coincidental to the game's action. If you really must know, you play as Ryu Hayabusa, a young Ninja who sets off on a quest of revenge and item reacquisition -- in this case it's the mysterious and evil Dark Dragon Blade that's been pilfered by parties unknown. Yep, we told you it was rubbish, but it's about the only fault we can pick with the game. Given that it's by no means a plot-driven game, we're not sure that it's all that important a point anyway. What you're really looking at here is your standard 3D action-platform-ninja game, except that it isn't really standard in any way beyond the rather mundane plot.
Ninja Gaiden unfolds over 16 levels, which doesn't sound like a lot, until you realise that the difficulty level means you'll be replaying many of them an awful lot until you complete them. However, like the similarly challenging Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, when you fail, you're always keenly aware that the fault lies with you, and with just a little bit of lateral thinking and a bit more skill, you feel as though success is only a few sword slashes away.
This gripping feeling is accentuated by the game's controls, which are both fluid and responsive, whether in the pure platform-like sections (think Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, especially when Ryu's running along walls or flipping himself out of pits) or the core of the game's challenge, the combat sections. While you'll learn new techniques and acquire quite a lot of additional items along the course of your journey, almost from the get-go you'll feel as though you've been playing the game for ages, simply because the way the control layout works leaves you in no doubt as to what's possible in a given situation.
Match that fluidity up with a lot of attack choices, and you've got a really robust game engine. Given all that, we wouldn't be too surprised to see Tecmo rushing out a sequel in the near future, simply because the core game mechanics are that solid. If we wanted to get out the big yellow GameSpot AU ruler and whack someone at Tecmo's knuckles, about the only bit of Ninja-ology that we couldn't replicate in Ninja Gaiden was any real stealth, but in this case, we seem to have misplaced the ruler. Oh well, such is life.
Action within the Ninja Gaiden is fast, frenetic and exceedingly well animated, set against a backdrop of stunningly well realised locations. There's a ton of enemies to defeat, and while you will face many of the same foes again and again -- and even some of the same level bosses -- they're all so well realised that this doesn't really become a chore to speak of.
As with most third person action titles, there are times when you'll be cursing the camera, but thankfully these are few and far between -- well, few and far between compared to the amount of cursing you'll be doing due to the game cutting you absolutely no slack whatsoever. Ryu's capable of a huge arsenal of combat and acrobatic tricks, and these work so well and so fluidly, you'll come to find yourself looking at other titles and wondering why they don't work quite as well -- we know we did.
If you're a gamer who welcomes a stiff challenge, we can't recommend Ninja Gaiden highly enough. On the other hand, if you're someone who suffers from stress induced rage just a little bit too much, you might want to step quietly away from the nice shiny game packaging before anyone gets hurt.